Yogi Berra, baseball great and source of unwitting folk wisdom, dies at 90

Story highlights

  • Yogi Berra's malapropisms made him one of the most quoted Americans
  • He was the backbone of a New York Yankees dynasty
  • Berra played on teams that won 10 World Series rings, coached on three others

(CNN)Yogi Berra, one of the greatest catchers in baseball history who also was known for his humorous malapropisms, has died.

He died Tuesday night, the Yogi Berra Museum said. He was 90.
    Berra was one of only two catchers to win the MVP award three times. He was an All-Star 15 times and was selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But it is for his sometimes mystifying utterances, or Yogisms, that he is more widely known.
    Perhaps his most famous observation was, "It ain't over till it's over." But that quote was like some Yogisms, likely a paraphrase of what Berra actually said -- in this case about his team's chances to win the pennant despite being in fifth place late in the season.
    Berra was the backbone of a New York Yankees dynasty that won 10 World Series championships, an individual record. He also caught the only World Series no-hitter -- Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956. According to Larsen, he threw every pitch Berra called for, never once disagreeing.
    He was loved by his former teammates and Yankees who played after him.
    "To those who didn't know Yogi personally, he was one of the greatest baseball players and Yankees of all time. To those lucky ones who did, he was an even better person," said former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter on his Players Tribune website. "To me he was a dear friend and mentor. He will always be remembered for his success on the field, but I believe his finest quality was how he treated everyone with sincerity and kindness."
    He was born Lawrence Peter Berra, the son of Italian immigrants. One version has it that he earned the nickname "Yogi" from a childhood friend who said the snake charmer in a movie looked like Berra.
    He dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help support his family by playing baseball, then later served in the U.S. Navy. As a 19-year-old, he saw combat on D-Day, as part of a crew of rocket boat drawing enemy fire, according to New Jersey.com.

    On the field

    His early years on the field weren't so successful.
    "My first two years, I was awful. I was terrible," Berra told CNN in a 2003 interview.
    He said his fingers were so short that they had to be painted just to be more visible to pitchers.
    But Berra became a tough out at the plate, especially with runners on base. He had 1,430 runs batted in, tops among catchers. He hit 358 home runs during the regular season in his career while striking out just 414 times.
    Behind the plate he was considered a superb game caller and he threw out almost half the men who tried to steal a base against him.
    The late Casey Stengel, who managed Berra for years, credited much of the Yankees' pitching success to his catcher.
    "Why has our pitching been so great? Our catcher, that's why. He looks cumbersome, but he's quick as a cat," Stengel once said, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame website.
    Larsen told Baseball America that Berra was very low key.
    "He never got that excited. He handled it well, the good and the bad," he said Wednesday.
    For a Yankees franchise that has won 27 World Series titles and had 18 players inducted in the Hall of Fame, he was one of the most popular and best-loved players to ever wear the famed pinstriped uniform.
    And no one won more than Berra, who was often at his best in the World Series.
    He holds several World Series records, including most games by a catcher (63); hits (71); times on a winning team (10). He was first in at-bats, first in doubles, second in RBIs, third in home runs and walks; and he hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history in 1947.

    Colorful phrases

    As much a source of folk wisdom as he was a competitor, Berra's colorful, disjointed turns of phrase made him one of the most quoted Americans since Mark Twain, and a favorite of politicians of both parties -- even though some of the remarks weren't actually uttered by him or exactly the way they were attributed to him.
    "Yogi's been an inspiration to me," George W. Bush once said. "Not only because of his baseball skills but because of the enduring mark he left in the English language."
    Among his contributions to the vernacular: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," and "It's deja vu all over again."
    "I really don't know why I say them," he once told CNN. "It just comes out."
    The New York Times reported that "It ain't over till it's over" was actually "You're not out until you're out," according to writer Dave Anderson, who wrote in 1974 about Berra leading the Mets to the World Series the prior season. The newspaper said the quote likely changed some years later by someone who was trying to quote the Yankees legend.
    Berra's lovable persona became the inspiration for the cartoon character Yogi Bear.

    Back and forth

    After his record-breaking run with the Yankees, Berra became the team's manager in 1964, only to be fired after losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
    So he joined the nearby New York Mets as a player and coach.
    Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
    Three years later, he was fired by the Mets and later rehired as manager of the Yankees.
    He was fired once again, by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, in 1985, after just 16 games. But Steinbrenner fired Berra through an emissary rather than in person, leading to a rift between the two men that lasted nearly 14 years.
    Berra finished his baseball career in 1992 as a coach for the Houston Astros.
    "It was fun," he reminisced at the opening of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in New Jersey. "If I had to do it over, I'd do it again."