Berra, who quit school after the eighth grade, was also known for his pithy quotes, such as "It ain't over 'til it's over", while speaking to reporters. Simultaneously denying and confirming his reputation, Berra once stated, "I really didn't say everything I said."
Lawrence Peter Berra was born in a primarily Italian neighborhood of St. Louis called "The Hill", to Italian immigrants Pietro and Paolina (née Longoni) Berra. Pietro, originally from Milan in northern Italy, arrived at Ellis Island on October 18, 1909, at the age of 23. In a 2005 interview for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Yogi said, "My father came over first. He came from the old country. And he didn't know what baseball was. He was ready to go to work. And then I had three other brothers and a sister. My brother and my mother came over later on. My two oldest brothers, they were born there— Mike and Tony. John and I and my sister Josie were born in St. Louis." Yogi's parents originally nicknamed him "Lawdie", derived from his mother's difficulty pronouncing "Lawrence" or "Larry" correctly. He grew up on Elizabeth Avenue, across the street from boyhood friend and later competitor Joe Garagiola; that block, also home to Jack Buck early in his Cardinals broadcasting career, was later renamed "Hall of Fame Place". Berra is a Roman Catholic, and he attended South Side Catholic, now called St. Mary's High School, in south St. Louis with Garagiola. Berra has been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
He began playing baseball in local American Legion leagues, where he learned the basics of catching while playing outfield and infield positions as well. Berra also played for a Cranston, Rhode Island team under an assumed name. While playing in American Legion baseball, he received his famous nickname from his friend Bobby Hofman who said he resembled a Hindu yogi whenever he sat around with arms and legs crossed waiting to bat or while looking sad after a losing game.
In 1942, the St. Louis Cardinals spurned Berra in favor of his boyhood best friend, Joe Garagiola. On the surface, the Cardinals seemed to think Garagiola the superior prospect—but team president Branch Rickey actually had an ulterior motive: knowing he was soon to leave St. Louis to take over the operation of the Brooklyn Dodgers and more impressed with Berra than he let on, Rickey apparently planned to hold Berra off until he could sign him for the Dodgers. However, the Yankees signed Berra for the same $500 bonus the Cardinals offered Garagiola before Rickey could sign Berra to the Dodgers. The Yankees assigned Berra to the Norfolk Tars of the Class B Piedmont League, where his most memorable feat was driving in 23 runs in a doubleheader.
Following his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II where he served as a gunner's mate on the USS Bayfield during the D-Dayinvasion, Berra played minor league baseball with the Newark Bears before being called up for seven games in the major leagues in 1946 and was taught under the mentorship of Hall of Famer Bill Dickey, whose number Berra took. The following season he played 83 games for the Yankees, and he would play more than a hundred in each of the following fourteen years.
Berra appeared in fourteen World Series, winning ten championships, both of which are records. Partly because Berra's playing career coincided with the Yankees' most consistent period of World Series participation, he established World Series records for the most games (75), at-bats (259), hits (71), doubles (10), singles (49), games caught (63), and catcher putouts (457). In Game 3 of the 1947 World Series, Berra hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, off Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca (who later served up Bobby Thomson's famous home run in 1951).
Berra was a fifteen-time All-Star, and won the league's MVP award three times, in 1951, 1954 and 1955. From 1950 to 1957, Berra never finished lower than 4th in the voting. He received MVP votes in fifteen consecutive seasons, tied with Barry Bonds and second only to Hank Aaron's nineteen straight seasons with MVP support. (Ted Williams also received MVP votes in every year of his career, but it was twice interrupted by military service.) Between 1949 and 1955, on a team filled with stars such as Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, it was Berra who led the Yankees in RBI for seven consecutive seasons.
Berra was excellent at hitting poor pitches, covering all areas of the strike zone (as well as beyond) with great extension. In addition to this wide plate coverage, he also had great bat control. He was able to both swing the bat like a golf club to hit low pitches for deep home runs, and chop at high pitches for line drives. Five times, Berra had more home runs in a season than strikeouts. In 1950, Berra struck out twelve times in 597 at-bats. This combination made him a feared "clutch hitter"; rival manager Paul Richards once called Berra "the toughest man in the league in the last three innings." When asked about swinging at "bad pitches", Berra reportedly said, "If I can hit it, it's a good pitch."
