The Purple Heart that never was

By Benjamin Chase of the Plainsman
Posted 6/8/24

In this From the Mound, the writer examines Yogi Berra's purple heart as we reflect on the 80th anniversary of D-Day

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

The Purple Heart that never was


“It’s deja vu all over again
It’s good advice to follow when
If you come to the fork in the road you better take it
If you do, you’re bound to make it”
“Yogi Said It” — Big Geek Daddy

In 2021, blogger Big Geek Daddy released this fun tune, utilizing quotes from the Yankees’ enigmatic Hall of Fame catcher as the lyrical basis of a bouncy tune that is bound to make you smile. The video for the song can be found on YouTube.

The song isn’t the focus as much as the person it references this week, but you may be asking why Yogi, and why now?

Both have to do with a significant anniversary that we celebrated this week across the world. Thursday marked the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. The very rare soldiers from WWII who are still living made a trip to Normandy to commemorate the trip.

Unfortunately, one of those veterans, Robert Persichitti, passed while touring WWII sites ahead of the celebration. He was 102.

To put into context, even a new recruit who was coming off the boats and onto the shores that day at 18 years old is now 98, so anyone still living who participated in D-Day has lived a tremendously long life.

One person no longer with us who was also there on that historic day is Yogi Berra.

Lawrence P. Berra was born in 1925 in St. Louis, and he picked up his iconic nickname because a childhood friend thought he looked like a Hindu holy man, or a yogi, that he had seen in a movie.

The 18-year-old Berra was signed by the New York Yankees in 1943 and spent a season in the minor leagues before enlisting in the Navy.

Like many baseball players, he was offered his duty station in order to play baseball and entertain fellow troops. Except that didn’t suit Yogi.

He quickly got bored and volunteered for a secret mission to use rocket boats to support a future mission on mainland Europe. Berra didn’t know what a rocket boat was, but he was bored of watching others participate in the war effort, and he volunteered.

He would be part of a six-man crew that manned a rocket-launching landing craft at Utah Beach, serving as a gunner’s mate, which meant he was in charge of manning one of the machine guns.

He wasn’t just there that one day, though.

Berra and his ship made multiple supply runs to aid the invasion and then was involved in the battle at Marseilles in southern France, where he was wounded in the left hand, qualifying him for the Purple Heart, but Yogi refused the recognition at the moment, wanting to not worry his mother back home.

He would serve in North Africa and Italy during the war before being discharged in 1946. He immediately returned to baseball and by the end of the 1946 season, he was called up to the major league club, where he would go on to win three Most Valuable Player awards, be selected for the All-Star game 18 times and play in 14 World Series, winning 10 rings, a record for the most championship teams played for that still holds today.

Berra is one of the few people on the planet who was photographed with both Babe Ruth and Derek Jeter. His excellence wasn’t limited to the field, though.

Yogi is well-known for his humorous quotes that can make you chuckle, make you think, or even leave you dumbfounded trying to figure out exactly what he meant.

The impact that he had in the nation’s largest city on the game’s most well-known team in the process of not just accepting Black players into the major leagues, but even going so far as to invest himself into training up his own replacement, Elston Howard, a catcher who has a strong argument for the Hall of Fame on his own merit, was impressive, to say the least.

Howard was a better all-around athlete than Yogi, turning down college football offers from multiple Big Ten schools to join the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. He spent three years with the Monarchs, and was a roommate of Ernie Banks on the team, before the Yankees signed him. Soon after signing with the Bronx Bombers, Howard was drafted into service with the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict.

The Yankees signed Howard, primarily an outfielder with the Monarchs, after seeing him catch in an exhibition game. Though only four years younger than Berra, he was viewed as Yogi’s replacement, which would often lead to clubhouse squabbles (see Joe DiMaggio’s response to Mickey Mantle for context), but that was not Yogi’s stance at all.

He headed off the race question first and foremost.

“They can die next to me over there,” Berra said, referring to Black soldiers serving in the military. “They should be able to strike out next to me here!”

While the quote is humorous, it’s made even more so as Yogi has one of the lowest strikeout rates of any hitter that has played the majority of his career after integration of baseball in 1947. He struck out in 4.9% of his plate appearances over his career.

For context, last year’s National League and American League MVPs, Ronald Acuna, Jr. and Shohei Ohtani, have struck out 22.1% and 25.9% of their plate appearances in their respective careers.

Yogi invested himself in training Howard on the nuances of work behind the plate, most importantly his relationship with the pitching staff and earning their trust on any pitch that he would call. Howard later stated that Yogi was gracious but also stern in his efforts of teaching, not accepting just a job done, but expecting a job done exceptionally well.

Berra would split time at catcher and in left field with Howard for multiple seasons before Howard took over as the primary catcher in 1961.

When Berra returned home from his WWII service, he filed paperwork for the Purple Heart. That paperwork never got processed, however, despite those who served alongside Yogi testifying to the validity of his injury and merit for the award. He passed away in 2015, never having received the Purple Heart that he had earned through service in August of 1944, more than 70 years prior.

Now, as we acknowledge the 80th anniversary of the sacrifices of those who were there on that day, June 6, 1944, Berra’s granddaughter Lindsay continues to fight to get her grandfather the recognition that he deserved for his bravery in service.

“He’s very humble. He didn’t need an award, he had the scar to prove it,” Lindsay said. “He never actually got his Purple Heart, never got the medal. I’m going to keep ringing this bell until someone actually helps me.”

With all of the evidence, it seems it’s time to right the wrong and recognize Yogi Berra for the honor and bravery he displayed - and carried forth the rest of his life.