Yankee fan or not: who doesn’t like Yogi Berra? There have been chapters in books about the head spinning quotes from Yogi. His “It ain’t over til it’s over” quote has almost become a trademark that he never intended to be a trademark. Most of what has happened in the life of one of the most, if not the most interesting Yankees of all time, was never predicted or even dreamed about
Not many kids who stand a mere 5’8” and weigh 190 pounds are predicted to become not only a baseball Hall of Fame member much less a true baseball legend. But this talented and determined kid out of southwest St. Louis was tabbed #40 on the top 100 baseball players of all time in one sports publication in 1999. His storied career with the Yankees which covered 19 years is far too immense for me to try to cover in this blog.
We have just passed another Veterans Day, a big reason that I am writing about Yogi is because of his service in the United States Navy in 1944-45. Now we all know that June 6, 1944 was one of the most important days in our nation’s history when it comes to wartime heroics. And not until I was reading another great Yankee book entitled Driving Mr. Yogi last summer did I realize that this highly decorated baseball player was there at Normandy on June 6th. The book made little mention of his service simply because, like all his great accomplishments, this very humble gentleman did not feel that there should be any extra fanfare about his part in this extremely dangerous mission.
But I had made up my mind that when writing another article near Veterans Day that I would do my piece on another side of Yogi Berra that most of us knew nothing about. Since the book had acknowledged very little about his wartime experience I began to dig for as much information as possible. Most of my information was gathered from an article in the Stars and Stripes publication by author Dave Kaplan who is director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, and co-author of Yogi Berra’s new book, “You Can Observe A Lot By Watching” (John Wiley & Sons)
At age 18 while playing minor league baseball Yogi received orders from Uncle Sam to report for duty. He was assigned to the US Navy. Berra, never one to avoid adventure, signed up to train to be part of a six man crew in the newly developed Landing Craft Support Small (LCSS) Rocket Launcher. They were a small craft carrying six sailors with six twin-fifty machine guns and twelve rockets. Yogi later admitted the word rocket or “rocket boats” is what caught his attention because it sounded daring and action packed.
And action packed it was as he was to later find out in the waters of Omaha Beach in the early morning hours of June 6th. The “rocket boats” were spread out at about 100 yards apart approximately 300 yards off the beach. They would dash through the waters ahead of the troops who were being emptied off the U Boats and wading onto the beach. Their job was to soften the onslaught of the German barrage of ammunition being fired at the soldiers who so gallantly were storming the bloody beach. As the “rocket boats” dashed through the water they would launch the rockets toward the Nazi strongholds knocking out vital machine guns and other well placed weapons. They would also fire their machine guns until empty.
He recalled that the there was so many planes, flares, and explosions that he could not see the sky. The intensity of the battle was so much that at one point he raised up over the side of the boat just to look and was told to get back down before he got his head shot off. When the Longest Day ended, the loss of life was heavy, especially for the Allied forces but as we all know it paid great dividends as those brave men, with help from other advancing forces, liberated France and eleven months later gained the surrender of the German army, ending one of the most tyrannical eras in the history of mankind.
Remarkably none of Berra’s comrades lost their lives at Normandy. Their job wasn’t done even as June 6th passed. They would patrol the beach for the next two weeks on constant alert for German air raids. Following that they were once again summoned to work an invasion of a French shoreline known as Yellow Beach. It was here that Yogi received his only wound as he was grazed by a Nazi bullet on one of his hands.
In 1946 Berra returned to baseball and began an unbelievable career as catcher with the New York Yankees in probably the most dominant era of baseball by a single team. As I mentioned earlier, Berra played on ten world championship teams. In the Driving Mr. Yogi book he, ever the humble man, loved to remind all Yankee players who came after him that he had 10 rings when any one of them even hinted at playing on a better team or being a better player. His reminders weren’t boastful just factual and would help to calm any ego that was about to cross the lines of what it meant to be a Yankee
Life as part of Major League Baseball wasn’t nearly as kind to Yogi as it had been as a player. He dealt with setbacks, the most notable of which was his feud with Yankee owner and baseball bully George Steinbrenner. After his firing which bothered Berra only because of the way it was done, caused him to boycott any activities at Yankee Stadium involving heroes from the past. But after a number of years and with the encouragement of other Yankee legends those two reconciled their differences and became very good friends.
As Yogi’s legend grew so did his quotes or “misspeaks”. But as his driver and one of his most loyal friends and greatest admirers Ron Guidry, a should be Hall of Famer himself, would quickly and accurately tell anyone that those tongue twisters should never be interpreted as a lack of IQ on the part of his valued friend. In fact Guidry said that he believed that Berra had one of the sharpest baseball minds that he was ever around. He was just a simple man and his advice and sharing of knowledge was never lengthy but to the point and always on target. And often times that advice was so simple that the unbelievable quotes were a product of that simplicity.
I was lucky to get to see Yogi play in the latter stages of his glorious career. Seldom did he ever disappoint on the field and his legacy is one of those things that has forever forged my allegiance to the Yankees. Since I am such a fan of those who have served this country in the military, I was only more endeared to this man and his team after learning that he was part of that famous day in our history.
But more than anything else, I am so very grateful that I had the opportunity to be guided and inspired by yet another member of the “Greatest Generation”. You see, had I not been given that book for Fathers Day I would have never known about his military service. And he, just like all the other brave men from that generation always tried to dismiss his heroic actions as just doing his job and serving his country as should have been the case. He fought in one of our country’s greatest battles and played in our country’s greatest pastime and asked for nothing in return for his monumental contributions to both, after giving so much
We need never forget “The Greatest Generation” and the lessons that the men like #8 taught us; both in and out of the military………..
Thank You Yogi Berra!Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra died September 22, 2015.