Say the name Yogi Berra to different people, and invariably you’ll get different impressions.
Some immediately think of a gravelly-voiced sage, the accidental philosopher whose offbeat Yogi-isms (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”) have made him the most quoted American since Mark Twain.
Some immediately think of an unorthodox-looking athlete who happens to be the greatest living New York Yankee, a Hall of Fame catcher who is the winningest player in baseball history with 10 championship rings.
And some immediately think of him as one of the humblest, kindest sports figures of all time, the son of immigrants who realized the American dream through hard work and perseverance, a shining example of the Greatest Generation, a World War II veteran, family man and model citizen, who at 87 is a testament to a life well lived.
That remarkable life and career – and positive influence he’s had on young people – inspired the creation of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center (YBMLC) in 1998. Located on the campus of Montclair State University, the state’s fastest-growing and second-largest university. YBMLC was recently remodeled to further emphasize the importance of character.
Honorable values such as respect, responsibility, honesty, caring and citizenship are taught to the 20,000 students who visit the YBMLC annually. Field trips consist of guided tours, followed by a grade-appropriate film in the museum’s intimate, ballpark-like theater.
Why bring your students?
Educators find the museum’s dynamic new exhibit area - which traces Yogi’s childhood in the Great Depression to his ambassadorship of the national pastime – as a virtual walk-through American social history in the 20th century.
There is a strong focus on immigration and integration (Berra broke into the major leagues in 1947, the same year as Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, presaging the civil rights movement).
Baseball’s sacrificial role in World War II, including the pioneering women who played in a league of their own to help keep the game alive, is also explored.
And there is an interactive section about the willingness to dream, showcasing the stories of children who became groundbreaking athletes, such as Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King. Like Yogi, they were underestimated. Like Yogi, they showed anything is possible.
In fact, Carmen Berra, Yogi’s wife of 63 years, commented that the “new” museum is a powerful lesson to students that they can be anything they want, as long as they believe in themselves, work hard, and never give up. Or as a wise man once advised, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Berra’s quotes are part of Americana. Teachers, business people, politicians and even religious leaders daily invoke his off-the-cuff wisdom. There is even a wall in the pop culture section dedicated to his more well-known Yogi-isms.
And there is an instructive example of how Yogi handled bullying. As a young man, he was unmercifully ridiculed over his appearance and supposed lack of intelligence. Mocked by fans, opposing players and umpires, Yogi absorbed the abuse and used it for motivation. As always he put it all in perspective. “So, I’m ugly, so what?” he said. “I never saw anyone hit with his face.”
From ugly duckling to crown prince, Yogi Berra’s life story connects to all generations. His legacy of doing sports the right way, of making good choices, is the impetus for the museum’s year-round sports education seminars for high school student-athletes, coaches and parents.
Programs for coaches and athletes, too
Over the last two years, a grant from Investors Bank has enabled the museum to work directly with the 22 high schools in the Super Essex Conference. One of the flagship programs is the team captains’ workshop, which is conducted by Montclair State educators John McCarthy and Dr. Rob Gilbert. They provide leadership techniques to help captains make the whole high school sports experience inclusive and rewarding, while ensuring that any hazing or bullying can never occur on their watch.
The museum’s public programs include film screenings, author talks/ book-signings, and panel discussions with various sports professionals. In the summer, YBMLC hosts a number of camps, including the Bruce Beck-Ian Eagle Sports Broadcasting Camp, and baseball and softball camps for kids from underserved communities.
Because of its close association with Montclair State, visiting elementary and middle schools can also tour the university and participate in career programs at the Museum.
To that end, some Yogi-inspired advice conveyed to all students is to find a passion and pursue it. In other words, do what you love, and love what you do. While a generation of young people dream about being the next Derek Jeter, the museum never discourages anyone to under-dream. Yet it’s imperative to remind youth that success goes well beyond sports.
The museum also recently collaborated with Scholastic to provide a social studies and character development program for teachers of grades 3-5. The lesson plan and student workshop can be downloaded from the museum’s website at www.yogiberramuseum.org.
As Yogi would say, you can observe a lot by watching at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center. And every visitor can learn a great deal from its namesake, who has distinguished himself through his accomplishments and character.
Dave Kaplan is founding director of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center