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Yogi Berra on Baseball and Business

David Mielach, TMN
Wednesday, 4 Apr 2012 | 10:52 AM ET
Yogi Berra
Jeff Zelevansky | Stringer | Getty Images
Yogi Berra

By the early 1980s, Yogi Berra was already a three-time American League Most Valuable Player, a 15-time All-Star and a 13-time World Series champion. That, however, did not stop Berra, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, from working at the New Jersey racquetball club he owned.

"I can't tell you how many times people told me they would go to Yogi's racquetball club in Fairfield, N.J., and he would be there handing out towels to guests," said Dave Kaplan, director of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center.

That image in a nutshell sums up the business career and ideals of Lawrence Peter (Yogi) Berra. Although he is best known for his celebrated career spent behind the plate for the New York Yankees from the late 1940's until the early 1960s, Berra was also a successful businessman thanks to qualities that were instilled in him by his parents.

While Berra's two personas — that of a sports legend and a local business owner — may seem worlds apart, Berra himself says the two have a lot more in common than you might think. In an interview about his life as an entrepreneur, Berra talked about what quality transcends both sports and business: Teamwork and trustworthiness, he said.

Berra, who is 87 years old, said he doesn't know what baseball position makes the best entrepreneur, but he said his own position, catcher, taught him to always be thinking.

"I always liked catcher because you’re in every play, it’s never dull," he said. "You're always trying to outthink the other guy."

Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees poses for a Spring Training portrait circa the early 1950's in St. Petersburg, Florida. Lawrence Peter Berra played for the Yankees for the majority of his career from 1946-63.
Kidwiler Collection | Diamond Images | Getty Images
Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees poses for a Spring Training portrait circa the early 1950's in St. Petersburg, Florida. Lawrence Peter Berra played for the Yankees for the majority of his career from 1946-63.

Business and sports are alike in another way, too, he said.

"You need good people you can depend on. Also you can’t control everything, so you got to control what you can," Berra said.

Kaplan, who as head of Berra's museum and learning center is charged with helping maintain Berra's legacy, believes Berra's work ethic had a lot to do with his success both on and off the field.

"His story really is a great American success story," Kaplan said. "He was the son of immigrants. His father worked in a shoe factory, but he developed his values of hard work and discipline through his family."

The importance of integrity and hard work became guiding principles not only throughout Berra's baseball career, but in his business career as well.

"His first years with the Yankees, even though he was on championship teams, Yogi worked in the hardware section of Sears Roebuck in the offseason," Kaplan said. "He was the head waiter in a restaurant and he worked in a menswear store with (Yankee shortstop and good friend) Phil Rizzuto."

When Berra decided to go into business on his own, those guiding principles were applied to his role as a business owner and manager.

"A lot of venues with the backing of athletes don’t ultimately succeed because the athletes are not involved and invested in them," Kaplan said. "Yogi never just threw his name out there. He was involved and invested in all the businesses he started."

Those businesses included the aforementioned racquetball club and acel bowling alley he opened in 1958 with Rizzuto.

"When Yogi opened the bowling alley, he was very hands-on in the process," Kaplan said. "Rizzuto-Berra Lanes was a successful local businessthat capitalized on the popularity of bowling in the country at the time."

It didn't hurt that Berra liked the people he was working with, too.

"Well, I liked and trusted the people I was working with," Berra said. "Me and Phil [Rizzuto] got along great when we opened the bowling alley."

"Make a game plan and stick to it. Unless it's not working." -National Baseball Hall of Famer and small business owner, Yogi Berra

But, Berra isn't one to stick with a business based on relationships along. In the 1950s, for example, Berra became a spokesman for Yoo-hoo. After Yoo-hoo was acquired by a larger company and the formula was changed, Berra cut ties with the company, claiming the product had downgraded quality with the change.

"If you’re working for a brand or something has your name on it, it’s a reflection on you. You better believe in the truth and quality of anything you’re doing," he said.

More recently Yogi served as spokesman for the insurance company Aflac.

"With his popularity that has led to commercials and endorsements," Kaplan said. "That Aflac commercial speaks to who Yogi is, a regular guy in a barber's chair. I think people connect to that. The one theme that we always promote at the museum is integrity. I think Yogi has been very successful in business because he is very authentic. He always is who he is."

Today Yogi's legacy is preserved at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, located on the campus of Montclair State University. The museum, which opened in 1998, has several exhibits that tells Yogi's life story. The Learning Center also holds conferences and seminars to help teach children about the life lessons they can learn through sports.

"We really focus on character," Kaplan said. "We try to tell Yogi's life story through examples of how you persevere. We also teach the importance of respect, humility and how to overcome adversity."

Berra's legacy, of course, wouldn't be complete without mention of his famous "Yogi-isms." When asked what his best advice for other entrepreneurs is, Berra is quintessentially Berra.

"Make a game plan and stick to it," he said. "Unless it’s not working."

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