Berra, who quit school in the eighth grade, has a tendency toward malapropism and fracturing the English language in highly provocative, interesting ways. Simultaneously denying and confirming his reputation, Berra once stated, "I didn't really say everything I said." (See Yogiisms.)
He picked up his more famous nickname from a friend, Bobby Hofman, who said he resembled a Hindu holy man (yogi) they had seen in a movie, whenever Berra sat around with arms and legs crossed waiting to bat, or while looking sad after a losing game. Years later, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Yogi Bear was named after Berra, something Berra did not appreciate after he started being periodically addressed as "Yogi Bear."
He began playing baseball in local American Legion leagues, where he learned the basics of play as a catcher. Berra also played for a Cranston, RI team under an assumed name.
In 1942 the St. Louis Cardinals spurned Berra in favor of his boyhood best friend, Joe Garagiola. On the surface, the Cardinals seemed to think Garagiola the superior prospect -- but team president Branch Rickey actually had an ulterior motive: knowing he was soon to leave St. Louis to take over the operation of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and more impressed with Berra than he let on, Rickey apparently planned to hold Berra off until he could sign him for the Dodgers. The plan was ruined when the Yankees got to him first, signing him for the same $500 bonus the Cardinals offered Garagiola. Berra is widely regarded as one of the greatest catchers in baseball history. According to the win shares formula developed by sabermetrician Bill James, Berra is the greatest catcher of all time and the 52nd greatest non-pitcher in major-league history. Late in his career, some sportswriters and baseball announcers affectionately nicknamed Berra "The Little Squat Man."
During his nineteen-year career as a Yankee, Berra's teams dominated baseball. Berra appeared in fourteen World Series, winning ten championships, both of which are records. Because Berra's playing career coincided with the Yankees' most consistent period, it enabled him to establish the major league records for World Series games (75), at-bats (259), hits (71), doubles (10), singles (49), games caught (63), and catcher putouts (457). In Game 3 of the 1947 World Series, Berra hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history off Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca (who later served up Bobby Thomson's famous home run in 1951). Though Berra played in 14 World Series, he played a full game in just nine of them, one fewer than Joe DiMaggio, who played full games in all ten of his Series appearances.
Berra has become a beloved figure in American sport, which in some ways has obscured his immense talents as a competitive athlete. Berra was a fifteen-time All-Star, and won the league's MVP award three times, in , and . From 1950 to 1957, Berra never finished lower than 4th in the voting. He received MVP votes in fifteen consecutive seasons, tied with Barry Bonds and second only to Hank Aaron's nineteen straight seasons with MVP support. (Ted Williams also received MVP votes in every year of his career, but it was twice interrupted by military service.) Between and , on a team filled with stars such as Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, it was Berra who led the Yankees in RBI for seven consecutive seasons.
Berra was excellent at hitting bad pitches, covering all areas of the strike zone (as well as beyond) with great extension. He was simultaneously able to swing the bat like a golf club to hit low pitches for deep home runs, and chop at high pitches for line drives. However, despite this wide plate coverage, he also had great bat control. Five times, Berra had more home runs in a season than strikeouts. In , Berra struck out twelve times in 597 at-bats. This combination made him a feared "clutch hitter"; rival manager Paul Richards once called Berra "the toughest man in the league in the last three innings." When asked about swinging at "bad pitches", Berra was reported to say, "If I can hit it, it's a good pitch."
As a fielder, Berra was truly outstanding. Quick, mobile, and a great handler of pitchers, Berra led all American League catchers eight times in games caught and in chances accepted, six times in double plays (a major league record), eight times in putouts, three times in assists, and once in fielding percentage. Berra left the game with the AL records for catcher putouts (8,723) and chances accepted (9,520). He was also one of only four catchers to ever field 1.000 for a season, playing 88 errorless games in . Later in his career, he became a good defensive outfielder in Yankee Stadium's notoriously difficult left field. In June , at the age of 37, Berra showed his superb physical endurance by catching an entire 22-inning, seven-hour game against the Tigers.