As a catcher, Berra was truly outstanding. Quick, mobile, and a great handler of pitchers, Berra led all American League catchers eight times in games caught and in chances accepted, six times in double plays (a major league record), eight times in putouts, three times in assists, and once in fielding percentage. Berra left the game with the AL records for catcher putouts (8,723) and chances accepted (9,520). He was also one of only four catchers to ever field 1.000 for a season, playing 88 errorless games in 1958. He was the first catcher to leave a finger outside his glove, a style most other catchers eventually emulated. Later in his career, he became a good defensive outfielder in Yankee Stadium's notoriously difficult left field. In June 1962, at the age of 37, Berra showed his superb physical endurance by catching an entire 22-inning, seven-hour game against the Tigers.Casey Stengel, Berra's manager during most of his playing career with the Yankees and with the Mets in 1965, once said, "I never play a game without my man."
Berra as the New York Mets' first base coach, 1969.
After Berra's Yankee playing career ended with the 1963 World Series, he was hired as the manager of the New York Yankees. Much was made of an incident on board the team bus in August 1964. Following a loss, infielder Phil Linz was playing his harmonica, and Berra ordered him to stop. Seated on the other end of the bus, Linz couldn't hear what Berra had said, and Mickey Mantle impishly informed Linz, "He said to play it louder." When Linz did so, an angry Berra slapped the harmonica out of his hands. All was apparently forgotten when Berra's Yankees rode a September surge to return to the World Series. But the team lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, after which Berra was fired. Ralph Houk later said the decision to fire Berra was made in late August and that the incident with Linz had nothing to do with it.
Berra made a very brief return to the field as a player-coach for the crosstown Mets, playing in just four games. His last at-bat came on May 9, 1965, just three days shy of his 40th birthday. Berra stayed with the Mets as a coach for the next eight seasons, including their 1969 World Championship season. He then became the team's manager in 1972, following the sudden death of manager Gil Hodges.
The following season looked like a disappointment at first. Injuries plagued the Mets throughout the season. Midway through the 1973 season, the Mets were stuck in last place but in a very tight divisional race. In July, when a reporter asked Yogi if the season was over, he replied, "It ain't over till it's over."
As the Mets key players came back to the lineup, a late surge allowed them to win the NL Eastern division despite an 82–79 record, making it the only time between 1970 and 1980 that the NL East was not won by either their rivalPhiladelphia Phillies or the Pittsburgh Pirates. When the Mets faced the 99-win Cincinnati Reds in the 1973 National League Championship Series, a memorable brawl erupted between Bud Harrelson and Pete Rose in the top of the 5th inning of Game Three. After the incident and the ensuing bench clearing brawl that followed had subsided, fans began throwing objects at Rose when he returned to his position in left field in the bottom half of the inning. Sparky Anderson pulled Rose and his Reds off the field until order was restored. When National League president Chub Feeney threatened the Mets with a forfeit, Berra walked out to left field with Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, Rusty Staub and Cleon Jones in order to plead with the fans to desist. Yogi's Mets went on to defeat the highly favored Big Red Machine in 5 games to capture the NL pennant. It was Berra's second as a manager, one in each league.
Berra's tenure as Mets manager ended with his firing on August 5, 1975. He had a record of 298 wins and 302 losses, which includes the post season and a National League pennant. In 1976, he rejoined the Yankees as a coach. The team won its first of three consecutive AL titles, as well as the 1977 World Series and 1978 World Series, and (as had been the case throughout his playing days) Berra's reputation as a lucky charm was reinforced. Casey Stengel once said of his catcher, "He'd fall in a sewer and come up with a gold watch." Berra was named Yankee manager before the 1984 season. Berra agreed to stay in the job for 1985 after receiving assurances that he would not be fired, but the impatient Steinbrenner did fire Berra after the 16th game of the season. Instead of firing him personally, Steinbrenner dispatched Clyde King to deliver the news for him. This caused a rift between the two men that was not mended for almost 15 years.
