Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bobby Doerr, RIP: The Last of “The Teammates”

By Jeff Kallman

A certain Yale University professor of Renaissance literature turned Yale president had no such ambition when he was a boy in New England. "I wanted more than anything," baseball's eventual commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once said, "to be Bobby Doerr."

When Giamatti became president of the National League, before his sadly short-lived commissionership, he met the former Red Sox second baseman and told him, shamelessly, that he admired him more than any baseball player he ever saw growing up.

"Bobby had been surprised and awed that this accomplished, erudite man always sought him out at baseball gatherings and always wanted to talk to him at great lengths," wrote the late David Halberstam in The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship, that lyrical ballad of the sweet, salty, lifetime friendship between Doerr and his Red Sox mates Dominic DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Ted Williams.

Doerr's wife, Monica, herself a former schoolteacher, thought the idea of her husband being the idol of a scholar whose academic specialty was Dante was a little bit too much.

"Mr. Giamatti," Mrs. Doerr replied, "you're the former president of Yale. You're a hero to people like us." That, Halberstam observed, was "something Bobby should have said himself ... but had somehow not managed to say, and so when she had said it, Bobby Doerr knew exactly why he had married her and why their marriage had been so successful."

Doerr was baseball's oldest living former major leaguer and oldest living Hall of Famer until his death at 99 Monday. He was also the last man alive to have played major league baseball in the 1930s and to have played against Lou Gehrig. But he was unable to make the trip chronicled in The Teammates, trekking to visit the dying Williams, because his wife's multiple sclerosis kept him homebound all but full time.

The son of a Los Angeles telephone worker, Doerr took up baseball to escape a future with the old Ma Bell. He also never lost his own penchant for a little baseball hero worship, even as a player: he once scurried to his locker to grab a bat for an autograph when Babe Ruth turned up in the Fenway Park clubhouse. Discovered on the same scouting trip that landed Williams for the Red Sox, Doerr accepted the haunted Williams's cantankerousness as a sign that Williams simply had no taste for mediocrity.

"And I was in that mediocre class," said the nine-time all-star who parked 223 home runs, led the American League in slugging percentage in war-depleted 1944, and had six seasons of 100+ runs batted in, a mark for second basemen that stood until fellow Hall of Famer Joe Morgan broke it with eight.

Doerr was a superb all-around second baseman who often led the American League in turning double plays, putouts, and assists, and once attributed his infield agility to the hours he spent bouncing and retrieving an old fashioned pink rubber ball off his family's Los Angeles stoop. Yet the man who looked the most like an executioner among The Teammates was probably the gentlest of the four.

Williams may have hounded Doerr about his lesser dedication to the art of hitting, but he respected the modest Doerr's surety enough to name him "The Silent Captain." They also shared a passion for fishing, though even that had its limits: once, Doerr acquired a bamboo fishing rod Williams himself designed and named for him, but Doerr still had to pay for it.

"Success always came relatively easy for Bobby Doerr," Halberstam wrote, "and he handled it with grace and modesty."

"He never coveted anything that was not his. He was respectful of people who were different, and while he loved playing baseball and was pleased that he was rewarded so handsomely for it — if not in financial terms, at least in terms of admiration — he never let it distort his priorities. He always knew it was a game, and that there were limits to its social value. He knew there were many people who did other things, whose names were not known to the general public, but who were of far greater importance to society than baseball players. He did not simply say this, he believed it as well, and it shaped the way he treated people."

After the 1936 season in which Doerr played for the San Diego Padres of the old Pacific Coast League, he took a fishing trip to Oregon. Attending a dance at a one-room schoolhouse, Doerr met and fell in love with the schoolhouse's teacher. Monica Terpin came from South Dakota stock, the daughter of ranchers who moved to Oregon hoping for better times.

It wouldn't be fair to say the future Mrs. Doerr chased him until he caught her, but when they attended another dance in 1937, across the Rogue River, she responded to the freezing temperatures aboard the boat ferrying them to the dance by laying her black overcoat over an icy seat so her future husband wouldn't freeze his tail off when he sat down. "Why," Doerr would remember, "she lassoed me right there."

Doerr went to one World Series, the ill-fated 1946 set remembered best for Cardinals outfielder Enos Slaughter's rip home from first on a fly to center that late Game Seven insertion Leon Culberson threw high enough to Pesky that Pesky would be remembered unfairly for holding the ball a fraction too long before throwing home. Doerr hit .409 in that Series with three runs batted in and one home run.

It was a harsh finish to what was one of Doerr's most successful seasons, driving home 116 runs and handling 414 chances at second base without an error, a record at the time. Doerr swore for years to follow that the only thing keeping his generation of Red Sox from more pennants was one more relief pitcher. He retired in 1951 after two seasons' worth of back issues made playing impossible at last.

He spent his winters and then his retirement in Oregon raising his son and ranching, before he returned to baseball as a Red Sox scout until manager Dick Williams hired him as the first base coach for the 1967 miracle pennant. He also acted as their unofficial batting instructor, credited with helping Carl Yastrzemski learn to pull just enough to turn Yastrzemski into a Triple Crown winner that season.

Doerr quit when Williams was fired during the 1969 season, eventually becoming the Blue Jays' batting instructor from their birth through 1981. The Red Sox retired his uniform number 1 in 1988, two years after the Veterans Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame. When the Red Sox broke their eight-decade-plus World Series championship drought, they presented Doerr and Pesky with World Series rings.

Monica Doerr's multiple sclerosis went into remission for 20 years until that 1967 pennant race. When it returned to stay, her husband joined her in refusing to let it weaken their bond; they made the annual trips to the Hall of Fame by hook, crook, car, airplane, or almost anything else they could think of. Until her death in 2003 — the same year The Teammates was published — that bond was stronger than any pennant race.

"People ask, 'Don't you wish you played now?' No. I know the money is better, but I just feel fortunate to have played then," said Doerr in 1990. "I think we had more fun. We played the game hard, but there is so much pressure on these guys."

A man who plays through broiling 1940s pennant races, becomes Ted Williams's best friend on the team, and nurtures enduring love no matter the insidious disease sapping his wife of 65 years knows too much about pressure and more than most about how not to let it beat you. May the last survivor of The Teammates have a sweet reunion with his beloved Monica and his three brothers in arms and fishing poles. And in that order.

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