In 1977, on one memorable October evening, New York Yankees outfielder Reggie Jackson became “Mr. October.”
Playing the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series’ sixth game, Jackson clobbered three home runs, all on first pitches. Three pitches, three baseballs propelled into the faraway seats. Broadcasting the game, the incomparable Howard Cosell exclaimed: “Goodbye! Oh, what a blow! What a way to top it off!”
Jackson became the second MLB player to ever hit three home runs in a World Series game, and joined Babe Ruth’s three home run performance in the 1926 and 1928 World Series. Since 1977, Albert Pujols in 2011 and Pablo Sandoval in 2012 joined the exclusive company. In keeping with his penchant for self-promotion, in 2002 Jackson trademarked “Mr. October.”
Jackson’s remarkable feat, however, came during a single game. On the other hand, Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, over his 19-year career that included 10 championships, 18 All-Star games and three MVP seasons, put together a much more impressive World Series record. Berra’s World Series stats: 71 hits, 41 runs, 39 RBIs and 12 home runs.
Adding an extra dimension to Berra’s World Series resume is the controversial, brazen Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson’s steal of home in the 1955 series’ first game. The umpire, Bill Summers, called Robinson safe. Berra immediately got in Summers’ face, perhaps protesting more vigorously since Robinson’s steal represented the winning run in the tight 6-5 opener. To his dying day, Berra insisted that Robinson was out. And a review of the tape confirms that Berra’s outrage was understandable. The short-statured Summers stood at least two feet behind Berra, and could not have gotten a clear view of whether Whitey Ford’s pitch landed in the catcher’s glove in enough time to let Yogi tag Robinson out.
Although Berra never let go of what he perceived as a grave baseball injustice, he had fun with it. On the many occasions that Berra and Robinson’s widow, Rachel, attended the same social function, they always greeted each other the same way, and not by their respective given names. Rachel to Yogi, “Safe.” And Yogi’s retort to Rachel, “Out.”
Because so much attention is given to Berra’s hitting skills, his fielding has been overlooked. In the 19 seasons that Berra caught, his fielding percentage was a .989, which places him sixth among baseball’s catchers. As his manager Casey Stengel said about Berra’s fielding skill, “He springs on a bunt like it was another dollar,” a reference to his catcher’s penurious nature. Berra grew up poor in St. Louis, signed with the Yankees in 1947 for $5,125, and never earned more than $65,000.
Berra was too modest to make much ado about his military record, but it’s even more impressive than his baseball resume. During World War II, the 19-year-old Berra served in the U.S. Navy as a gunner’s mate on board a rocket-launching landing craft during the D-Day Omaha Beach invasion. As Berra recalled, “It was like a Fourth of July celebration,” a reference to the machine gun fire that surrounded him.
For his courage, Berra earned a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Unit Citation, two battle stars and a European Theatre of Operations ribbon during the war. In 2009, Berra was awarded the Navy’s Lone Sailor Award, granted to the best and bravest. In 2013, Berra received the first Bob Feller Act of Valor Award, inspired by the late Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame pitcher who after the Pearl Harbor bombing also put his baseball career on hold for four years to join the military. Finally, in 2015, President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to Berra’s family.
Another important distinction between Jackson and Berra: Unlike Jackson, Berra was beloved by his manager, his teammates, his fans and even his opponents.
As Stengel said about Berra, the eternal Yankee, he was simply “superlative.”
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact Joe at [email protected]