Yogi Berra stamp could be baseball’s last for a while
When the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center opened on the Montclair University campus in New Jersey in 1998, Berra was well aware that it was unusual for him to be there to celebrate.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “Usually you died to have your own museum.”
Even Yogi was not fortunate enough to see his own US Postal Service stamp. No one has ever been so lucky.
The first American postage stamps were issued in 1847, and in all the years that followed, no living person was specifically honored by a depiction on a stamp. And with the exception of U.S. presidents – usually commemorated within a year of their death – there has always been a period of several years before a deceased person could appear on a stamp. The current waiting period is three years.
However, the process usually takes a lot longer.
Berra died almost six years ago. It was only last Thursday, in front of the Berra Museum and with Bob Costas as MC of a Starry Ceremony, that the Postal Service officially issued its Yogi Berra commemorative stamp.
This ceremony put Berra in rare company. Traditionally, the highest honor for a baseball player has been election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In the institution’s 86-year history, 263 men have been elected players. But the commemoration of the Postal Service is a much more exclusive club, as Berra is only the 30th baseball player to have his photo on a stamp.
A large majority of these stamps have been part of multiplayer “issues”. Berra is part of an even rarer group: he is the first player since Lou Gehrig in 1989 to receive a program of his own. After Gehrig, every player who appeared on a stamp was part of a larger ensemble: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Roger Maris in the 1998-99 series “Celebrate the Century”; a whopping 20 players in the “Baseball Legends” in 2000; four mid-century stars on the 2006 “Baseball Sluggers” show; And one “MLB Stars”Set in 2012 with Joe DiMaggio, Larry Doby, Willie Stargell and Ted Williams.
Today, nine years after the last baseball stamp, Berra has the scene all to himself.
Will it be another nine years before we see another honored player? There is certainly no shortage of candidates.
In 2020 alone, no less than seven Hall of Fame members passed away: Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro and Tom Seaver. Then, shortly after 2021, baseball took a heavy blow with the death of Henry Aaron, who captivated the nation in the early 1970s with his pursuit of Ruth’s career record for home runs, and is later became known as a civil rights defender.
While neither Aaron nor any of these other recently deceased Hall of Fame members are currently eligible for a stamp due to the current waiting period rules, there is an impressive backlog of deserving applicants.
Ernie Banks and Stan Musial both died before Berra and (like Berra) are also among 14 baseball players who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Warren Spahn (like Berra, a war hero) has been dead for almost 20 years and will quite possibly hold the title of most successful left-handed pitcher in baseball for all eternity. The Postal Service might also consider Minnie Minoso, an Afro-Latino pioneer whose long career included stops with the New York Cubans in 1946 and the Chicago White Sox in 1980.
Before the MLB chose to recognize the black leagues as the equivalent of the major leagues, the Postal Service had already honored Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. But there are plenty of options in these leagues as well, 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 would like to see a Turkey Stearnes stamp in 2024, you can submit your proposal in writing, by US mail. (The Postal Service’s website states, “No in-person calls, phone calls, or e-mail are accepted.”)
According to William Gicker, longtime director of the Postal Service’s stamp services, “We receive approximately 30,000 stamp submissions per year.”
If your proposal meets the “selection criteria for the subject of the stamp”, it is automatically examined by the Citizen’s Advisory Committee on the Postage Stamp, currently made up of 13 volunteers appointed by the Postmaster General, whose work is carried out at the Post Office. inside of a figurative black box.
The actual venue for their discussions is some sort of meeting room on the top floor of the Postal Service headquarters in Washington. Four times a year, the advisory board meets in this conference room (or, when a pandemic rages, via Zoom) for a day and a half. Their deliberations, when sifting through proposals for individual stamps or larger programs, are strictly confidential.
“We come into every meeting with an agenda,” said Gicker, who has attended meetings for over 20 years, “and while the discussions can get heated, we encourage collegial debate. We want committee decisions to be considered decisions of the whole committee, not individuals. “
Committee approval is only the first step (or a first step). Once a stamp or program has received the green light from the committee and the Postmaster General, it needs an artistic director. The stamp program has four, including Antonio Alcala. When a sports topic is brought up, Alcala said: “I usually raise my hand, and maybe a little higher” than the others.
After Berra was approved in 2018, Alcala got the assignment. He collected dozens of photographs that could serve as models for an outside artist and be available at the right price (La Poste has a relatively small budget for each stamp). Once Alcala winnowed the images at six or eight, he said, he contacted painter Charles Chaisson, who had never worked on a stamp.
“In 2018 Antonio contacted me,” Chaisson said. “I remember him telling me how long the whole process would take and he thought, ‘Oh, man. “I come from a family of letter carriers – between my mom, my uncle and my grandfather, my family is 90 to 100 years old with the New Orleans post office – and keeping that a secret was really tough. I told my mother about it, but I swore to keep it a secret.
Chaisson took about a week to submit a sketch – based on an undated Associated Press photo taken at a Yankees spring training camp in Florida – and once it was approved, he said: “Then I drew everything by hand, to look like an oil painting. It took about a week too.
This was all almost three years ago. For much of that time, no one outside of the Postal Service and Chaisson (and her mother) knew anything about a Berra stamp.
“Our entire process is very confidential and we don’t want false starts,” Gicker said. “So nothing becomes public until everything is fully legally licensed, and everyone – both the USPS and the estate, the family – is fully satisfied with the design.”
“They contacted me in August of last year and told me that the US Postal Service was interested in issuing a stamp from your father,” said Larry Berra, the eldest of three sons. Berra. “They sent us the artwork, and my brothers and I approved it. They also had to get permission from MLB. As executor of my father’s estate, I assigned the rights to use his image for the stamp. It all happened pretty quickly.
“We also signed an NDA, agreeing to remain silent until the official announcement this spring,” he said. “I was teasing people, however, by saying we had a big surprise ahead.”
MLB also weighed in, with notes on type at the top of the stamp.
The lettering of Berra’s name, a unique typography that Alcala had commissioned from a lettering artist for this project, was also adjusted, along with a few other details, to achieve what Alcala called “a greater sense of Yoginess. “.
Although the process involved many steps, choosing a topic for a stamp and the team to design it is the easiest part. The real X factor is the question of rights.
“At the end of the day,” Gicker said, “the Postal Service wants the issuance of a stamp to be a celebration and that celebration not be marred by any upheaval or bad feelings.”
Will we ever see Ernie Banks on a stamp? It is a question complicated by his will that has been contested for years. What about Musial, Minoso or Dottie Kamenshek from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League? Or, perhaps more specifically, Aaron? Only those in that Postal Service meeting room can even begin to know. For now, we can revel in the spirit, the wisdom and the face of the singular Berra.
“So I’m ugly,” Berra reportedly said. “I have never seen anyone hit with their face.”
Ugly? Berra was too hard on himself. But its cachet? This beautifully crafted sticky little rectangle is now crisscrossing America en route to thousands of lucky letterboxes.