Keep trying. Stay humble. Trust your instincts. Most importantly, act. When you come to a fork in the road, take it. – Yogi Berra
By Todd Anton, Historian, Co-author of When Baseball Went to War
We lost Yogi and America lost a big part of itself. What many fail to realize is that beyond Yankee greatness and legendary sayings was the fact that Yogi was a veteran of World War II. A Normandy survivor. A Purple Heart recipient of the invasion of Southern France. A Seaman First-Class.
Yogi was a hero.
I got to meet Yogi at Cooperstown during the induction of arguably baseball’s greatest veteran, Lt. Colonel Jerry Coleman USMC, also a fellow Yankee and teammate. I’m 6’7” and I’ve never felt so small in the presence of someone as I did with Yogi and Jerry that day. So rather than talk baseball, I brought up his time in the Navy. Yogi smiled and his mind seemed to drift back to 1944.
“You know Todd, it was the smell of the sea, serving together and just doing our job is what I miss. The Navy made me a man-not baseball.”
As he entered the service, Yogi sought combat action and volunteered to serve on a small Rocket Boat commonly known by Yogi as a “Landing Craft Sport Small Suicide Squad.”
“We just wanted to get going and ship out,” he said. He told me that he wanted to return someday to Utah Beach. “The sky was a black cloud full of planes, the cliffs were orange and exploding and it seemed as ‘green ants’ swarmed all along the shores and cliffs. It was a view I’ll never forget. I’m thankful I was there.”
I told him that my Dad was in combat in Europe during WWII and that upon his return to the states in 1946 he got a 48-hour pass and saw his first real Major League Baseball game in New York City, albeit in Ebbets Field. My family has been Dodger fans ever since.
“Well, you know everyone makes mistakes” Yogi said with a smile and turned the story back to Normandy. “You know that day, D-Day, was something. It really was.”
While many tried to popularize his WWII service calling him a hero, Yogi wouldn’t have any of it.
“I did what I had to. I did what everyone was doing. It wasn’t anything special. I’ve never been anything special. The real heroes didn’t come home and I’ll tell you this: people forget just how brave sailors are. I know I’ve seen it! That’s why sometimes I want to go back.” Then our conversation was interrupted and Yogi left and went his way.
In July 2016, thanks to Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours, we will go back to Normandy on our Baseball Goes to War tour. On the shores of Utah Beach, we will remember Yogi. Join us.