Yogi Berra, a three-time MVP who was the backbone of a record 10 world-champion Yankees teams in the 1940, 50s and 60s and who became one of the most beloved figures in franchise history despite a lengthy estrangement from the team, died Tuesday night, according to the Yogi Berra Museum. He was 90.
Berra, whose wife of 65 years, Carmen, died in March 2014, had been in failing health for some time. His death was announced by the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Little Falls, N.J., to which Berra had devoted himself in the final years of his life.
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, a catcher who was named the A.L.’s most valuable player in 1951, 54 and 55, led the Yankees to five consecutive world championships (1949-53) and also led a team that included Mickey Mantle and, for three of those seasons, Joe DiMaggio, in RBIs for seven consecutive seasons (1949-55). Berra was an 18-time All-Star, a member of a record 14 A.L. pennant winners and a 1972 inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame. That was the same year his uniform No. 8 was retired by the Yankees.
Berra, who dropped out of school after the 8th grade to help support his family, is nearly as well known for his unique use of the English language as he is for his baseball career. His wit and wisdom — “It’s never over til it’s over.” “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”— have not only found their way into the American lexicon, but also into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
While Berra protested he “never said some of the things I said,” it was precisely those things that made him a part of the fabric of baseball for more than seven decades and a national treasure.
“People who don’t know anything about baseball, know about Yogi Berra,” former Yankees pitcher David Cone told The Post in 2012.
Following his playing career, Berra managed both the Yankees (1964) and Mets (1973) to the World Series, and is one of just six men to have managed teams to pennants in both leagues.
But that designation mattered little to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner when he fired Berra following a 6-10 start to the 1985 season after promising Berra — who guided the Yankees to an 87-75 record in 1984 — he’d be his manager all season. What Berra later said bothered him most was not the dismissal, but that Steinbrenner didn’t have the decency to do it himself. He instead sent general manager Clyde King.
Berra vowed he’d never set foot in Yankee Stadium again as long as Steinbrenner owned the team and for 14 years, until a truce was brokered by WFAN’s Suzyn Waldman in January 1999, he kept his word.
“He called and apologized,” Berra said after Steinbrenner reached out to him by phone and the two set up a meeting at Berra’s museum. “He said the right things. If he didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”
When Steinbrenner pulled up for their summit, Berra looked at his watch and told the Yankees owner “You’re 10 minutes late.”
In reality, Steinbrenner was 14 years late. But Berra’s prolonged absence only made the hearts of Yankees fans grow fonder and, with DiMaggio having died just two months after Berra made his peace with Steinbrenner, Yogi quickly became the most popular figure at Old-Timers’ Day and whenever he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before countless playoff and World Series games.
“Not too many guys can be recognized by one name,” former Yankees manager Joe Torre told The Post in 2012.
“When he left here for that long period of time, it hurt his feelings because of his loyalty to the organization. And then when he was welcomed back, he ran back.”
Berra even became a bit of a good luck charm. On that summer day in 1999 when the Yankees held “Yogi Berra Day” to formally welcome him home, Cone pitched a perfect game.
Born Lawrence Peter Berra to immigrant parents in St. Louis in 1925, he was nicknamed Yogi by a boyhood friend who thought, by the way he often sat with his legs folded under him and his arms hanging by his side, Berra resembled a yogi — an Indian holy man — the friend had seen in a recent movie.
Berra signed with the Yankees in 1942. A year earlier he had tried out with his hometown Cardinals but refused to sign for $250 because it was half of what the team’s general manager, Branch Rickey, offered Berra’s boyhood friend, Joe Garagiola. As it turned out, Rickey knew he was about to leave the Cardinals and wanted to hide Berra so he could sign him when he became general manager in Brooklyn in 1942. The Yankees, however, signed Berra first.
One of 35 baseball Hall of Famers to serve in World War II, Berra, then playing in the Yankees minor league system, joined the Navy. Just before dawn on D-Day, the 19-year-old Berra and his crewmates were sent out ahead of the main landing force to draw fire and help U.S. forces locate and eliminate enemy machine-gun nests in the Battle of Normandy.
“It was like Fourth of July to see all them planes and ships on Normandy, my gosh. You couldn’t see anything,” Berra said in 2010. “I stood up on the deck of our boat, looked up and my officer tells me ‘You better get your head down here before it gets blown off.’ I said ‘I like it up here.’ He said ‘You better get down here [or] you won’t have it. You won’t look at anything.’ Being a kid, ‘What the heck,’ I said. ‘Nothing can kill me.’ I found out later on.”
After his discharge, Berra returned to the minors where he was credited with driving in 23 runs in a doubleheader. He made his major league debut in 1946 at the age of 21, homering in his first game.
Known as a bad-ball hitter and for striking out infrequently — he struck out just 12 times in 597 at bats in 1950 — Berra may have had his best season in 1956 when he batted .273 with 30 homers and 98 RBIs as the Yankees won the pennant by nine games and beat the Dodgers in the World Series. He finished second in the MVP balloting that season to Mantle, who won the Triple Crown.
From 1950-56, Berra never finished lower than fourth in the MVP voting. He was behind the plate for a pair of no-hitters by Allie Reynolds during the 1951 season and for Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of that 1956 World Series.
The snapshot of Berra leaping into Larsen’s arms after the final out is one of the most iconic in baseball history.
“He did all my thinking for me,” said Larsen, who didn’t shake off Berra all afternoon.
When his playing career ended in 1963, Berra joined the Yankees coaching staff and managed the team to the pennant the following season. He was fired after a seven-game loss to the Cardinals in the 1964 World Series because, in the eyes of the front office, he was too close to the players who had been his teammates only a year earlier and had lost control of the team.
Berra’s fate may have been sealed by a late August incident on the team bus involving Berra and Phil Linz, a harmonica-playing utility infielder.
After being swept in a four-game series by the White Sox in Chicago, Berra got on the bus and heard Linz, who was seated in the back, playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Upset with a recent string of bad play, Berra told Linz to stop playing, suggesting where Linz could shove his instrument.
But Linz couldn’t hear him and asked Mantle what Berra had yelled. Mantle said Berra wanted Linz to play louder.
So Linz played on and a furious Berra charged to the back of the bus to confront him. Reporters traveled with the team in those days and the next day an account of the incident was in every major newspaper in the country.
The Yankees had lost 12 of their previous 18 games at the time of the incident, but they went on a tear immediately after. They finished the season winning 30 of their final 41 to win the pennant. Still, Berra was dismissed that fall after losing the World Series to the Cardinals.
He hooked on with the Mets as a player-coach the following season, but after getting just four at-bats he became a full-time coach. Berra also managed the Mets for three-plus seasons, taking over after the sudden death of manager Gil Hodges in April 1972.
Despite an 82-79 regular season record, Berra’s Mets won the 1973 N.L. pennant. They lost the World Series to the A’s in seven games. Berra returned to the Yankees organization as a coach in 1976.
The Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University, which opened in 1999, is more than just a valentine to Berra. The center reflects the lifelong commitment the pudgy kid from the predominantly Italian working-class section of St. Louis known as The Hill who never attended high school had to the education of young people.
The museum was burglarized in October 2014, thieves making off with Berra’s three MVP awards and his World Series rings. None of the items have been recovered.
Funeral services are pending.
“You should always go to other people’s funerals,” Berra once said. “Otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”
He is survived by three sons — Larry, Tim, a former NFL player with the Baltimore Colts, and Dale, who had an 11-year major league career, including two seasons with the Yankees, 11 grandchildren and one great grandchild.