Berra later joined the Houston Astros as bench coach, where he again made it to the NLCS in 1986. The Astros lost the series in six games to the Mets. Berra remained a coach in Houston until 1989.
In 1999, after George Steinbrenner ventured to his home in New Jersey to apologize in person for the way his firing as Yankee manager was handled, Berra ended his 14-year estrangement with the Yankee organization and worked in spring training camp with catcher Jorge Posada.
The No. 8 was retired in 1972 by the Yankees, jointly honoring Berra and Bill Dickey, his predecessor as the Yankees' star catcher.
On August 22, 1988, Berra and Dickey were honored with plaques to be hung in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. Berra's plaque calls him "A legendary Yankee" and cites his most frequent quote, "It ain't over till it's over." However, the honor was not enough to shake Berra's conviction that Steinbrenner had broken their personal agreement; Berra did not set foot in the Stadium for another decade, until Steinbrenner publicly apologized to Berra.
On July 18, 1999, Berra was honored with "Yogi Berra Day" at Yankee Stadium. Don Larsen threw the first pitch to Berra, to honor the perfect game from the 1956 World Series. This was a part of the celebration to mark the return of Berra to the Stadium, which ended his 14-year feud with Yankees' owner George Steinbrenner. The feud started in 1985 when Steinbrenner promised Berra an honest chance as manager, then fired him in the third week of the season. Berra vowed to never return to Yankee Stadium so long as Steinbrenner owned the team. On that day, Yankees pitcher David Cone threw a perfect game against the Montreal Expos, only the 16th time it had ever been done in Major League history.
Berra is very involved with the project, and he frequently visits the museum for signings, discussions, and other events. It is his intention to teach children important values such as sportsmanship and dedication, both on and off the baseball diamond.
On Wednesday, October 8, 2014, a break in and theft occurred at the museum, and several of Berra's World Series rings and other memorabilia were stolen.
Berra and former teammate Phil Rizzuto were partners in a bowling alley venture in Clifton, New Jersey, originally called Rizzuto-Berra Lanes. The two eventually sold their stakes in the alley to new owners who changed its name to Astro Bowl before those owners sold the property to a developer, who closed the bowling alley in 1999 and converted it into retail space.
Berra remains involved in causes related to his Italian American heritage. A longtime supporter of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), Berra has helped fundraise for the Foundation, even signing baseballs at NIAF events for auction. In 1996, he received the NIAF Special Achievement Award for Sports at NIAF's 21st Anniversary Gala.
Berra has frequently appeared in advertisements for Yoo-hoo, AFLAC, Entenmann's, and Stove Top stuffing, among others, frequently demonstrating his famous "yogiisms." He is among the longest running commercial pitchmen in the U.S.; his television commercials span the early 1950s to the present day. Based on his style of speaking, Yogi was named "Wisest Fool of the Past 50 Years" by The Economist magazine in January 2005. He appeared on the YES Network in Yogi and a Movie where he and Bob Lorenz comment on different movies intermittently as they play.
In the 2007 television miniseries The Bronx is Burning, Berra was portrayed by the actor Joe Grifasi. In the HBO sports docudrama 61*, Berra was portrayed by actor Paul Borghese, and Hank Steinberg's script included more than one of Berra's famous "Yogiisms". In 2009, Berra appeared in the documentary film A Time for Champions recounting his childhood memories of soccer in his native St. Louis.
As a general comment on baseball: "Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical."
On why he no longer went to Ruggeri's, a St. Louis restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."
"It ain't over till it's over." In July 1973, Berra's Mets trailed the Chicago Cubs by 9½ games in the National League East. The Mets rallied to win the division title on the final day of the season.
When giving directions to Joe Garagiola to his New Jersey home, which was accessible by two routes: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
On being the guest of honor at an awards banquet: "Thank you for making this day necessary."
"It's déjà vu all over again". Berra explained that this quote originated when he witnessed Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back-to-back home runs in the Yankees' seasons in the early 1960s.