Yogi Berra’s Best ‘Yogi-ism’ Was a Profound Act of Kindness
To mark the beloved Yankee’s 90th birthday, the director of the Yogi Berra Museum recounts a ‘Yogi-ism’ of profound empathy and kindness
By Dave Kaplan in the Wall Street Journal
Everyone enjoys a good Yogi-ism, or has a favorite Yogi Berra story—whether or not it’s actually true. Here’s mine: One spring, when Yogi was managing the Yankees, a streaker darted onto the field in nothing but a pair of sneakers and a paper bag. Asked later whether the streaker was a man or woman, Yogi purportedly replied, “I don’t know, they had a bag over their head.”
On the occasion of Berra’s 90th birthday on Tuesday, there will surely be a flood of yarns and one-liners that have come to define the Hall of Fame catcher since his baseball career began nearly 70 years ago. But here is a different Yogi Berra story, one without the Yogi-isms, and totally nonfiction. It’s a story about a legacy and involves a young man named Carlos.
The son of an Ecuadorean mother, Carlos Lejnieks grew up in Montclair, N.J., the town Berra called home for 55 years. When Carlos’s father faded out of the picture, his mother quit her job in New York to raise Carlos and his younger brother. She found work cleaning houses in Montclair.
Later, when her new boyfriend introduced Carlos to baseball, the boy became fixated by the game and its history. He loved attending baseball-card shows and became enamored with the 1986 Mets—especially their catcher, Gary Carter, who wore No. 8.
On his first visit to Yankee Stadium, Carlos examined the monument to another No. 8, and soon realized that the legend lived right in his town. In fact, Berra was that little man at mass in his church every weekend.
‘Yogi took a chance on me doing something seemingly small, which had a major positive ripple effect on my life.’
By the early 1990s, Carlos had become a teenage entrepreneur, promoting his own baseball memorabilia shows. One day, he worked up the nerve to ask Berra to be the main attraction at a show. Berra, then in his late 60s and retired, agreed. He even cut the kid a price break.
Memorabilia shows were rife with unscrupulous operators, and the industry often left a bad taste for players and fans alike. But Berra was taken by this 15-year-old’s organization and industriousness.
Unfortunately, things were unraveling in Carlos’s life. His mother could no longer pay the bills, and with their house near foreclosure, Carlos swelled with rage. He got into trouble at school, where he had excelled in the classroom, and dropped out after his sophomore year. He began helping his mother clean houses.
When Carlos returned to school, some administrators told him that because he had quit, he would have trouble getting into a top college. His future appeared bleak.
About 60 years earlier in St. Louis, Lawrence “Yogi” Berra had quit school after the eighth grade to help his Italian-immigrant parents. An ungainly teenager who loved baseball, he tried out for his hometown Cardinals at 16. Branch Rickey, the team’s GM, told Berra he would never be a professional ballplayer.
Yogi was crushed, but determined. He just needed someone to believe in him. That person turned out to be a post commander named Leo Browne, who ran the local American Legion team. On Browne’s recommendation, the Yankees signed Berra, sight unseen, for a minor-league contract worth $500. The following year he joined the Navy and fought on D-Day.
Carlos Lejnieks with Yogi Berra last year, when Lejnieks gave Berra a copy of one of his favorite books, “The Giving Tree,” as a token of gratitude for the role Berra played in his life. Photo: Carlos Lejnieks
When World War II ended, Berra joined the Yankees and became a genius on the field, anchoring the team’s dynasty from the late 1940s to the early ’60s. After retiring, he became an influential coach and manager. Former Yankee great Don Mattingly, now the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, wears No. 8 as a tribute. Another former pupil, 2015 Hall of Fame inductee Craig Biggio, has called Berra the smartest man he ever met in baseball.
Yet for all his extraordinary accomplishments and storybook life, Berra’s one regret was that he never received a formal education. When the Yankees honored him in 1959, he requested that the proceeds go to Columbia University to establish a scholarship for students who couldn’t afford higher education. The Yogi Berra Scholarship endures to this day.
Character education was also the foundation of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, where I have served as director since its inception in 1998. The Museum conducts year-round educational programs and summer camps for children from underserved communities. Many of those children surely share Carlos’s ambition.
As he neared the end of high school, Carlos was determined to get a college education. He decided to swing for the fences. He called up Berra, reminding him that they’d met at his autograph show two years earlier. Would Yogi consider writing him a letter of recommendation to Brown University? Yogi and his wife Carmen, who died in 2014, asked to meet Carlos and discuss what was in his heart. That heart was aflutter when Carlos sat in the Berras’ living room and answered their questions.
Berra saw something in Carlos that reminded him of himself long ago—a kid with unlimited possibilities who needed an assist. Months later, Brown’s dean of admissions informed Carlos that the persuasive letter from Yogi Berra had helped cinch his acceptance.
Carlos excelled in the Ivy League, got a job on Wall Street, then in New Jersey state government. He became a community leader in Newark, where for the past seven years he has served as president and CEO of Newark’s Big Brothers Big Sisters, a one-to-one mentoring agency for underserved youth.
“The power of a mentor is to see the full abundance that resides within our children and to build a bridge for our children to see it in themselves,” Carlos said recently. “Yogi took a chance on me doing something seemingly small, which had a major positive ripple effect on my life. I am forever grateful to the solid role model he was to me throughout my life, but especially when I needed it most.”
Today, as Berra turns 90, it’s worth remembering a lifetime of simple acts of kindness, at least as much as those timeless turns of phrase.
—Mr. Kaplan is the founding director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Montclair.