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President Obama should honor Yogi Berra's legacy with the Medal of Freedom

Former Major League Baseball player and manager Yogi Berra poses at a lighting ceremony at the Empire State Building in celebration of MLB All-Star Week July 11, 2008, in New York City.
Former Major League Baseball player and manager Yogi Berra poses at a lighting ceremony at the Empire State Building in celebration of MLB All-Star Week July 11, 2008, in New York City.
Brad Barket/Getty Images

To honor baseball legend Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra's 90th birthday in May, a public White House petition called on President Barack Obama to award him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for "military service and civil rights and educational activism." The petition collected 111,627 signatures before it closed, and since it gathered more than 100,000 signatures within 30 days, the White House responded to it a few weeks later per the petition response policy set in place in 2013.

So what happened to the petition for Berra? The official response authors wrote a very polite review of the medal's history and Berra's life accomplishments before noting, "The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded at the President's sole discretion, and therefore our response to this petition cannot comment on whether any individual will receive the award in the future." In other words: Thanks for your email! Berra is so great. But who gets the medal is up to the president.

Berra, who passed away this week after a celebrated life, already did everything required of a Medal of Freedom honoree. (And yes, for the record, it can be awarded posthumously.) What's required of an honoree, you ask? Absolutely nothing. The lesser-known fact about the award is that presidents get to pick whomever they like. The politics-driven award process (which was described as reflective of "the personal and political interests of the President") was documented by the University of Virginia's Miller Center in a 2002 interview with Aram Bakshian Jr., who helped manage nominations under President Ronald Reagan. Bakshian described the sometimes chaotic nomination process:

So that if the President had someone in mind could add them, but that didn’t happen during that period. Frankly, it’s not the sort of thing that is uppermost on presidential minds ordinarily, unless some old friend has called up or called Nancy and said, Don’t you think that so-and-so should get the Medal of Freedom?

The White House released an intimate statement expressing sorrow over Berra's death on Wednesday:

Unless someone has a personal connection between Berra and the White House, though, it seems that he is probably not being considered for an award. These facts aren't presented here to imply that the medal is valueless because it's politically motivated — it has been given to countless people who have changed the world. The list of honorees includes baseball legends Hank Aaron (W. Bush), Jackie Robinson (Reagan), Joe DiMaggio (Ford), Roberto Clemente (W. Bush), Ernie Banks (Obama), Ted Williams (H.W. Bush), Stanley Musial (H.W. Bush), "Buck" O'Neil (W. Bush), Frank Robinson (W. Bush), and catcher Moe Berg (Truman). Berra would make the second catcher to receive the award that's practically made for baseball heroes, and it's not surprising that so many players have won it: Baseball has been an important part of American culture since the late 1800s.

If the president doesn't want to give Berra the Medal of Freedom there's another award to consider — the Presidential Citizens Medal, which does have specific criteria for nomination:

  • Who have a demonstrated commitment to service in their own community or in communities farther from home.
  • Who have helped their country or their fellow citizens through one or more extraordinary acts.
  • Whose service relates to a long-term or persistent problem.
  • Whose service has had a sustained impact on others’ lives and provided inspiration for others to serve.

Consider the criteria for the Citizens Medal — and now read this except from the official petition response: Berra "demonstrated exemplary sportsmanship and character ... [and] He served our country in the U.S. Navy during World War II — including the D-Day invasion, and has established himself as an advocate for civil rights, education, and inclusion of the LGBT community in sports." Since the 111,000 signatures were given to the White House under Obama's tenure, I think the ball is in his administration's court to act on it. Berra deserves an acknowledgement for his contributions to American culture (which you can learn more about at the Yogi Berra Museum in New Jersey). And the petition response's closing statement implies as much: "He's demonstrated many of the qualities of past Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, so — as he might say — it ain't over 'til it's over."