By Joe Orlando
When you look at Yogi Berra, the word "legendary" is not first word that comes to mind. Berra looks more like a cartoon than one of the century's greatest catchers but that was part of Yogi's appeal. It was a well-known fact that Berra had an unusual love for comic books, a fitting hobby for one of baseball's most distinguished characters and beloved players. At 5'8, 195 pounds, Berra was built like a wrecking ball and it was that solid build that enabled Berra to last so long behind the plate.
This guy was the "quarterback" for the most dominating team in baseball history, the New York Yankees. During his time behind the plate for the Yanks, Berra played in 14 World Series. That number is almost unimaginable, even in today's game dominated by big market teams. As a player, Berra separated himself from other catchers in the league with his ability to hit and his consistency. In 9 different seasons, Berra compiled 90 RBI or more. In 11 different seasons, Berra would slug 20 homers or more.
Berra was also a fine defensive catcher. In fact, his ability to "call a game" and handle his pitching staff is what made him a staple for the Yankees, not his offensive prowess. He even had a perfect fielding percentage of 1.000 in 1958. When it comes to offensive prowess, Berra is amongst the best hitting catchers of all-time. In 1950, only his second full season behind the plate, he batted .322, with 28 homers and 124 RBI. While this could have been one of his best offensive seasons, he would go on to win the league's Most Valuable Player Award in three other years. Berra became only the third player in baseball history to win three MVP's, an astonishing feat for a catcher since the award is usually dominated by offensive players.
After his first MVP in 1951, Berra would win back to back MVP's in 1954 (.307, 22 homers and 125 RBI) and 1955 (.272, 27 homers and 108 RBI). Mickey Mantle might have been the more popular Yankee and the marquee player of his generation but Berra can claim just as many MVP's as "The Mick." One major misconception about this Yankee team is that most fans assume that the club was loaded with stars. In reality, the team wasn't. There was Mantle and Whitey Ford but, besides these two Hall of Famers, Berra was surrounded by an average team in regards to talent. What this team did have was great chemistry and heart thanks in great part to guys like Berra. He was as humble and genuine, a staple of many of the Yankee members of the era. These guys had real camaraderie, it was obvious to many opponents. If you really like your teammates, you are going to fight for them even harder. That's what made the Yankees so tough.
When you compare Berra to other catchers of the era, there is only one other man who could make for a legitimate comparison. His name was Roy Campanella, a slugging backstop who played just across town for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Despite Campanella's greatness, it is Berra who many baseball experts consider to be the best catcher of the era and maybe the century. Today, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez are both putting up phenomenal offensive numbers so it will be interesting to see how the comparisons change over the years. There are also other great catchers like Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter, not to mention many expert's top choice for catcher of the century, Johnny Bench.
The comparisons might continue but Berra's place in history is as solid as can be. His stretch of World Series and All-Star Game appearances make it clear to us that Berra's impact was great. As great as he was, it is his personality that makes Berra special to fans across the country. Lovable and lethal, Berra was a legend.
The Cards and Memorabilia
Yogi Berra is featured on some of the most popular and important sportscards in the hobby. The popular Yankee backstop is a major force in several key Bowman and Topps issues from the 1940's to the 1960's. With cards that span three decades, let's take a look at some of his more popular issues.
|1948 Bowman #6
1949 Bowman #60
1950 Bowman #46
1951 Bowman #2
1951 Topps Red Backs #1
1952 Berk Ross
1952 Bowman #1
1952 Red Man Tobacco #3a
1952 Topps #191
1953 Bowman Color #44 (Bauer/Berra/Mantle)
1953 Bowman Color #121
1953 Red Man Tobacco #3a
1953 Topps #104
1954 Bowman #161
1954 Red Man Tobacco #20a
1954 Topps #50
1955 Bowman #168
1955 Red Man Tobacco #16a
1955 Topps #198
1956 Topps #110
1957 Topps #2
1957 Topps #407
1958 Topps #370
1959 Topps #180
1960 Topps #480
1961 Topps #425
1961 Topps MVP #472
1962 Topps #360
1963 Topps #340
1964 Topps #21
1965 Topps #470
Remember that this list simply contains Berra's more popular cards, he is also featured on other examples. To start with, Berra only has one recognized rookie card, the 1948 Bowman. While the card is somewhat lacking in eye-appeal, so is the entire set. The black and white design would be the only Berra card that lacked color from his amazing career. The card is fairly difficult in high-grade and is also one of a few different key rookie cards in the set, which includes rookie cards of Warren Spahn, Ralph Kiner and Stan Musial.
