Baseball Pioneer, LGBT Ally Yogi Berra Dies at 90

Baseball Pioneer, LGBT Ally Yogi Berra Dies at 90

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Yogi Berra/Museum Photo
Yogi Berra/Museum Photo

Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, 90, died Tuesday of “natural causes,” according to the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Little Falls, New Jersey.

“While we mourn the loss of our father, grandfather and great-grandfather, we know he is at peace with Mom,” Berra’s family said in a statement. “We celebrate his remarkable life, and are thankful he meant so much to so many. He will truly be missed.”

Born in 1925, the son of Italian immigrants, Berra came of age in “The Hill” section of St. Louis during the Great Depression. He dropped out of school in 8th grade to help his family financially. At 18 he joined the U.S. Navy and served as a machine gunner on the USS Bayfield during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He often said that his military service in World War II was more significant to him than anything he did on the baseball field.

In 1949 he married his wife Carmen, the great love of his life for 65 years, and together they raised three boys, who in turn produced eleven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Berra nurtured close friendships with fellow Yankee greats Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin and Whitey Ford while remaining first and foremost a family man, returning at the end of each day to his home in Montclair, New Jersey where he was known as a kind, generous and approachable member of the community.

Berra’s devotion to the Museum that bears his name came directly out of his love for young people. When news reached him of a 2014 break-in and theft of his MVP plaques and World championship rings, Berra’s first response was, “Can the kids still go?” Upon hearing that they could, he added, “That’s all that matters. I don’t need a plaque. I know I was MVP.”

His Legacy

Berra’s legacy as one of baseball’s greatest catchers and clutch hitters is unrivaled. While the numbers don’t tell the entire story, they tell a great deal: throughout a career spanning four decades, Berra was a 15-time All-Star, winner of 10 world championships (the most in baseball history), and a 3-time Most Valuable Player award winner. (1951, 1954 and 1955.) In 1972 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 1999 was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

What the statistics don’t reveal is how admired and respected Berra was not only as a player, but as a person. His unaffectedness was the stuff of legend. As his son Larry Berra once said, “Basically, he loves everybody, as long as you are trustworthy and loyal – doesn’t matter whether you’re the garbage man or the president of the United States.” Comedian and lifelong Yankees fan Billy Crystal noted, “He is cherished because he has never really changed…the most caring, honest, decent, and good-humored player and person of his generation.”

LGBT Advocate

Berra’s innate sense for doing the right thing afforded him a natural tolerance for all his fellow players, regardless of race or sexual orientation. Having overcome misperceptions of his own abilities at the outset of his career – it was said he was too short, too ungainly, too unattractive even, to excel at the sport – he offered a model of perseverance, an enduring champion of the underdog. When Elston Howard joined the Yankee roster in 1955 as the team’s first African-American player, Berra went out of his way to befriend his new teammate. As recently as 2013, Yogi’s open-minded tolerance and respect for others prompted him to become an ambassador for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending homophobia and transphobia in sports.

“We will remember Yogi Berra for his values and his courage. He was a true pioneer for inclusion in sport, and a personal hero of mine,” said Hudson Taylor, Athlete Ally Founder and Executive Director. “Not only was he one of the best catchers in MLB history, but he was strongly committed to diversity, inclusion and education.”

Under his leadership, the organization collaborated with the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the innovative “Championing Respect” museum exhibit, which charts how sports has contributed to social change, from Jackie Robinson to Billie Jean King to today’s athletes working for LGBT equality. Athlete Ally presented Berra with an Athlete Ally Action Award in 2014. This July, the organization sent a letter to the White House recommending that Berra receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“As Yogi said, ‘Respect the game, respect others. That’s what I always learned in sports. Treat everyone the same. That’s how it should be,'” continued Taylor. “I couldn’t agree more. Yogi truly understood what it meant to be an ally, and he lived it every day. Our thoughts are with his family and friends, and we thank Yogi for teaching us all to value respect and inclusion in sport.”

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