When the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center opened on the Montclair University campus in New Jersey in 1998, Berra knew how unusual it was for him to party there.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “Usually you’re dead to get your own museum.”
Not even Yogi was lucky enough to see his own United States Postal Service stamp. No one has ever been so lucky.
The first US postage stamps were issued in 1847, and in all the years since no living person has been specifically honored by a depiction on a postage stamp. And with the exception of the American presidents, who are usually commemorated within a year of their death, it was always several years before a deceased could appear on a postage stamp. The waiting period is currently three years.
However, the process usually takes significantly longer.
Berra died almost six years ago. Just last Thursday, in front of the Berras Museum and with Bob Costas moderating a high-profile ceremony, the postal service officially issued its Yogi Berra commemorative stamp.
This ceremony brought Berra into rare company. Traditionally, the highest honor for a baseball player is election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In the 86-year history of the institution, 263 men have been chosen as players. But Postal Service Remembrance is a far more exclusive club as Berra is only the 30th baseball player to have his picture on a postage stamp.
The vast majority of these stamps were part of multiplayer “editions”. Berra belongs to an even rarer group: he is the first player since Lou Gehrig in 1989 to receive his own issue. According to Gehrig, every player who appeared on a stamp was part of a larger set: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Roger Maris in the “Celebrate the Century” series from 1998-99; a whopping 20 players in the Legends of Baseball set in 2000; four mid-century stars in the 2006 issue of Baseball Sluggers; and a 2012 MLB All-Stars set starring Joe DiMaggio, Larry Doby, Willie Stargell and Ted Williams.
Now, nine years after the last baseball postage stamp, Berra has the stage all to herself.
Will it be nine years before another player is honored? There is certainly no shortage of candidates.
In 2020 alone, no fewer than seven Hall of Famers died: Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro and Tom Seaver. Then, briefly in 2021, baseball was dealt a devastating blow with the death of Henry Aaron, who tied the nation in the early 1970s in pursuit of Ruth’s career record for home runs and later became known as a vocal civil rights activist.
While neither Aaron nor any of the other recently deceased Hall of Famers are eligible for a stamp due to the current waiting time regulations, there is an impressive backlog of well-deserved candidates.
Ernie Banks and Stan Musial both died before Berra and are (like Berra) one of the 14 baseball players to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Warren Spahn (like Berra, a war hero) has been dead for nearly 20 years and will most likely hold the title of baseball’s most successful left-handed pitcher for ages. The postal service might also consider Minnie Minoso, an Afro-Latino pioneer whose long career included stints with the New York Cubans in 1946 and the Chicago White Sox in 1980.
Before the MLB decided to recognize the negro leagues as equivalent to the major leagues, the postal service had already honored Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. But there are plenty of options from these leagues too, including Oscar Charleston, Buck O’Neil, Turkey Stearnes, Cool Papa Bell, Bullet Rogan, and Bill Foster.
So when can we expect some of these players to be honored?
The short answer is, it’s complicated.
If you’d like to see a Turkey Stearnes postage stamp in 2024, your proposal can be in writing via U.S. mail. (The website of the postal service says: “Personal appeals, phone calls or e-mails will not be accepted.”)
According to William Gicker, the Post’s long-time director of stamp services, “we receive around 30,000 offers for stamps every year”.
If your application meets the “selection criteria for the postage stamp compartment”, it will automatically be considered by the Post Office’s Citizen Postage Stamp Advisory Board, which currently consists of 13 volunteers appointed by the Postmaster General, whose work is carried out in a pictorial black box.
The actual place for their discussions is an inconspicuous meeting room on the top floor of the Post Office in Washington. The advisory board meets four times a year for one and a half days in this conference room (or in the event of a pandemic via zoom). Your advice in reviewing proposals for individual stamps or larger programs is strictly confidential.
“We go to every meeting with an agenda,” says Gicker, who has been participating in the meetings for more than 20 years, “and although the discussions can be passionate, we encourage collegial exchange. We want the decisions of the committee to be seen as decisions of the entire committee, not as individual decisions. “
Approval by the committee is only the first step (or a first step). Once a stamp or program has been approved by the committee and postmaster general, it needs an art director. The stamp program includes four of them, including Antonio Alcala. When a sports topic comes up, Alcala says, “I usually raise my hand and maybe a little higher” than the others.
After Berra was approved in 2018, Alcala was awarded the contract. He collected dozens of photographs that could serve as models for an outside artist and could be obtained at the right price (the Post Office has a relatively small budget for each stamp). After Alcala sifted the pictures to six or eight, he turned to the painter Charles Chaisson, who had never worked on a postage stamp.
“Antonio contacted me in 2018,” said Chaisson. “I remember him telling me how long the whole process was going to take and thinking, ‘Oh, man.’ I come from a family of mail carriers – between my mother, my uncle and my grandfather, my family has been with the Post Office in New Orleans for 90 to 100 years – and keeping this secret was really difficult. I told my mother about it, but she swore to secrecy. “
It took Chaisson about a week to submit a sketch – based on an undated Associated Press photo taken during a Yankees spring training camp in Florida – and when it was approved he said, “Then I hand-drawn everything to to resemble an oil painting. ”. That also took about a week. “
It was all almost three years ago. For most of the time, no one outside of the Post Office and Chaisson (and his mother) knew about a Berra postage stamp.
“Our entire process is very confidential and we don’t want any false starts,” says Gicker. “So nothing becomes public until everything is legally fully resolved and everyone – both the USPS and the estate, the family – are completely satisfied with the design.”
“They contacted me in August last year and said the US Postal Service was interested in issuing a stamp from your father,” said Larry Berra, the eldest of Berra’s three sons. “You sent us the artwork, and my brothers and I approved it. They also had to get permission from MLB. As the executor of my father’s estate, I have transferred the rights to use his image on the postage stamp. Everything went pretty quickly. “
“We have also signed an NDA and pledged to remain silent until the official announcement this spring,” he said. “However, I would tease people and say there is a big surprise coming up.”
MLB weighed in too, with guy notes on the top of the stamp.
The lettering of Berra’s name, a unique typography that Alcala commissioned a type artist for this project, as well as some other details, have been adjusted to achieve what Alcala called “a greater sense of yoginess”.
Although the process was many steps, choosing a design for a stamp and the team to design it is the easy part. The real X factor is the rights issue.
“Ultimately, the Post wants,” said Gicker, “that the issue of a postage stamp becomes a festival and that this festival is not tarnished by excitement or bad feelings.”
Will we ever see Ernie Banks on a postage stamp? This question is complicated by the fact that his will has been controversial for years. What about Musial or Minoso or Dottie Kamenshek from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League? Or, perhaps most notably, Aaron? Only the people in this postal service meeting room can even know. For now, we can enjoy the wit, wisdom and face of the unique Berra.
“So I’m ugly,” Berra is said to have once said. “I’ve never seen anyone hit with their face before.”
Ugly? Berra was too strict with himself. But his stamp? That beautifully crafted, sticky little rectangle now traverses America on its way to thousands of happy mailboxes.