Berra's second appearance came in Bowman's next offering in 1949. This example, unlike the 1948 card, exhibits a colored background (reddish-brown) which adds to the eye-appeal. With key cards such as rookie examples of Duke Snider and Roy Campanella as well as a very popular Satchel Paige card, this set is more popular than Bowman's previous offering. By 1950, Bowman decided to use a full color image of Berra and this card turned out to be a classic. Berra is pictured in his catcher crouch and no one was better behind the plate than Yogi.
For the first time, in 1951, Berra was featured on more than one mainstream issue. Bowman had Berra placed near the top of the set (#2) which helped make this card a real condition rarity. In fact, in NM-MT condition or better, this is one of the most valuable cars in the set. Topps also entered the playing field by producing the 1951 Red Back set. These odd cards were produced with rounded corners and feature a very unique design. Topps gave Berra the top spot at #1 and, although it's the first card in the set, that's not why this card is tough. This entire issue is very deceptive because the cars suffer from paper wrinkles on the reverse that can severely downgrade the card.
In 1952, Bowman gave Berra its #1 spot and this card is one of Berra's most elusive cards in top grades. Like most Bowman issues of the era, toning seems to be a common problem. Also, due to the very narrow borders, centering can be an issue because the slightest tilt can cause the card to be designated OC. Very few of these cards are offered publicly in NM-MT or better condition, it's one of the hobby's favorites. Berk Ross entered the card market by producing a slightly obscure but star-filled set in 1952. This issue is very condition sensitive but the cards have yet to catch on like the Topps and Bowman issues of the era. The Berk Ross Berra might offer a chance to purchase a legitimately tough vintage card without paying the routine price.
That same year, Topps became the most popular issue available. With their outstanding images and beautiful design, Topps became the collector's choice and never looked back. The 1952 Topps Berra is an extremely popular card. The 1950's were dominated by New York based clubs and the Yankees began a run that has yet to be matched by any team in history. This card captures the essence of Berra's greatness. Beware of reverse paper wrinkles and centering on this issue.
Red Man (a tobacco company) produced baseball card sets from 1952-1955. This issue, in virtually all years, has started to become a popular choice. Due to their oversized design, the Red Man cards are very tough to locate in true high-grade form. There were very few options when it came to protecting them, they don't even fit correctly in most shoe boxes. On the other hand, this issue is arguably the most attractive on the list. The set is very feasible to complete and the artwork is outstanding. Keep your eyes on these Berra cards, they might have the greatest potential on the list.
In 1953, it was Bowman that produced the better Berra card but only by making it a part of the tough (semi) high-number series from card #113-128. In true NM-MT condition, this card is a real challenge and is currently valued at approximately 4-5 times the Topps example. Bowman also produced one of the first multi-player cards in the company's history (Bauer/Berra/Mantle) and this one is a real favorite amongst collectors, especially all those Yankee fans. The Topps Berra is no slouch either. With a tough bottom border susceptible to chipping to horrible centering, this card is also considered tough. In fact, it is arguable which card is more attractive, many collectors feel it is the Topps issue despite the overall difficulty of the Bowman example. Regardless, both cards have something to offer.
In 1954, Topps would regain the edge in popularity though the Bowman issue as a whole is vastly underrated. Both cards are attractive but the vibrant colors are what make Topps the overwhelming choice for set of the year. Both sets, however, had their shortcomings by leaving out a few key stars. Topps did not include a Mickey Mantle example but Bowman was the bigger offender. They left out the three most significant rookie cards of the year, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Al Kaline. That was a big mistake but who knew?
If I had to choose Berra's least desirable card, it might be the 1955 Bowman issue. What it lacks in popularity, it makes up for in difficulty and affordability. Keep your eyes on this issue, those brutal brown borders are a nightmare for high-grade collectors and the print quality for this issue was totally inconsistent. On the other hand, the 1955 Topps Berra is a collector favorite. The beautiful design of the 1955 Topps cards make the set one of the most desirable of the decade. The striking image of Berra is placed against a bold yellow background; it's a fabulous looking card. Print defects in the yellow background and centering seem to be the two most significant condition obstacles.
