ST. LOUIS -- Long before he was a Yankees legend, a Hall of Fame catcher and the source of so many beloved malapropisms, Yogi Berra was a young boy growing up in The Hill, a St. Louis neighborhood that many Italian immigrants once called home.
That neighborhood -- and this surrounding city -- joined the baseball world in mourning the loss of Berra, who died of natural causes late on Tuesday. He was 90.
Members of the Berra family still own the modest home on Elizabeth Street where Yogi, the youngest of Pietro and Paulina Berra's four sons, grew up. On Wednesday, locals stopped by to pay their respects to the St. Louisan, some of whom left flowers, pictures and notes.
"Yogi Berra was a great ambassador for both the game of baseball and St. Louis," Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. said in a team statement. "With courage, humility, and of course, a wonderful sense of humor, he was a true American original. While we will miss him, we will always remember him."
As a child, Berra lived across the street from Joe Garagiola, who, like Berra, went on to become a Major League catcher. Garagiola is said to have once quipped of his childhood friend: "Not only was I not the best catcher in the Major Leagues, I wasn't even the best catcher on my street."
Berra may have stayed in St. Louis, too, had things gone differently at a 1942 workout that then-team president Branch Rickey organized for the St. Louis Cardinals. Garagiola and Berra were invited, as was Red Schoendienst, the son of a coal miner in Germantown, Ill.
Schoendienst recalled throwing batting practice to Berra during that tryout. He added "that everything you threw up there, he hit."
The Cardinals offered Garagiola a contract that day. Schoendienst would later sign with St. Louis, too, and become a Hall of Fame second baseman for the club. Berra did not get an offer, and it has since been suggested that Rickey was planning to sign Berra when he took over as president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Before he could, Berra latched on with the Yankees.
Berra, during an interview with St. Louis Magazine a few years ago, said he would have "loved to play in St. Louis."
Despite never playing together, Schoendienst became lifelong friends with Berra.
"Yogi was just a winner," Schoendienst said. "He could have been a polo player and been a winner. That's the kind of athlete he was. He knew the game real well. I know [Yankees manager] Casey Stengel loved him. I've been with Casey a number of times and he said, 'Boy, that guy from the Hill in St. Louis where you're from, he's some kind of a guy.' They loved him in New York. They loved him here in St. Louis.
"Yogi was just one of these players who was fun to be around -- not because he was a ballplayer, just because what he is."
Berra remained a present figure in The Hill throughout much of his life, though his trips to St. Louis waned in recent years. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny recalled how Berra would visit the Cardinals' clubhouse while in town. During one such visit, Matheny, a collector of old catcher's mitts, plucked one from his collection to have Berra sign.
It now hangs on Matheny's wall.
"What a great ambassador for the game and obviously the St. Louis roots he has here," Matheny said. "You hate to see any good people go, and he was obviously one of the great ones in our game. ... What stands out the most is when you start counting up the rings. That's a lot of hardware. And that isn't by mistake. It isn't by coincidence that great players end up being parts of great teams."