When the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center opened on the campus of Montclair University in New Jersey in 1998, Berra was well aware of how unusual it was for him to be there to celebrate.
“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. Nobody has ever been that lucky.
The first U.S. postal stamps were issued in 1847, and in all the years since, no living person has specifically been honored by a depiction on a stamp. And with the exception of American presidents — typically commemorated within a year of their death — there has always been a multiyear period before someone who has died can appear on a stamp. The current waiting period is three years.
The process, however, usually takes significantly longer.
Berra died nearly six years ago. It wasn’t until last Thursday, outside Berra’s museum and with Bob Costas serving as M.C. of a star-studded ceremony, that the Postal Service officially issued its Yogi Berra commemorative stamp.
That ceremony put Berra in rare company. Traditionally, the single highest honor for a baseball player is election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In the institution’s 86-year history, 263 men have been elected as players. But Postal Service commemoration is a far more exclusive club, as Berra is only the 30th baseball player to have his picture on a stamp.
A great majority of those stamps have been part of multiplayer “issuances.” Berra is in an even rarer group: He is the first player since Lou Gehrig in 1989 to receive an issuance all his own. After Gehrig, every player who has appeared on a stamp has been part of a larger set: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Roger Maris in the 1998-99 “Celebrate the Century” series; a whopping 20 players in the “Legends of Baseball” set in 2000; four midcentury stars in the “Baseball Sluggers” issuance of 2006; and an “M.L.B. All-Stars” set in 2012 that featured Joe DiMaggio, Larry Doby, Willie Stargell and Ted Williams.
Now, nine years after the last baseball stamp, Berra has the stage all to himself.
Will it be another nine years before we see another player 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, shortly into 2021, baseball was dealt a crushing 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 later became known as a vocal civil rights advocate.
While neither Aaron nor any of those other recently deceased Hall of Famers are currently eligible for a stamp because of the current waiting period rules, there is an impressive backlog of deserving candidates.
Ernie Banks and Stan Musial both predeceased Berra, and (like Berra) are also among the 14 baseball players who have been 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 winningest left-handed pitcher for eternity. The Postal Service also could 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 M.L.B. chose to recognize the Negro leagues as the equivalent of major leagues, the Postal Service had already honored Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. But there are plenty of options from those 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 those players to be honored?
The short answer is: It’s complicated.
If you want to see a Turkey Stearnes stamp in 2024, you may submit your proposal in writing, via U.S. mail. (The Postal Service’s website stipulates, “No in-person appeals, phone calls, or emails are accepted.”)
According to William Gicker, the Postal Service’s long-serving director of stamp services, “We receive around 30,000 proposals a year for stamps.”
If your proposal meets the “stamp subject selection criteria,” it is automatically considered by the Postal Service’s citizen stamp advisory committee, currently composed of 13 volunteers appointed by the postmaster general, whose work is conducted inside a figurative black box.
The actual venue for their discussions is a nondescript meeting room on the top floor of the Postal Service’s headquarters in Washington. Four times a year, the advisory council meets in that conference room (or, when a pandemic is raging, via Zoom) for a day and a half. Their deliberations, as they sift through proposals for individual stamps, or larger programs, are strictly confidential.
“We enter each meeting with an agenda,” said Gicker, who has attended the meetings for more than 20 years, “and while the discussions can get passionate, we encourage collegial debate. We want the decisions of the committee seen as decisions of the whole committee, not individuals.”
Approval by the committee is just the first step (or a first step). Once a stamp or program is given the go-head by the committee and the postmaster general, it needs an art director. The stamp program has four of them, including Antonio Alcala. When a sports subject comes up, Alcala said, “I usually raise my hand, and maybe a little higher” than the others.
Once 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 for the right price (the Postal Service has a relatively small budget for each stamp). Once Alcala winnowed the images to six or eight, he said, he reached out to the 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 thinking, ‘Oh, man.’ I come from a family of letter carriers — between my mom, my uncle and my grandfather, my family’s got 90 to 100 years with the post office in New Orleans — and keeping this secret was really hard. I did tell my mother, but swore her to secrecy.”
Chaisson needed a week or so to submit a sketch — based on an undated Associated Press photo taken during a Yankees spring training camp in Florida — and once it was approved, he said, “Then I drew everything by hand, to resemble an oil painting. That took about a week, too.”
All this was nearly three years ago. For much of that time, nobody outside the Postal Service and Chaisson (and his mother) knew anything about a Berra stamp.
“Our whole process is very confidential, and we don’t want any false starts,” Gicker said. “So nothing becomes public until everything is fully cleared legally, and everyone — both the U.S.P.S. and the estate, the family — is fully satisfied with the design.”
“They contacted me in August last year and said the U.S. Postal Service is interested in putting out a stamp of your father,” said Larry Berra, the oldest of Berra’s three sons. “They sent us the artwork, and my brothers and I approved it. They also had to get permission from M.L.B. As executor of my father’s estate, I signed over rights to use his image for the stamp. Everything happened pretty quick.”
“We also signed an N.D.A., agreeing to keep quiet until the official announcement this spring,” he said. “I would tease people, though, saying we had a big surprise coming.”
M.L.B. weighed in as well, with notes about type at the top of the stamp.
The lettering of Berra’s name, a unique typography Alcala had commissioned from a lettering artist for this project, was adjusted some as well, as were a few other details, to achieve what Alcala called “a greater sense of Yoginess.”
While the process had many steps, picking a subject for a stamp, and the team to design it, is the easy part. The real X factor is the rights issue.
“At the end of the day,” Gicker said, “the Postal Service wants the issuance of a stamp to be a celebration and for that celebration not to be marred by any upset or ill feelings.”
Will we ever see Ernie Banks on a stamp? That is a question complicated by his will having been contested for years. What about Musial or Minoso or Dottie Kamenshek of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League? Or, perhaps most notably, Aaron? Only the people in that Postal Service meeting room can even begin to know. For now, we can revel in the wit, wisdom, and visage of the singular Berra.
“So I’m ugly,” Berra was once reported as saying. “I never saw anyone hit with his face.”
Ugly? Berra was being too hard on himself. His stamp, though? That beautifully wrought, sticky little rectangle is now crisscrossing America on its way to thousands of lucky mailboxes.
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