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Beloved Baseball Legend Yogi Berra Dies

  • VOA News

FILE - Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra waves to the crowd as he is introduced before the Yankees Old Timers Day baseball game, June 23, 2013, in New York.

FILE - Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra waves to the crowd as he is introduced before the Yankees Old Timers Day baseball game, June 23, 2013, in New York.

U.S. baseball great Yogi Berra, who won 10 World Series championships as a catcher with the New York Yankees in the 1940s and '50s and became one of the sports's most beloved figures, has died at the age of 90.

Berra died of natural causes Tuesday at his home in New Jersey, according to Dave Kaplan, the director of the Yogi Berra Museum.

"While we mourn the loss of our father, grandfather and great-grandfather, we know he is at peace with Mom," Berra's family said in a statement released by the museum. "We celebrate his remarkable life, and are thankful he meant so much to so many. He will truly be missed."

Berra joined the Yankees in 1946 and played his entire 19-year career with the legendary franchise, sharing the dugout with other Yankee greats, such as Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, eventually appearing in a total 14 World Series, and winning a record 10 World Series championships.

He was behind the plate in the 1956 World Series when pitcher Don Larsen threw a perfect game, no hits, no runs, no walked batters, against their perennial crosstown rivals Brooklyn Dodgers.

A powerful hitter who hit 358 career home runs, Berra was named to 15 consecutive All Star games and won the American League's Most Valuable Player award three times.

He also had success as a manager, leading the Yankees to the 1964 World Series and the New York Mets to the Series in 1973. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

President Barack Obama called Berra an "American original."

"He epitomized what it meant to be a sportsman and a citizen, with a big heart, competitive spirit, and a selfless desire to open baseball to everyone, no matter their background," said Obama.

But Berra also was famous for his down-to-earth, lovable personality and offbeat sayings known as "Yogi-isms" that were at once funny, wise and bewildering; "It ain't over `til it's over," "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," and "It's deja vu all over again" among the most famous of them.

Those attributes earned Berra a second career as a TV commercial spokesman, and even inspired an animated cartoon character named Yogi Bear.

Born in St. Louis in 1925, Lawrence Peter Berra earned the nickname Yogi when a friend said the picture of a Hindu holy man sitting with his legs crossed reminded him of Berra sitting on the ground while he awaited his turn at bat.

Legendary Yankee

Short, squat and with a homely mug, Berra was a legendary Yankee who helped the team reach 14 World Series during his 18 seasons in the Bronx.

But his name appears almost as often in Bartlett's Famous Quotations as it does in baseball's record book. There are eight "Yogi-isms" included in Bartlett's.

"When I'm sittin' down to dinner with the family, stuff just pops out. And they'll say, 'Dad, you just said another one.' And I don't even know what the heck I said," Berra insisted.

In 1985, his firing as manager by the Yankees 16 games into the season sparked a feud with George Steinbrenner. Berra vowed never to return to Yankee Stadium as long was Steinbrenner owned the team.

But in 1999, Berra finally relented, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of the Yankees' season-opening game.

Berra, the son of Italian immigrants, got his nickname while growing up in St. Louis. Among his amateur baseball teammates was Jack McGuire, another future big leaguer.

A fan favorite

"Some of us went to a movie with a yogi in it and afterwards Jack began calling me Yogi. It stuck," Berra told the Saturday Evening Post.

He was a fan favorite, especially with children, and the cartoon character Yogi Bear was named after him.

Berra, who played in 15 straight All-Star Games, never earned more than $65,000 a season.

Growing up, he was anything but a natural.

Chunky and slow, Berra was rejected by his hometown St. Louis Cardinals after a tryout in 1943. But a Yankee scout recognized his potential and signed him.

He reached the majors late in the 1946 season and homered in his first at-bat. The next year, he continued to hit well, but his throwing was so erratic he was shifted to the outfield, then benched.

His breakthrough season came in 1948, when he hit .315 with 14 homers and 98 RBIs while continuing to improve his fielding. In 1949, he compiled a .989 fielding percentage and did not make an error in the All-Star Game or World Series.

"I don't care who the hitter is," New York manager Casey Stengel told the New York Journal-American. "[Berra] knows just how he should be pitched to."

Berra was AL MVP in 1951, 1954 and 1955. He holds World Series records for most hits (71) and most games (75).

"You never think of that when you're a kid," Berra said. "But egads, you gotta be somethin' to get in."

Among his boyhood friends was Joe Garagiola, who went on to a career as a major league player and broadcaster. In rejecting Berra at the 1943 tryout, the Cardinals signed Garagiola, another catcher, instead.

Son of Italian immigrants

Lawrence Peter Berra was born in St. Louis on May 12, 1925, the son of Pietro, a laborer in a brickyard, and Pauline Berra. He grew up in "The Hill," or Italian district, with three older brothers and a younger sister.

Berra was forced to drop out of school in the eighth grade and go to work to help support his family. He took jobs in a coal yard, as a truck driver and in a shoe factory.

He continued to play amateur baseball, which brought him to the attention of major league scouts.

In 1943, his first professional season with the Yankees' farm team in Norfolk, Va., was interrupted by World War II.

He joined the Navy and later served on a gunboat supporting the D-Day invasion.

Berra married his wife, Carmen, in 1949. The couple, who met in their native St. Louis, had three sons, including Dale Berra, who played in the major leagues as an infielder.

Berra published three books: his autobiography in 1961, It Ain't Over ... in 1989, and The Yogi Book: I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said in 1998. The last made The New York Times' best seller list.

In 1996, Berra was awarded an honorary doctorate from the state university in Montclair, N.J., where he and his family lived. The university also named its baseball stadium for Berra. The adjoining Yogi Berra Museum opened in 1998.

The museum houses Berra memorabilia, including what he said was his most prized possession, the mitt he used to catch Larsen's perfect game.

He tickled TV viewers in recent years by bringing his malapropisms to a commercial with the AFLAC duck. ["They give you cash, which is just as good as money."]

His wife once asked Berra where he wanted to be buried, in St. Louis, New York or Montclair.

"I don't know," he said. "Why don't you surprise me?"

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.