Yogi Berra, who died Tuesday at the age of 90, was a star catcher for the New York Yankees, a baseball Hall of Famer, and a master of malapropisms. He’s also, for better or worse, forever linked in the public imagination to a cartoon bear whose name is uncannily similar to his own: Yogi Bear. Indeed, the two names look and sound so alike that, in announcing Berra’s death, the AP’s wire service mistakenly announced the death of Yogi Bear instead. (No kidding.) But what is the relationship between these two oddly named individuals—was one named after the other?
Despite his creators’ contention to the contrary, all signs indicate that yes, Yogi Bear was indeed named after Yogi Berra.
Yogi Bear first hit TV screens in 1958 as part of The Huckleberry Hound Show. Soon after, Berra tried to sue Hanna-Barbera Productions, Yogi Bear’s creators, for defamation of character. Luckily for the Jellystone Park native, Berra dropped the suit. (Apparently, Berra didn’t love that he was occasionally addressed as Yogi Bear.)
Hanna-Barbera insisted there was no connection between their smarter-than-average bear and the baseball player, but as Walter Brasch writes in his book Cartoon Monikers: An Insight Into the Animation Industry, “Whether coincidence or not, it is difficult to find anyone else in the Industry who believes it.” (By the time Yogi Bear made his debut, Berra was a household name.) “As one top producer said, ‘If there was no Yogi Berra, I seriously doubt that there would have been a Yogi Bear. It’s just too much of coincidence for me,’ ” Brasch reported.
So it’s pretty widely accepted that Yogi Bear got his name from Yogi Berra. But how did Berra become “Yogi” in the first place? As it turns out, Berra (whose first name was actually Lawrence) got the nickname as a teenager playing American Legion Baseball. A friend who had just seen a travelogue about India noticed how similar a Hindu yogi’s cross-legged pose was to Berra’s when he sat on the ground awaiting his turn at bat.
“I’m going to call you Yogi,” Berra’s friend reportedly said. The rest is, well, you know.