One of the most notable days of Berra's playing career came when he caught Don Larsen's perfect game in the World Series, the only no-hitter ever thrown in postseason play. The pictures of Berra leaping into Larsen's arms following the 27th out are among the game's most memorable images.
On 18 July 1999, Larsen and Berra celebrated the feat with a ceremonial pitch for "Yogi Berra Day" at Yankee Stadium (the 74-year-old Berra did not jump into the 70-year-old Larsen's arms, though). This was a part of the celebration to mark the return of Berra to the Stadium, which ended his 14-year feud with Yankees' owner George Steinbrenner. The feud started in 1985 when Steinbrenner promised Berra a full chance as manager, then fired him in the third week of the season. Berra vowed to never return to Yankee Stadium so long as Steinbrenner owned the team. Amazingly, Yankees pitcher David Cone then hurled his own perfect game against Montreal Expos, only the 16th time it had ever been done in Major League history. The coincidence served to illustrate one of the more famous Yogiisms – "It's like déjà vu all over again."
In 1946, Berra wore uniform No. 38 on the Yankees, switching to 35 the next year. In 1948, he changed to No. 8, which he kept for the rest of his career on the Yankees (and later, the Mets). The No. 8 was retired in 1972 by the Yankees, jointly honoring Berra and Bill Dickey, his predecessor as the Yankees' star catcher. Berra's uniform number and stocky build were familiar enough to baseball fans that Sports Illustrated once used a photo of Berra facing away from the camera as its cover, with the blurb "YOGI'S BACK." Yankee television announcer Michael Kay has introduced Berra on Old Timers Day as "one of the best known faces on the planet."
Berra made a very brief return to the field as a player-coach for the crosstown Mets, playing in just four games. His last at-bat came on May 9, 1965, just three days shy of his 40th birthday. Berra stayed with the Mets as a coach for the next eight seasons, including their 1969 World Championship season. He then became the team's manager in 1972, following the sudden death of manager Gil Hodges. That same year, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The following season looked like a disappointment at first. Midway through the 1973 season the Mets were stuck last place, but in a very tight divisional race. When the press asked Yogi if the season was finished, he replied, "It ain't over till it's over". Then his Mets team rallied and won the NL Eastern division despite winning just 82 games. In the NLCS of that year, the series featured the Cincinnati Reds and a classic brawl between Bud Harrelson and Pete Rose in game 3. After the incident fans were throwing objects onto the field aimed in the direction of Pete Rose. Sparky Anderson pulled Rose and his Reds off the field until order was restored. The Mets were also in danger of forfeiting the game. Yogi Berra walked out to left field with Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, Rusty Staub and Cleon Jones in order to plead with the fans to cease with their actions. Yogi's Mets went on to clobber the highly favored "Big Red Machine" in 5 games to capture the N.L. pennant. It was Berra's 2nd as a manager winning pennants from both leagues. In the 1973 World Series, Yogi's Mets faced the Oakland Athletics. He led the Mets to a 3 games to 2 lead, going into Oakland with Tom Seaver and Jon Matlack pitching on 3 days rest for games 6 and 7. As Yogi Berra would later be criticized for not using George Stone in game 6 as a starter, Yogi said afterward, "What better situation would you want to have? Seaver and Matlack having to win one game! I have no regrets or second thoughts. I went for the kill. It just wasn't in the cards". They would go on to lose that year's World Series, but it took seven hard fought games. Berra remained the team's manager for two more seasons until he was fired in August of 1975. In 1976, he rejoined the Yankees as a coach. The team won its first of three consecutive AL titles, and (as had been the case throughout his playing days) Berra's reputation as a lucky charm was reinforced. (Casey Stengel once said of his catcher, "He'd fall in a sewer and come up with a gold watch.") Berra was eventually elevated to Yankee manager before the 1984 season. Berra agreed to stay in the job for 1985 after receiving assurances that he would not be fired, but the impatient Steinbrenner did fire Berra after the 16th game of the season. Instead of firing him personally, Steinbrenner dispatched Clyde King to deliver the news for him . This caused a rift between the two men that would not be mended for almost 15 years. He later joined the Houston Astros as bench coach where he once again made it to the NLCS in 1986. The Astros would lose the series in six games to the New York Mets. He remained a coach in Houston until 1989.
