September 24, 2015

Yogi Berra, who died on Sept. 22, at 90, was baseball’s living, breathing melon-headed mascot, its most lovable uncle. His famous pearls of street wisdom, like “It ain’t over till it’s over” and “It’s déjà vu all over again,” became part of the lexicon. For his accidental comedy, Berra’s popularity will always stretch far beyond the ballpark. He’s a national treasure.

But on the occasion of his passing, let’s not forget Berra’s athletic excellence. During his 18 seasons playing in a New York Yankees uniform, from 1946 to ’63, the team reached the World Series 14 times and won 10 titles. He is baseball’s Lord of the Rings: no player owns more championship jewelry. Berra was one of just two catchers to win three league MVP awards, in 1951, ’54 and ’55. He made 8,359 regular-season plate appearances in his career and struck out just 414 times, a scarily impressive contact rate for a power hitter who also smacked 348 home runs. Through the lens of today’s advanced metrics, Berra more than measures up on defense. A less quantitative snapshot of his skill behind the plate: Berra leaping into the arms of Don Larsen after the Yankees pitcher hurled a perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

Still, Berra’s goofy side will–and should–leave the most permanent mark. Berra, who grew up in St. Louis as the son of Italian immigrants, may not have invented some of the phrases attributed to him. “I really didn’t say everything I said,” he once said. It doesn’t matter. They’re his. And he was ours. America has lost an all-timer.

–SEAN GREGORY

This appears in the October 05, 2015 issue of TIME.

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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