Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who died Tuesday at age 90, was famed for his playing prowess and tendency to mangle the English language to comedic effect — but, in an achievement that’s less well known, he was also a strong LGBT ally.
In 2013, Berra became an ambassador for Athlete Ally, an organization that partners with professional, college, and Olympic athletes to advance LGBT equality. Under his leadership, the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Little Falls, N.J., presented an exhibit titled “Championing Respect,” highlighting athletes who contributed to social change, from Jackie Robinson to Billie Jean King to those working for LGBT equality today.
“We will remember Yogi Berra for his values and his courage,” said Hudson Taylor, Athlete Ally founder and executive director, in a statement posted on the group’s website. “He was a true pioneer for inclusion in sport, and a personal hero of mine. Not only was he one of the best catchers in MLB history, but he was strongly committed to diversity, inclusion, and education.”
“As Yogi said, ‘Respect the game, respect others. That’s what I always learned in sports. Treat everyone the same. That’s how it should be,’” Taylor added. “I couldn’t agree more. Yogi truly understood what it meant to be an ally, and he lived it every day. Our thoughts are with his family and friends, and we thank Yogi for teaching us all to value respect and inclusion in sport.” The group presented Berra with an Athlete Ally Action Award in 2014.
Berra played 18 seasons with the New York Yankees — 1946 through 1963 — and one with the crosstown Mets, mostly at the physically demanding position of catcher. He had a lifetime batting average of .285, hit 358 home runs, and amassed 1,430 runs batted in. He played on 10 world championship teams with the Yankees, and he went on to coach and manage for the Yankees and Mets, leading both to the World Series. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.
Born Lawrence Peter Berra, he received the nickname “Yogi” as a teenager from friends who thought he took a yoga-like pose as he sat cross-legged waiting his turn at bat. A cartoon character, Yogi Bear, was named after Berra.
Many humorous quotes are attributed to Berra; whether or not he actually uttered them “has long been a matter of speculation,” The New York Times noted in its obituary. Among them: “You can observe a lot just by watching”; “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”; “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded,” — the latter of a popular restaurant.
Underneath it all, Berra was actually brainy, a Times sportswriter noted in 1963, saying, “He has continued to allow people to regard him as an amiable clown because it brings him quick acceptance, despite ample proof, onfield and off, that he is intelligent, shrewd and opportunistic.”
He was also a consistent champion of the underdog. He was friendly and supportive to the Cleveland Indians’ Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, and welcoming of Elston Howard, the Yankees’ first black team member. His museum has offered a variety of programs aimed at fostering sportsmanship and educational achievement among young people. And then there’s the partnership with Athlete Ally.
“You don’t usually see guys like Yogi at gay pride parades,” center director Dave Kaplan told the Times earlier this year, “but when I explained to him that this is the equivalent of the civil rights movement — people looking for equal opportunity and respect — he said: ‘I have no problem with that. If they can play, they can play.’”