By JASON GAY
Updated Sept. 23, 2015 2:18 p.m. ET
He was a spectacular baseball player. That sometimes gets forgotten in all the folksy warmth surrounding Yogi Berra, who died Tuesday at age 90. The numbers are staggering, almost supernatural, something out of a comic book: 18 seasons as a catcher for the New York Yankees, 10 World Series rings, 14 Series appearances, 15 All-Star Games and three most valuable player awards. There’s never been a career like it, before or since. I once emailed the groundbreaking statistician (and “Moneyball” godfather) Bill James about Berra’s rank among baseball’s all-timers, and his response was instant and unequivocal:
“I certainly think that Yogi was the greatest catcher who ever lived,” James wrote. “I have no doubt of this, honestly.”
Statistics tell only a fraction of his story. Berra was the son of immigrants, a World War II veteran who had left a Yankees farm club to join the Navy and served at D-Day, a gunner’s mate on a landing craft support vessel. “I think his military service has been a little overlooked, because men like him really didn’t talk about it much,” Carmen Berra, Yogi’s wife of 65 years, told the Star-Ledger a year before her death in 2014. “It wasn’t a big thing to him…it was just what they had to do.”
Such humility defined his life. Yogi Berra was not a pretentious man. His exceptional talent didn’t yield the type of payday that is now customary for ballplayers today—Berra never made more than $65,000 in a season, and never had more than a one-year contract. His easygoing style and proclivity for malapropisms—actually, it’s not fair to call them malapropisms; they’re Yogi-isms, sui generis, many of them brilliant (“Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical,” not even Twain was that good)—made him a beloved figure even to those who hated the mighty Yankees. Berra returned the laughs with a twinkle of self-awareness: Yogi made people chuckle, but he always got to be in on the joke.
He had lives as a manager, a commercial pitchman, an actor (that’s Yogi, with Mickey Mantle, Cary Grant and Doris Day in 1962’s “That Touch of Mink,” which they filmed during a Yankees West Coast trip). Berra had his battles—there was a memorable feud with George Steinbrenner that lasted for nearly a decade and a half after the Yankee owner dismissed Berra as manager in 1985. (Steinbrenner, acting on advice from Joe DiMaggio, eventually visited Berra to apologize, leading to an overdue thawing.)
As often with cherished public figures, the best stories about Yogi Berra are the quieter ones. This past May in the Journal, David Kaplan, the director of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center near Berra’s town of Montclair, N.J., gave a remarkable account of Berra’s relationship with a once-troubled local teenager named Carlos Lejnieks whom he mentored and helped get into Brown University. Today, Lejnieks is the CEO of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Newark.
I spoke to Lejnieks Wednesday. While he said that Berra had made a significant positive impact upon his life, he also knew he was not alone. “I know he did it in so many quiet ways for so many other people,” he said. “He was so understated.”
I met Berra once. In 2011 I went to go see the movie “Moneyball” with him. I don’t remember how I came up with the idea, but I know it took a long time to put together—Kaplan had asked if it might be possible to screen it in the museum’s screening room, but the movie studio was struggling to get a copy to us, and it looked like it would fall apart. At the last minute, we wound up seeing the Brad Pitt film at the old Bellevue Theater on Bellevue Avenue in Montclair. It was late afternoon. Carmen came, too. Yogi got a bag of popcorn and settled in the back of the theater.
I recall two things vividly about the screening: 1) Berra was friends with Art Howe, the manager of the Oakland A’s in the time “Moneyball” is set, and while he thought Philip Seymour Hoffman was a good actor, Yogi felt he looked nothing like Art Howe. The other thing—and this I didn’t know was coming—was that there’s a key scene in the movie in which the A’s reel off a record 20 game winning streak. And in the moment, they show real-life footage of the last American League team that had won 19 games—the 1947 New York Yankees, for whom Yogi played his first full season in the major leagues.
“I’d almost forgotten,” Yogi said afterward. “You get old, you know? But we did win 19 in a row.”
We all went to dinner at a restaurant around the corner. Yogi ordered scallops, and a vodka with extra ice. He talked about his early playing days and his first contract ($90 a month) and what they served the Yankees between games of a doubleheader (“a hardboiled egg”). He talked about going to Toots Shor’s with DiMaggio and knowing Connie Francis and Spencer Tracy. He talked humbly about those World Series titles and he reached over and showed me his 1953 ring, which was the only championship one he wore.
“I was very lucky,” he said.
He spoke about these indelible moments like they’d happened only weeks ago, and weren’t the memories of an extraordinary American life. To Yogi Berra, these were just fortunate things that had happened along the way. He didn’t view his life as extraordinary, which only makes it more so.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com