Today is Yogi Berra’s 86th birthday. If you haven’t read it before, I’d suggest revisiting my Hardball Times article from before the 2009 season (Part 1 of which is here) putting the top catchers of all time in context.
Physically, Yogi was basically designed to be a catcher (Bill James described him as looking like, if he was a piece of furniture, you’d sand him off some). And while he was a heckuva hitter and defensive catcher as well as handler of pitchers, his real calling card in the argument for the greatest catcher of all time – and integrally related to why his teams won so much – was his unique combination of durability and consistency (as the military saying goes, quantity has a quality all its own).
Consider: in his peak years from 1950-56, counting the World Series (which the Yankees played in six times in those seven seasons) and the All-Star Game (which Yogi started each of those years, including catching all twelve innings in 1955), Yogi’s teams played 1121 games (160 games a year). Yogi caught 1035 of those (148 per year) and never had an off year – his worst year with the bat in that stretch was 1955, when he batted .272/.349/.470, drove in 108 runs, won the MVP award and hit .417/.500/.583 in a seven-game World Series. He won three MVPs, finished second twice, third once and fourth once. Did Yogi tire? He batted .274/.359/.452 in the World Series (including an OPS above 1000 in three straight Serieses from 1953-56); his career OPS was 802 in the first half, 858 in the second half, and he did his best work in the dog days of July and August (career .313/.381/.517 in July, .301/.366/.500 in August compared to .247/.312/.402 in April). He didn’t tire in games either – his career line in extra innings was .355/.447/.618.
Yogi was also fired three times as a manager (Mets once, Yankees twice). All three teams then embarked on decade-long stints in the wilderness.
Did I mention he only played briefly in the minors – and thus had to learn to catch at the major league level, where he was tutored by Bill Dickey – because he spent two years in the Navy in World War II, where he served on a 36-foot “rocket boat” off Normandy supporting the D-Day landings?
I was on a rocket boat — 36-footer, with 12 rockets on each side, five machine guns, a twin-50 and the 330s. And only 36 feet, made out of wood and a little metal…It’s amazing what that little boat could do, though; that 36-footer. We could shoot out rockets. We could shoot one at a time, two at a time, or we could shoot all 24 at a time. We went in on the invasion. We were the first ones in, before the Army come in.
…[W]e stand out about 300 yards off the beach, and we see what happens. If we ran into anything, we fire.
Fortunately enough, nothing happened to us. We were lucky. But, you just get so tired, you got to say that. But then, I enjoyed it. I wasn’t scared. Going into, it looked like Fourth of July. It really did. Eighteen-year-old kid, going in an invasion where we had – I’ve never seen so many planes in my life, we had going over there.
Dumbest fact about Yogi: like Joe DiMaggio and Whitey Ford, he was not voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Go figure.