Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra died five years ago on Sept. 22, 2015. A great baseball player, a well-regarded manager, and an often unintentionally hilarious philosopher, Berra was a regular on the presidential circuit. Babe Ruth famously met or interacted with every president from Wilson to Truman, six presidents over a 33-year span. Berra doubled up on the Babe. Over a 68-year period, Berra met or interacted with every president from Truman to Trump.
The first president Berra ever saw was Truman. It was Berra's rookie season, and Truman threw out the first pitch at the Washington Senators' home opener against Berra's Yankees. To Berra, seeing the leader of the free world was "one of the few times I was in awe of somebody." Former President Herbert Hoover threw out the first pitch the next day.
When Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in 1953, Berra was already a star, and Ike was an unabashed fan. He mentioned Berra at a press conference during the 1953 World Series, saying, "I received a terrific kick out of Yogi Berra's home run. That fellow really slammed it out of the park." Ike also sent Berra a letter congratulating him for winning the 1956 World Series.
Berra met so many presidents that he could tick off their names in an offhand way. He once recalled that "I met President Ford, President Reagan, and President [George W.] Bush in the White House. I played golf with the other President Bush, and I met JFK in spring training. They were all nice guys."
In 1964, Berra even made an appearance in the "PDB," the president's daily briefing on global developments. On Oct. 17, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson's daily intelligence summary included an item that noted how "the ax" was falling all over the world, cutting down "such diverse figures as Khrushchev and Lord Home ... the Cardinal's Johnny Keane and the Yankees' Yogi Berra have felt its edge." Fifty years later, when President Barack Obama declassified the document, CIA Director John Brennan joked about Berra's firing being worthy of being put in the PDB, noting that the dismissal was an "awful decision."
Richard Nixon was another Berra fan. When Nixon lived in New York and went to Yankees or Mets games, he would try to talk baseball with Berra. As president, Nixon placed Berra on his "Postwar All-Star Team." Nixon liked to tell a story of Berra meeting the wives of the Braves players at the 1957 World Series. According to the story, one of the wives told Berra that he looked "cool." He responded, "You don't look so hot yourself."
In 1976, Ford lost a close presidential election to Jimmy Carter. Berra would later play golf with Ford and say he was impressed by the former president's athleticism and sangfroid. According to Berra, former Cardinals outfielder Enos "Country" Slaughter would get more worked up about a called strike two than Ford did about losing the election.
In 1999, Berra was there when President Bill Clinton welcomed the Yankees to the White House. Clinton, of course, mentioned Berra in his remarks, saying, "Yogi Berra said a lot of interesting things. I've tried to commit a lot of them to memory, and they always get a laugh."
President George W. Bush felt a special bond with Berra. As a candidate, Bush told Berra that he had one of his quote books and would joke to reporters that he'd be interested in having Berra join his administration. At a White House event honoring former baseball stars, Bush, who had previously owned the Texas Rangers, singled out Berra, saying, "Yogi's been an inspiration to me, not only because of his baseball skills, but of course for the enduring mark he left on the English language. Some in the press corps think he might even be my speechwriter." Berra had his own take on Bush's occasional speaking challenges: "People laugh at his malapropisms; I just hope I'm not the cause."
Obama was the last president of Berra's lifetime. Berra was too old and frail to travel to meet No. 44, but he did arrange a gift for Obama: a photo of him tagging Jackie Robinson in the 1955 World Series signed with the words, "Dear Mr. President, he was out." (Robinson had famously been called safe on the controversial play.) Obama would end up presenting Berra a posthumous gift: the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Current president and longtime Yankee fan President Trump met Berra several times, including at one of Trump's golf clubs. When Berra died, Trump posted a photo of the two men at the club with the message, "Yogi Berra was not only a great baseball player, he was a great guy. Yogi will be missed." In fact, Berra had been on Trump's mind for a long time. A young Trump once wrote a yearbook poem with the line, "The catcher makes an error, not a bit like Yogi Berra."
Berra was a touchstone for many presidents because he was so thoroughly at the center of our cultural life for decades. No athlete is quoted as often as him, and few words are more warmly received. Reflecting on his popularity with both the great game and our leaders, Berra himself said it best: "They're two great American traditions, baseball and the presidency."