On Wednesday, September 23, 2015, Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra passed. We all knew his baseball background – played in more World Series games than any other major leaguer, and was a three-time American League Most Valuable Player. But did you know anything about his military background?
Berra, who served as a sailor in World War II, received the Navy’s Lone Sailor Award in 2009. An announcement from the Navy Memorial at the time said he exemplified the Navy’s core values.
Berra interrupted his baseball career during World War II to enlist in the Navy, and he served aboard a missile boat during the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.
In the Military Times:
Lawrence Peter Berra, the son of Italian immigrants, got his nickname while growing up in St. Louis. Among his amateur baseball teammates was Jack McGuire, another future big leaguer.
“Some of us went to a movie with a yogi in it and afterwards Jack began calling me Yogi. It stuck,” Berra told the Saturday Evening Post.
He was a fan favorite, especially with children, and some have even said, the cartoon character Yogi Bear was named after him.
Berra was born in St. Louis on May 12, 1925, the son of Pietro, a laborer in a brickyard, and Pauline Berra. He grew up in “The Hill,” or Italian district, with three older brothers and a younger sister.
Berra was forced to drop out of school in the eighth grade and go to work to help support his family. He took jobs in a coal yard, as a truck driver and in a shoe factory.
He continued to play amateur baseball, which brought him to the attention of major league scouts.
In the spring of 1943, Lawrence Berra was a 17-year-old kid playing in the Yankee farm system for $90 a month. His team was the Norfolk (Va.) Tars, which made it convenient for him to go across town and join the Navy when his draft card came.
His first professional season with the Yankees’ farm team in Norfolk, Virginia, was interrupted by World War II.
Berra put his baseball career on hold and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, becoming a gunner’s mate on the USS Bayfield. He “got tired of sitting around” and volunteered to serve on amphibious ships, not entirely clear what they were.
As 19-year-old Second Class Seaman Lawrence P. Berra was one of a six-man crew on a Navy rocket boat told to prepare for what would become the largest amphibious invasion in history: “D-Day,” the June 6, 1944, assault on the beaches of Normandy.
Rocketboats were speedy, 36-foot gunships, manned by a crew of six and armed with 24 rockets and two .30-caliber machine guns and a twin .50-caliber machine gun. The men on the boats trained in a top-secret program, preparing for a dangerous mission; those 24 boats would be out in front of the full landing force of the Allied invasion.
After basic training in Bainbridge, Md., and rocketboat training in Norfolk, Berra shipped out, as yet still unaware of his destination or his mission.
“I thought we were going to Japan,” Berra said.
Second Class Seaman Berra played a significant part in one of the war’s most important campaigns, the Normandy Invasion (better known as D-Day).
The boats broke out of the dawn mist on the English Channel, firing rockets at fortified German positions. Part of the job was to fire and part was to draw fire, so the German machine gun nests could be identified for airstrikes.
“It was like the 4th of July out there,” Berra said. “You couldn’t stick your head up or it would get blown off.”
Part of the job was to shoot down any plane “that flew beneath the clouds,” Berra said. “One of the first ones we got was one of our own. They were yelling at us, ‘What the hell are you doing?’
“And the way those waves were sending us up and down, we had to be careful we didn’t shoot each other.”
Berra was fired upon, but was not hit, and later received several commendations for his bravery.
“It’s amazing what that little boat could do, though; that 36-footer,” Berra recalled for the academy. “We could shoot out rockets. We could shoot one at a time, two at a time, or we could shoot all 24 at a time. We went in on the invasion. We were the first ones in, before the Army come in.”
“Fortunately enough, nothing happened to us,” Berra said of D-Day in the interview with the academy. “We were lucky.… But then, I enjoyed it. I wasn’t scared….I’ve never seen so many planes in my life, we had going over there.”
Berra received the first Bob Feller Act of Valor Award, one of baseball’s ways to pay homage to the military. Feller, was a star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. The day after Pearl Harbor, he walked away from a $100,000 contract to join the Navy and served aboard the USS Alabama as a gunner.
“He didn’t like me,” Berra said. “One day I asked why. He said, ‘I don’t respect people who didn’t serve their country.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? I was at D-Day.’ After that, we became best friends.”
Yogi Berra married his wife, Carmen, in 1949. The couple met in their native St. Louis. Carmen died in 2014.
“I think his military service has been a little overlooked because the men like him really didn’t talk about it much,” said Carmen Berra, Yogi’s wife of 64 years. “He never talked about it. It wasn’t a big thing to him, or to men like him. It was just what they had to do.”
Yogi is survived by three sons.
The Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center was his intended to teach children important values such as sportsmanship and dedication on and off the baseball diamond.
It looks like Yogi Berra certainly exemplified both! By the way, September 22, 2015, was the same day as Yogi Berra’s MLB debut 69 years earlier. What a coincidence or as Yogi would say: “It’s déjà vu all over again”.
To the Berra family, prayers and our deepest sympathy to you and the NY Yankees.
Written by Nancy Hayes
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