WASHINGTON (CNS) — In all likelihood, Pope Francis had no idea who Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra was when the pontiff uttered his first words on immigration to an audience of several thousand on the South Lawn of the White House the morning of Sept. 23, the first full day of his whirlwind visit of the United States.
“I am deeply grateful for your welcome in the name of all Americans,” the pope said in English with a beaming President Barack Obama at his side. “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.”
Both Pope Francis and Berra were born into Italian immigrant families who had to overcome the prejudice that existed against Italian immigrants — the pope’s family in Argentina and Berra’s family in the United States.
Berra, a St. Louis native who grew up to become one of the greatest major league baseball catchers of all time, died Sept. 22, the day the pope arrived in the U.S. Berra was 90. He died in his sleep of natural causes at an assisted-living facility in West Caldwell, New Jersey — 69 years to the day after his debut in the majors.
The New York Times in a Sept. 24 story described him as “a regular at 5:30 p.m. Mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in his Yankees windbreaker.” The church is in Montclair, New Jersey.
New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan was scheduled to celebrate a private funeral Mass for Berra at Immaculate Conception Sept. 29.
As an Italian-American, Berra grew up with strong ties to his family and to neighborhood institutions allied with the Catholic Church, as did the future pope, who was then Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina.
The Berra family came to the United States in 1909 to escape from the dire poverty they had suffered in Italy. The Bergoglio family had fled to Argentina from Italy to escape the scourges of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in the late 1920s.
Growing up, each became devotees of sports — for young Jorge Mario, it was soccer, and for Yogi, baseball.
For Jorge Mario, soccer gave way to love for his Catholic faith and ardent desire for a life serving the poor as a priest. Berra went on to a career in the majors, almost all of it with the New York Yankees. He was an 18-time All Star and 10-time World Series champion as a player.
Berra had a career batting average of .285, while compiling 358 home runs and 1,430 runs batted in. He is one of only five players to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award three times. Widely regarded as one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
In October 1956, the precursor of Catholic News Service — the NCWC News Service — reported that Berra was just doing what his mom told him to do when he hit two successive home runs and ensured the Yankees would face the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series that year.
“From New York, Yogi phoned his mother, Mrs. Pauline Berra, 63, who is in St. John’s Hospital here (St. Louis),” the news service said. “A diabetic, Mrs. Berra went through a leg amputation, so naturally the Yankee catcher was worried about how she was getting along. He had a long talk with her and asked if there was anything she wanted. Mrs. Berra’s response was: ‘Just hit a couple of homers for me.'”
It was a rematch of the 1955 World Series, won by Brooklyn. The Yankees won the rematch in 1956.
Berra also was known for his earthy comments that seemed foolish on the surface but always had a trace of underlying wisdom. Here are but a few examples: “It ain’t over till it’s over”; “It’s deja vu all over again”; “When you see a fork in the road, take it”; and “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.”
Berra’s witticisms were far reaching and included some of his most reassured memories, like the lesser known anecdote of his historic audience over three decades ago with Pope John XXIII.
Sports writer Roy Blount Jr. wrote in Sports Illustrated, that despite the catcher’s Eastern-inspired nickname “Yogi,” Berra was a practicing Catholic throughout his playing days.
“And, in typical fashion, even his time with the pontiff wasn’t immune to his circuitous way with words,” Blount wrote of Berra. “In an exchange with a reporter discussing his conference with Pope John, he showed that he wasn’t afraid to be himself around anyone, even the pope.”
Reporter: “I understand you had an audience with the pope.”
Yogi: “No, but I saw him.”
Reporter: “Did you get to talk to him?”
Yogi: “I sure did. We had a nice little chat.”
Reporter: “What did he say?”
Yogi: “You know, he must read the papers a lot, because he said, ‘Hello, Yogi.'”
Reporter: “And what did you say?”
Yogi: “I said, ‘Hello, Pope.'”
Rest in Peace, Yogi. We’ll meet you at the fork in the road.
Panarale is a retired CNS reporter.