Yankees legend Yogi Berra dies at 90

New York (AFP) - President Barack Obama led the tributes to baseball legend Yogi Berra on Wednesday after the New York Yankees icon beloved as much for his unique turn of phrase as his on-field exploits died at the age of 90.

Obama hailed Berra -- whose famous utterances included the inspirational never-say-die idiom, "It ain't over 'til it's over" -- as an "American original."

"He epitomized what it meant to be a sportsman and a citizen, with a big heart, competitive spirit, and a selfless desire to open baseball to everyone, no matter their background," Obama said of Berra, who died late Tuesday of natural causes.

New York authorities ordered all flags across the city to be flown at half-staff in honor of the revered catcher.

Berra, a 15-time All Star and record 10-time World Series champion, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972. The Yankees have retired his number eight jersey.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of a Yankees legend and American hero, Yogi Berra," the Yankees posted on Twitter, changing their avatar to Berra's number eight.

"We have lost an icon."

Team members will wear number eight on their jersey sleeves at Wednesday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Canada.

The baseball great was equally well-known for humorous quips and malapropisms such as "It's deja vu all over again."

Other "Yogi-isms" included such one-liners as "Nobody goes there any more. It's too crowded," and "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

"I choose to believe that his last words were a doozy," tweeted Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy.

Berra was a link to Major League Baseball's glory days and a star for its most legendary team, playing from 1946 until a brief return with the New York Mets in 1965.

He managed the Yankees to the 1964 World Series and the Mets to the 1973 World Series.

"While we mourn the loss of our father, grandfather and great-grandfather, we know he is at peace with mom," a statement from Berra's family said.

- US sports world mourns -

Retired Yankees star Derek Jeter -- the face of the team for the current generation -- led praise for Berra from the baseball world.

"To those who didn’t know Yogi personally, he was one of the greatest baseball players and Yankees of all time," Jeter said on his Player's Tribune website.

"To those lucky ones who did, he was an even better person. To me, he was a dear friend and mentor."

The Yankees' arch rivals, the Boston Red Sox, tweeted their respects, saying: "We send our deepest condolences to Yogi Berra's family and to Yankees. Our game -- and our rivalry -- has lost an icon."

Fellow Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench recalled: "Yogi sent me a telegram when I hit a HR to pass him, 'I knew my record would stand until it was broken.'"

Former NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called Berra a "good friend."

"Had some great times and laffs with the Legendary Yogi Berra," tweeted actor Samuel L. Jackson. "One of a kind! RIP Sir!

- War before baseball -

Berra, whose real first name was Lawrence, was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1925 to Italian immigrant parents from Milan.

A childhood friend tagged him with his nickname, saying Berra resembled a Hindu yogi when he sat around with arms and legs crossed while waiting to bat.

Berra joined the US Navy at the age of 18 and served as a machine gunner on the USS Bayfield during the legendary D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy.

"He often said that his military service in World War II was more significant to him than anything he did on the baseball field," the museum said.

He married his wife of 65 years, Carmen, in 1949 and had three sons, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

He was known for "doing the right thing" and a "natural tolerance" of others, befriending Elston Howard, the team's first black player, when he joined the Yankees in 1955.

In 2013, Berra also became an ambassador for Athlete Ally, a non-profit organization dedicated to combating homophobia and transphobia in sport.

When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Berra said: "I want to thank baseball. It has given me more than I could have ever hoped for. And I hope that when I'm through with this game, I will put something back."