Originally created 05/12/05

Yogi celebrates 80th birthday



MONTCLAIR, N.J. - It still ain't over for Yogi Berra.

The anchor of the New York Yankees dynasty of the 1950s and the man who uttered countless malapropisms, Berra was recently asked what he thought of octogenarians when he was a young man.

"I don't know. There weren't too many of them living at that time," the Hall of Fame catcher said.

On Thursday, one of the most enduring and beloved figures in sports turns 80.

Berra plans to spend his birthday at home with his wife, Carmen, his children and 10 grandchildren, probably having a backyard barbecue. And he'll get a phone call from his childhood pal Joe Garagiola, the catcher-turned Hall of Fame broadcaster, who says Yogi always returns the favor on his birthday each February.

"He'll call me and leave a message on my answering machine, singing, 'Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you, you're catching up to me, happy birthday to you. From Yogi Berra.' He tells me who it was, like I thought it was Pavarotti or Bocelli singing to me," Garagiola said.

One of the greatest catchers in baseball history, Berra was behind the plate when Don Larsen threw his perfect game in the 1956 World Series, and caught two no-hitters by Allie Reynolds in 1951.

In his 17-year career, Berra played in 14 World Series, helping New York win 10 titles. A lifetime.285 hitter, Berra had 358 home runs, 2,150 hits and 1,430 RBIs. In Series play, he hit 12 home runs - he also played in a record 75 Series games.

Berra, a 15-time All-Star and three-time AL MVP, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972 and remains an inspiration for current Yankees.

"Yogi is just fun to be around," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "The thing I learned from Yogi is to make sure you have fun all the time, that's the key. That's the biggest thing."

Born Lawrence Peter Berra on May 12, 1925, Berra got his nickname from an American Legion teammate who saw him sitting cross-legged with his arms folded across his chest, and thought he looked like a yogi from an Indian movie.

Berra and Garagiola grew up together on Elizabeth Street in the Hill section of St. Louis, a working-class enclave of Italian-American immigrant families where the local ball field was a trash dump and the dugout was the burned-out hulk of a car they dragged to the pile. They both wanted to make it to the big leagues and played ball from dawn to dusk.

"I always figured when I was a kid, where could you go and play for three hours and make that kind of money?" Berra said. "It beats working. To me, this wasn't work. It was a lot of fun to me."

Berra joined the Navy and volunteered for duty on a rocket boat that capsized off Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. After getting out of the service in 1946, he played with the Newark Bears, the Yankees' top minor league team and was called up to the Bronx on Sept. 22, homering in his first major league game.

His sense of humor quickly endeared him to Mickey Mantle and his other teammates. Fellow Hall Of Famer Whitey Ford recalled a game against the Chicago White Sox where Berra was behind the plate.

Ford's quickly allowed a double and a bunt, hit one batter and then watched Ted Kluszewski launch one off the outfield fence.

"I've thrown four pitches and I'm losing 3-0," Ford recalled. "Out to the mound comes (manager Casey) Stengel and he asks Yogi, 'What kind of stuff has he (Ford) got?' And Yogi says, 'How the hell do I know? I haven't caught one yet!'

"There's nothing bad you can say about him. Everybody loves him," Ford said. "DiMaggio and Mantle might have overshadowed him a bit, but everyone knew Yogi was the one guy we really needed on the team."

Despite a stellar baseball career, Berra is best known for his many Yogi-isms, his one-of-a-kind turns of phrase that display a twisted logic. For example, "It gets late early out there" was a reference to how the afternoon shadows play in the outfield. And when he tried to explain why he didn't frequent a busy restaurant anymore, it came out, "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

When asked what time it was, he once replied, "You mean now?" And who can refute the pennant race logic of his most famous quote, "It ain't over till it's over?"

"He says things and people giggle a lot, but in there is something pretty useful, and that never stops," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.

Berra managed the Yankees in 1964, the Mets from 1972-75, and returned to the Yankees in 1984. Despite owner George Steinbrenner's assurance that Yogi would have the entire 1985 season to improve the team, the Boss fired Yogi just 16 games into the schedule. Berra vowed never to set foot in Yankee Stadium until Steinbrenner apologized, and kept his word for 14 years.

In 1999, Steinbrenner came to the Yogi Berra Museum in Little Falls to personally apologize.

"I want to have you back," said Steinbrenner, who was running a few minutes behind schedule.

"You're late," replied Berra.

Steinbrenner issued a statement Tuesday through his publicist calling Berra "a gem."

"There are very few people like Yogi in this world," Steinbrenner said. "He's a family man and he's part of our family. Happy birthday to you, Yogi."

Berra hasn't pondered turning 80 too much.

But he does have a plan for next year's birthday.

"I think I go backwards now," he joked. "Next birthday, 79."

Associated Press Sports Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.

A sampling of the wisdom of Yogi Berra

- "It ain't over till it's over."

- "Never answer an anonymous letter."

- "I usually take a two-hour nap from one to four."

- "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

- "I didn't really say everything I said."

- "You can observe a lot by watching."

- "You mean now?" (In response to being asked what time it was)

- "The future ain't what it used to be."

- "It gets late early out there."

- "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

- "So I'm ugly. So what? I never saw anyone hit with his face."

- "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."

- "We just agree differently." (On his clashes with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner when Berra managed the team)

- "Thanks. You don't look so hot yourself." (In response to New York Mayor John Lindsay's wife complimenting him on appearing cool on a sweltering afternoon)

Sources: Yogi Berra Museum, Bartlett's Quotations, The Associated Press.