Human life is terminal, and death after nine decades can never be characterized as surprising.
But at any time, loss is loss, and with all loss comes reflection, lamentation and even inspiration.
You wouldn’t ever have known Lawrence Peter, despite his remarkable life as a soldier, husband and citizen.
Dropping out of school after the eighth grade, he joined the Navy in 1943 at age 19. A year later, he was front and center at Normandy–a Second Class seaman and gunner’s mate on the USS Bayfield, a rocket-launch boat with a crew of six sent out ahead of the invading force to draw fire from German defenses at Omaha Beach.
He emerged from D-Day unscathed, and two months later, “Lawdie” (his Italian mother had trouble pronouncing “Larry’) also participated in Operation Dragoon at Marseilles.
During that assault, he was wounded and earned a Purple Heart.
Returning to the States in 1946, he worked in New York but frequently traveled back to his native St. Louis. That’s where he met Carmen Short, a waitress at Biggie’s steakhouse, in 1948.
In storybook fashion, it was love at first sight for Lawrence, who visited the pricey restaurant several times before asking her out (he had to order water because he couldn’t afford the menu).
He courted her through the mail while on the road for business with impassioned love letters that contrasted with his stocky, competitive persona.
They tied the knot in January 1949, looking literally eye-to-eye (both were about 5’7” tall) and lived up to their wedding vow: they were together in matrimony for 65 years, until Carmen’s death parted them last March.
The couple raised three sons in traditional fashion for that era. Carmen took care of the children and made the house a home, while Lawrence’s successful job took him on the road.
Asked what the secret was to their long and successful marriage, Carmen would say her husband’s explanation said it best:
“We have a good time together even when we’re not together.”
That kind of life and those kinds of quiet accomplishments (like so many WWII veterans, Lawrence never talked much about his combat days) hardly make the headlines.
Had Lawrence never started playing American Legion baseball after dropping out of school back in St. Louis, his admirable life might have been lost to obscurity.
But after a childhood friend, fresh from watching a movie with a Hindu character in it whose cross-legged poses reminded him of Lawrence, started calling him “Yogi,” the nickname stuck.
The name’s singularity complimented the man whose feats as a baseball catcher remain to this day nothing short of head-shaking unbelievable–and whose baseball IQ was masked by his affable, off-the-cuff witticisms that live on as a source of chuckling humor.
As if fate colluded in the timing, Yogi Berra died on September 22, 69 years to the day after his debut as a New York Yankee.
His unlikely physical stature (short and squat) made his athletic achievements all the more astonishing.
Berra was the backbone of the Yankee dynasty in the 1950s (including five championships in a row) that birthed franchise antipathy in fans ever since.
In 18 seasons with the Yankees, Berra played in 14 World Series and his team won 10 of them. He was a three-time American League MVP and 18-time All-Star Game selection.
Despite his demanding position (big-league catching is grueling work) Berra still had the strength and stamina to clobber home runs and hit for average.
For seven seasons from 1949 to 1955, a stretch during which the Yankee batting order included the likes of Mickey Mantle and Joe Dimaggio, Berra led the team in RBIs.
A notorious free-swinger with a reputation for swinging at bad pitches, Berra rarely struck out and had a quip for critics of his eye in the batter’s box.
“If I can hit it,” he said, “it’s a good pitch.”
Hit it he did with uncanny consistency. In 1950 he only whiffed a dozen times in 597 at-bats. In five of his seasons, he had more home runs than strikeouts.
His prowess at the plate sometimes overshadowed his brilliant defensive play, where he frequently led all American League catchers in various stats. Eight times he had the most games caught; six times the most double-plays; eight times the most putouts; three times the most assists.
He is one of only four catchers to ever field 1.000 in a season, going errorless in 1958.
Remembered more than his stats today are his quotes, some of which have landed in Bartlett’s.
But what’s worth remembering most of all is his example.
He could fiercely compete at the pinnacle of a professional sport and still stay good-natured and humble about himself. He had fame but still stayed married to his sweetheart. He did his wartime duty but downplayed his awards for bravery.
I’m only one of the countless fans of Yogi the man as well as the player.
An era isn’t over till it’s over.
This one now is, alas, and the future ain’t what it used to be.