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Navy Gunner’s Mate and Yankee Catcher for All Seasons Yogi Berra Dies

Yogi Berra

Navy Gunner's Mate Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra dodged bullets and shore battery fire at D-Day well before he began his Hall of Fame career with the New York Yankees.

Berra was grazed on the shoulder by fire off the coast of France on what he called a "rocketboat," but he declined a Purple Heart. He thought his mother back in St. Louis might get upset if she found out.

President Obama noted Berra's military service in mourning the passing of the iconic catcher for all seasons who died Tuesday night in New Jersey at age 90.

"Yogi Berra was an American original -- a Hall of Famer and humble veteran; prolific jokester and jovial prophet," he said. "He epitomized what it meant to be a sportsman and a citizen, with a big heart, competitive spirit, and a selfless desire to open baseball to everyone, no matter their background."

Berra never had a ship named after him for his Navy service but he was honored in July with all the other 63 Hall of Famers who served during wars since the Civil War. At Cooperstown, New York, home of the Hall of Fame, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced that the next littoral combat ship would be named the "Cooperstown."

Among the Hall of Famers who served in World War II were Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg and Warren Spahn, in addition to Berra.

At an American Veterans Center conference in Washington in 2010, Berra recalled the big mistake his ship made as the invasion boats gathered on D-Day.

Berra said there were six enlisted sailors including himself and an officer aboard with the mission of launching rockets before the troops reached the beach.

"We had orders to shoot at anything that came below the clouds," he said. They fired and downed the first plane they saw, which turned out to be an American plane, but they rescued the pilot.

"I never heard a man cuss so much," Berra said. "We got him out of the plane but boy, was he mad."

Berra said, "It was like the 4th of July to see all them planes and ships out there. I stood up there on the deck of our boat" to watch, he said. The officer told him to get down "before you get your head blown off."

Then he grew emotional. "We picked up some of the people who got drowned," he said. He stopped speaking and paused to gather himself but brightened up as he spoke of his later service during the war.

While stationed in Naples, Italy, Berra said he finagled a trip to Rome where he was able to find his Italian relatives. He also said he managed to see Pope Pius X11 while he was in Rome. What did he say? "'Hiya pope,' I said."

Berra said he joined the Navy at age 18. "If you have to go, you have to go, that's it," he said. I didn't mind," and besides, sometimes "we got to eat with the WAVES (women sailors). That was good, we got good food."

In his statement, President Obama noted that Berra had always wanted "to open baseball to everyone, no matter their background." When Berra was asked about the race issue at the America Veterans Center, he seemed puzzled by the question.

Everybody ought to be able to play, everybody ought to be able to get along, he said. Berra said he came up to the Yankees in 1946 when Jackie Robinson broke the "color line" with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"Jackie was a great man, Jackie was my friend," Berra said, but Robinson was flat-out wrong about the steal of home in the 1953 World Series. "The only thing I could say about Jackie is he was out at home plate when I tagged him." The umpire said otherwise.

Berra teared up again and his voice cracked in speaking about another ballplayer who was probably his best friend, Larry Doby, another Navy veteran of World War II, a Hall of Famer with the Cleveland Indians, and the first African-American to play in the American League.

Doby was Berra's neighbor in Montclair, New Jersey, after they retired. Doby would come over to Berra's house and they would reminisce until Berra's wife, Carmen, started finding things for him to do. They'd escape over to Doby's house, until Doby's wife got fed up with them.

They'd end up, as always, at the American Legion Hall, just talking baseball.

Much has been made of Berra's malapropisms -- "when you get to the fork in the road, take it" -- but those who were at his news conference after DiMaggio, the "Yankee Clipper," died were left speechless by the eloquence and simple sincerity of his final tribute to his friend and teammate.

Somebody asked if Berra would now be throwing out the first ball at the next Yankee old-timers' game, an honor that always went to DiMaggio but would now likely be Berra's as the most senior Yankee.

Berra said he didn't know "but I sure wish I was catching it." There were no more questions after that.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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