On August 22, 1988, Berra and Dickey were honored with plaques to be hung in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. Berra's plaque calls him "A legendary Yankee" and cites his most frequent quote, "It ain't over till it's over." However, the honor was not enough to shake Berra's conviction that Steinbrenner had broken their personal agreement; Berra would not set foot in the Stadium for another decade, after Steinbrenner publicly apologized to Berra.
In 1999, Berra appeared at No. 40 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and fan balloting elected him to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. At the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, Berra had the honor of being the last of the 49 Hall of Famers in attendance to be announced. He received the loudest standing ovation of the Hall of Famers due to playing and managing both New York ballclubs.
Berra and former teammate Phil Rizzuto were also partners in a bowling alley venture in Clifton, originally called Rizzuto-Berra Lanes. The two sold the alley to other owners, who kept the alley open as Astro Bowl until the late 1990s when it was sold again and converted to retail space.
In 1998, the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center and Yogi Berra Stadium (home to the New Jersey Jackals baseball team) opened on the campus of Montclair State University in Upper Montclair. The museum is currently the home of various artifacts, including the mitt with which Yogi caught the only perfect game in World Series history, several autographed and "game-used" items, three World Series Championship trophies, and nine of Yogi's championship rings (Berra only wears the 1953 ring, in commemoration of the Yankees' record 5th consecutive World Championship). It was an appearance on behalf of the museum by George Steinbrenner that led to their ultimate reconciliation. Yogi Berra was given the 1951 Yankee World Series banner for display purposes.
Berra is very involved with the project, and frequents the museum for signings, discussions, and other events. It is his intention to teach children important values such as sportsmanship and dedication, both on and off the baseball diamond. When asked "So, what is it you do here?" Yogi, without missing a beat, replied convincingly, "It's my museum."
In February 2005, Berra filed a lawsuit against Turner Broadcasting System. He alleges that they used his name in a racy advertisement for Sex and the City. The advertisement asked what the definition of a "yogasm" is: a) a type of yo-yo trick; (b) sex with Yogi Berra; or c) what Samantha has with a guy from yoga class. (The answer given was C.) This case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.
Berra has frequently appeared in advertisements for Yoo-hoo, AFLAC, Entenmann's, and Stovetop stuffing, among others, frequently demonstrating his famous "yogiisms." He is among the longest running commercial pitchmen in the U.S.; his television commercials span the early 1950s to the present day. Based on his style of speaking, Yogi was named Wisest Fool of the Past 50 Years by the Economist magazine in January 2005.
Similar utterances are called "Colemanisms" or "Colemanballs" in the United Kingdom, "Cruijffismes" in The Netherlands, "Perronismes" in the French speaking part of Canada and "Trapattonismi" in Italy. In Australia they are called "Dyerisms," after Australian-rules football legend Jack Dyer. In Finland the phrases of the former ski jumping superstar Matti Nykänen enjoy a cult status. Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn is also the source for several humorous "Goldwynisms." In India, such utterances by Cricket player and commentator Navjot Sidhu are called "Sidhuisms" Sidhuisms
Yogiisms should not be confused with Farberisms (popularized by Prof. David J. Farber). The former are typically either pleonastic or oxymoronic redundancies, while the latter are most often non-sequiturial mondegreens, though both usually share the goal of making a point through surreally humorous, absurdist mis-use of language, especially the alteration of clichés through malapropism and mixed metaphor. Many Yogiisms take the form of a tautology, a paradox, a contradiction or of some formulation of the law of identity.