Green: Berra was American hero as well as a treasure

Jerry Green
The Detroit News

The kid came up to the Yankees with the war veterans late in the 1946 season and those of us addicted to baseball back then giggled. We giggled because he looked nothing like any other major league ballplayer.

Yogi Berra was 19 when he part of the D-Day invasion into Normandy, France.

He was squat, top-heavy, with high shoulders and hardly any neck. His head was large and he was merely 5 feet 7 inches in height.

He did not portray the powerful and mighty image that Babe Ruth had. He lacked the dominance of Ted Williams. He was not sleek and graceful in the style of his new, veteran teammate, Joe DiMaggio.

His name was Larry Berra. He looked odd in those regal pinstripes that the Yankees so proudly wore, quite comical. The vision sticks in my memory scrapbook.

He would become an American treasure. A product of The Hill, the Italian-heritage neighborhood, of St. Louis.

Despite his appearance, the new kid, Larry Berra, would become a link that united the austere Yankees champions through three decades and into a fourth.

They are joined now, most of these great Yankees who ruled baseball from the 1930s through the 1940s, the 1950s and into the 1960s. Gone.

Yogi Berra — a catcher, a manager, a Hall of Famer — was the most beloved ballplayer in the Yankees' enduring dynasty. It seemed, back then and even now, that the tradition was connected from Ruth to Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey to Mickey Mantle and Casey Stengel and Billy Martin. Only the magical, playful Whitey Ford survives from the Yankees' ancients.

It was a very special era in American sports — part of what Tom Brokaw would term The Greatest Generation. And indeed, these athletes were dominant in the greatest generation of our sports history.

The special era ended this past week.

It ended with Yogi Berra's death last Tuesday at age 90. The date on the calendar was Sept. 22. It was 69 years to the day of Berra's major league debut, called up from the Newark farm team in the International League.

Berra, from that day on in 1946, would become part of American folklore.

Many of his witticisms have become etched into American culture. The words he often dropped into casual conversation would extend far above baseball and sports.

Yogisms of yore

A sampler of Yogi's enduring comments gleaned from a variety of historical sources:

"Never answer an anonymous letter."

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

"If people don't want to come out to the ballpark, nobody's going to stop them."

"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

"The lousy teams are good this year."

And his signature Yogi-ism:

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

Yogi Berra was funny and quaint without intending to be.

He was a great, great ballplayer, fully intending to be. He could hit, slashing line drives toward left, hitting power shots pulled to right; he could catch.

And he was durable.

The Yankees propaganda wizards dubbed Reggie Jackson as "Mr. October." But Yogi was the genuine Mr. October. He played in 75 World Series games. No other ballplayer ever played as any. The Yankees won 14 pennants during his 19 seasons. No other player played on more pennant winners.

And the tops — he played on 10 World Series champions.

No other player — not DiMaggio or Ruth or Gehrig or Mantle — ever played on more World Champions.

One Sunday at Tiger Stadium in 1962 it wasn't over until the Yankees and Tigers had played 22 innings, for one minute short of seven hours. Jack Reed, a nondescript Yankee, won it, 9-7, with a home run to left off Phil Regan in the 22nd inning.

That Sunday Yogi squatted down through all 22 innings and became the true story of the game. He was a baseball codger of 37 at the time.

Afterwards, he didn't drop any humorous comments. He had a deep voice and he sort of grunted his vanilla answers.

True warrior

What is most memorable is the vision of Berra, aching, sitting on that gray metal stool in the visitors' clubhouse in Detroit just tuckered out after his 22 innings of toil.

Through the years the humorous comment, the malapropos and double entendres were most prominent in the many anecdotes about Yogi Berra. He was the most beloved Yankee. And those of us who covered him in the late years of the Yankees dynasty era treasured him for all the stories about him.

We admired his skills; we giggled at his unique appearance in baseball regalia.

But it wasn't until the past six or seven years that we learned another story about Yogi Berra. It was a story hardly ever told. It is the story that I appreciate most about the character of the man — above his innocent humor and his baseball skills.

It is the story about Berra in another uniform, a sailor suit.

Two baseball seasons before Larry Berra put on pinstripes as a rookie with the Yankees, he gripped the wheel of a landing craft. He guided his boat toward the shore. His passengers were a mob of soldiers, helmets tight, stomachs churning, as they headed toward the beach.

All hell had broken out. Shells roared above them, fired from battleships and cruisers. American B-29 aircraft and British Lancasters flew overhead, with loads of bombs ready to be dropped.

It was morning, June 6, 1944. D-Day. The invasion of France — Normandy.

And Berra was just 19.

Berra halted his craft off shore and lowered the landing ramp and his cargo of American GIs dropped into the ocean and waded toward the beach.

Toward victory and V-E Day in Europe.

This was the Berra I did not know and wish that I had.

I knew plenty about the 14 World Series — Berra's leap into Don Larsen's arms after the perfect game and his bellowing argument when Jackie Robinson was called safe on a steal of home.

But I never knew — so I never asked — about his service in his U.S. Navy uniform his service during World War II, before he became an American treasure. I never knew about the Purple Heart that he was awarded when he was wounded shortly after D-Day.

It's over. But the image and the memories are forever.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports reporter.