Hard on the heels of Roy Halladay’s death last week, baseball endured another significant loss when Hall of Fame second baseman Bobby Doerr died Monday in Junction City, Oregon. The news broke today, but unlike Halladay’s case there was absolutely nothing tragic about Doerr’s passing: he was 99 and had been the oldest living ex-major league player. He also had a Blue Jays connection in common with Halladay, though a much smaller one: Doerr was the team’s first hitting coach, from 1977 to 1981. It’s odd how the passage of time makes age and other matters seem relative. I became a baseball nut just before the Blue Jays arrived and thought of Doerr back then as one of those ancient grizzled veterans who become coaches, “Pop Fly” being my generic nickname for the stereotype. But Doerr was only 49 when he started coaching in Toronto and would live another 50 years, and I’m 61 now. Damn.
A quiet, graceful player, Doerr was born in Los Angeles on April 7, 1918 and became a pro in the heavy-hitting Pacific Coast League at just 16. The Boston Red Sox held an option on him and in 1936, when the kid was hitting .342 in the PCL, they sent Eddie Collins – another Hall of Fame second baseman – to scout him. He liked what he saw of Doerr and on the same trip noticed a 17-year-old string-bean outfielder by the name of Theodore Samuel Williams playing for San Diego who seemed to hit a little. Collins signed them both and forever after Doerr and Williams were linked, first as Red Sox teammates and then outside of baseball as lifelong friends who shared a passion for fly fishing. They must have gone on hundreds of fishing trips together and Williams eventually designed a bamboo fly rod he named after his old friend but which Doerr nevertheless had to pay for, which he delighted in grousing about over the decades.
For those interested in learning more about the relationship between Doerr, Williams and two other core Red Sox players – shortstop Johnny Pesky and centerfielder Dominic DiMaggio – I highly recommend David Halberstam’s wonderful and moving 2003 book THE TEAMMATES – A Portrait of a Friendship. Like many of his books it starts out being about baseball and ends up being about everything.
Doerr preceded Williams in the major leagues by two years, coming to the Red Sox for good in 1937. He was injured by a beanball and struggled in his first season, but then went on to have a Hall of Fame career that ended in 1951 when back woes which plagued most of his career forced his retirement at just 33. He was outstanding with the bat – hitting for average (a career .288 mark), power (223 home runs and 381 doubles), while striking out less often than he walked, with a very good on-base-percentage of .378. Most of all he was known as a tremendous RBI guy, with over 100 in six years and 1,247 altogether in thirteen full seasons.
As a second baseman he was outstanding – sure-handed with great range afield, graceful on the pivot, strong-armed. As my friend Ted O’Reilly pointed out today, it’s funny that a player who made so few errors should be named “do err” when in reality he didn’t, not much.
Doerr was also widely respected and popular with teammates and fans alike because of his character, which featured modesty, good humour, quiet leadership and fortitude in the face of injuries. The latter finally became too much for him and he retired because of a chronic back problem, but with a lot of game left. Perhaps his greatest season was his second-last in 1950 and he was in the middle of another good one in 1951 when it became impossible to carry on.
That he had to wait until 1986 for HOF induction – and then by way of the Veterans’ Committee at that – is a bit of a mystery. After the ceremony, Ted Williams referred to Doerr as “the silent leader” of the Red Sox. He and Dom DiMaggio were bookends of calm and reason around the volatile Williams, the fiery Pesky, and the chirpy and combative catcher, Birdie Tebbets. These men formed the nucleus of a Red Sox team described by Bill James as an “odd collection of alcoholics, intellectuals, and country bumpkins who won 473 games between 1946 and 1950.” And I might add, managed to parlay those 473 wins into exactly one pennant, in 1946. They tied for the 1948 pennant with the Indians, losing the one-game playoff, and lost the final three games of the 1949 season to the Yankees to finish one game behind them for the pennant. They were a very close third in 1950 and it says a lot about Doerr’s value that after he retired in 1951, the Sox fell into the second division for many years.
In that he changed how second basemen were thought of, Doerr was important not only to the Red Sox, but to the development of the game. He was, along with his contemporary Joe Gordon – who played second base with the Yankees and Indians – the prototype of a type of player that has become common in recent years but was rare in Doerr’s day: the power-hitting, run-producing second baseman. I’ve often thought of Bobby Doerr over the years when seeing recent similar players for whom he blazed a trail, such as Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia, or Robinson Cano. I also think of him often, and will continue to, because I’ve been a Red Sox fan for 43 years. Damn, again.
So, he was some kind of player and, apart from a healthier back, the only thing one might have wished for Doerr was better luck when it came to winning a World Series. He was only in one as a player, in 1946, which the Sox lost in seven games to the Cardinals, with Enos Slaughter famously scoring the winning run on a mad dash all the way home from first to home on a single. Doerr certainly couldn’t be faulted for the loss: he hit .409 with 9 hits and slugged .591 in the Series. The first year he came out of retirement to coach for the Sox in 1967, they again lost a heartbreaker in seven games to the Cardinals, largely because Bob Gibson was the best pitcher on the planet at the time. Doerr surely grinned ear to ear when the Sox evened things up with the Cardinals by beating them in 2004 and 2013.
No, while saluting his passing and recognizing his excellence, we baseball fans needn’t feel sorry or sad for Bobby Doerr, who likely had no regrets at all and wouldn’t have changed a thing about his life, in baseball or after. We should all be so lucky.
© 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.