It's been a rough month for the Astros' family. Longtime announcer Gene Elston passed away on Septmeber 5 at the age of 93. Then, last Thursday, Hall of Fame announcer and voice of the Astros for most of the last three decades Milo Hamilton passed away at age 88. Now, this morning, comes news that Hall of Fame catcher and former Astros coach Yogi Berra has died at the age of 90. He passed away in his home of natural causes, according to Dave Kaplan, the director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center.
While not nearly as inextricably linked to the Astros as Elston or Hamilton, Berra was still an integral part of the organization for a short time in the late 80's as a bench coach, joining the team in 1985, and going to the NLCS in 1986. He retired for good after the 1989 season, but not before he had a chance to impact the early part of Craig Biggio's Hall of Fame career. Biggio mentioned Berra fondly in his Hall of Fame induction speech a couple months ago:
“He was the smartest baseball man I’ve been around, no doubt,” Biggio said. “I would be on the bench and he would come behind me and babble something. I’d kind of look at him. Then the next few innings, it would all happen.”
Berra, at the time, responded in kind, via a statement released by the Astros:
“I’m so glad for him, he’s one of my favorites, one of the best,” said Berra, who is also in the Hall of Fame and was a coach with the Astros when Biggio was drafted. “He started as a catcher, but we changed him to second base and he worked his tail off. I’m just real proud of the kid.”
Berra's journey into Major League Baseball was a jagged one that belied his ultimate success as one of the foundational pieces of several great New York Yankees teams. He was rejected for a tryout by his hometown team, the St. Louis Browns, in 1943, but got noticed by a Yankees scout who saw something in him and was signed to a minor league contract. Berra's minor league career was interrupted by a stint serving his country in World War II, but eventually he made his MLB debut, ironically, on the same date as his passing, September 22, 1946.
Hitting the ball was never a problem for Berra, however, his arm was so erratic that he was moved from catcher to the outfield early in his career, and eventually, he was benched. However, he continued to work at his fielding, and his breakthrough season came in 1948, when he hit .315 with 14 homers and 98 RBIs, with vast improvements as a defensive catcher. In 1949, he attained a .989 fielding percentage and didn't make an error in the World Series.
To become a Hall of Famer, generally speaking, you must have a period of dominance where you were one of, if not the best at your position. It's hard to top Berra's period from 1950 through 1956, when he won three AL MVP's, finished runner-up twice, and in the top four the other two seasons. A 15-time All-Star, Berra holds World Series records for most hits (71) and most games (75). He also holds the Yankee records for most World Series at-bats (259) and doubles (10), and he is second in RBIs (39) and runs scored (41), one behind Mickey Mantle in both categories. Combined, Berra went to the World Series 21 times as a player, coach or manager.
Berra was part of one of the most memorable moments in World Series history when he caught the final out of Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956, running to the mound and leaping into Larsen's arms as the game ended.
Berra's playing career was followed up by various stints as manager and coach with the Yankees and New York Mets, the most noteworthy probably being his hiring as manager of the Yankees in 1984. Prior to the 1985 season, Berra agreed to stay on as Yankees manager as long as owner George Steinbrenner, who had the patience of a kindergartener, didn't fire him that season. Despite assurances from Steinbrenner, Berra was fired 16 games into the season. Adding insult to injury, Steinbrenner didn't even deliver the news himself. He had Clyde King deliver the news to Berra.
The subsequent rift between Berra and Steinbrenner led to Yogi's self-exile from Yankee Stadium for the next 14 years, until Steinbrenner personally apologized to Berra in 1999, and Berra made his return to the ball club, working with another bright young catching prospect, Jorge Posada, that spring.
As much as he was known for his prowess as a baseball player, Berra is known both in and out of baseball for his numerous Yogi-isms, his own unique brand of malaprop. A few examples:
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On his approach to at-bats: "You can't think and hit at the same time."
On selecting a restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."
On economics: "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore."
On how events sometimes seem to repeat themselves: "It's deja vu all over again!"
On a slipping batting average: "Slump? I ain't in no slump. ... I just ain't hitting."
On travel directions: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
On pregame rest: "I usually take a two-hour nap from 1 to 4."
On fan mail: "Never answer an anonymous letter."
On a spring training drill: "Pair off in threes."
On his approach to playing baseball: "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."
On death: "Always go to other people's funerals. Otherwise they won't go to yours."
On learning: "You can observe a lot by watching."
On the fractured syntax attributed to him: "I really didn't say everything I said."
Berra, who is survived by three sons – Larry, Tim and Dale – as well as 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, was once asked by his late wife Carmen, who passed away in 2014: “Yogi, you are from St. Louis, we live in New Jersey, and you played ball in New York. If you go before I do, where would you like me to have you buried?”
Berra replied: “I don’t know, surprise me.”
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.