Over the next few years, Topps would dominate the card market as Bowman decided to call it quits. The 1956 Topps Berra is very similar to the 1955 example but it lacks the colorful appeal and difficulty of the previous offering. It also suffers from virtually the same condition obstacles as well. The 1957 Topps issue had Berra placed near the top once again (#2), right behind one of the most devastating hitters in baseball history, Ted Williams. It's quite clear that Berra wasn't going to have a career as a runway model but the image is all Berra, he had that unforgettable face much like Babe Ruth. This card will often suffer from a lack of eye-appeal and centering problems (many of the cards were produced with tilts). One of the most popular cards on the list is the Mantle/Berra combo card, otherwise known as "Yankee Power Hitters," and it ranks as one of the most valuable cards in the set.
Bold color returned to Berra's Topps card over the next few years, starting with one of his most attractive examples on the list in 1958. The 1958 Topps issue was produced with very inconsistent quality. These cards have varying degrees of eye-appeal and cuts so beware. If you can find a Berra card with a bright background, it can be a major plus. The 1959 Topps card substituted red as the new background color and featured Yogi at bat instead of a portrait. Centering is a major problem with these cards, especially the Berra due to the great contrast between the red and white trim around the image (an off-center card becomes obvious). Both issues are attractive and fairly difficult in high-grade.
Even during the 1960's, Berra was featured on some very difficult and popular cards. The 1960 Topps Berra is not really considered one of his tougher examples but it's funny because I personally haven't seen many true mint examples surface over the past few years. Print defects and centering are both condition obstacles with this one. A smiling Berra at bat graces the front of the 1961 Topps card. In addition, don't overlook his MVP card. That subset is very tough, even tougher than the regular issue with print spots reeking havoc. Again, this issue is not really considered extraordinarily tough but it is part of a truly popular set. Try to avoid 1961 examples that exhibit print "snow" (white dots) in the black background, they can really be an eyesore.
The next two Berra cards, both issued by Topps in 1962 and 1963, are both considered tough due to the existence of colored borders. The 1962 Topps example is surrounded by brown borders which are very susceptible to chipping or edge wear. This card is very elusive in mint condition. The 1963 Topps Berra suffers the same fate because the bottom border is colored as well but, unlike the 1962 example, the 1963 Berra has an edge when it comes to eye-appeal. The entire 1963 Topps set is filled with great colors. With both cards, watch out for retouched borders where the color exists, it was a common practice at one time. This could seriously downgrade a card.
Berra's last two Topps examples, the 1964 and 1965 Topps cards, are both popular choices according to collector demand. The 1965 Topps Berra catches the great backstop in full smile and it really captures the joy that he brought to the game. Many collectors pursue the last cards of players because you can read all their statistics on the back. With both cards, beware of reverse chipping due to the colored edges on the reverse. The 1964 Topps Berra has a "rub-off" trivia area on the reverse to complicate matters even further.
When it comes to game-used equipment and autographs, Berra is also a very popular choice. Berra primarily used H&B (now Louisville Slugger) bats throughout his career. As perhaps the best hitting catcher in American League history, his bats are highly prized. One interesting note about Berra bats is that he would sometimes order his bats with a reverse grain on the barrel. In other words, he would have his named burned into the barrel on the wrong or reverse side of the grain. So, if you find a Berra gamer with this style of grain, there's no need to worry. He special ordered them that way. Very few Berra jerseys have come up for sale and they are highly prized by advanced jersey collectors due to the rarity.
Currently, Berra has his own autograph service and he frequents sports collectibles shows when he can. Even though he is a frequent signer, his autograph remains very popular. Many collectors are drawn to his humble and friendly demeanor, they look forward to meeting the legendary catcher at conventions. You cannot say that for many other stars of the game, past or present. When Berra smiles, you know he means it and appreciates your interest.
There you have it. Berra will remain a legend for several reasons. As a catcher, he is certainly at least one of the best ever due to his combination of solid defense and great bat. As a Hall of Famer, he ranks up there with the best of his generation due to his three MVP awards during the 1950's. More importantly, as a person, he is widely regarded as one of the nicest people you will ever meet and that is what drives the popularity of his collectibles. It is because of athletes like Berra that so many collectors enjoy the hobby. Berra was a legendary player, but he will always be a legendary human being.
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