Bobby Doerr

By Linc Wonham

May 11,, 2009

If it’s even possible for someone to be less than adequately awed by the fact that he is the oldest living former major leaguer in the Baseball Hall of Fame, then consider this about Bobby Doerr: He remembers when the Red Sox vs. the Yankees was just another ballgame.

Even better, he remembers the day that all changed.

“It was Memorial Day 1938, a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium,” said the longtime Sox second baseman, now 91 years old. “I’ve got a box score from that day that says there were 83,500 people there (an incredible, Stadium-record 83,533, actually). The place only holds 60,000-something, but there were people all up and down the aisles. They were everywhere.”

Doerr’s memory is absolutely correct, though no one seems to recall the exact reason for such an insanely inflated attendance figure. But the masses picked an extremely opportune day to flock to the ballpark, because what transpired is the stuff of legend for anyone familiar with the greatest rivalry in sports.

“It was really something to be there that day,” Doerr said from his longtime home in Junction City, Oregon. “You’d never see that many people over capacity jammed into a ballpark today. Thank God nothing happened, it could have been a real tragedy.

“We had a left-hander pitching in the second game,” he continued. “And he brushed back a fellow named Jake Powell, the Yankees left fielder. Powell comes running out to the mound, but before he can get there (Joe) Cronin comes running in from shortstop and they had this big fight. It was something. I really think that’s when the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox started.”

The Boston southpaw who ignited the fire was Archie McKain, and Cronin, also a Hall of Famer, was the Sox player-manager who raced to the mound to protect his pitcher from Powell’s retaliation. Powell and Cronin went at it in earnest, and their freewheeling melee spilled into a section underneath the stands before they could finally be separated, ejected and suspended for 10 games apiece.

Say all you want about the Curse of the Bambino and any other Yankees-Red Sox lore that predates the May 30, 1938 incident, but Doerr is 100-percent accurate in his acknowledgment. The 1938 Memorial Day brawl was the first actual spilling of genuinely bad blood between the two clubs, which, after all, is what makes a real rivalry the wonderful phenomenon that it is.

And Doerr should be as intimately familiar with the fabled rivalry as anyone, having spent all 14 of his major-league seasons with the Red Sox. He joined the club as a 19-year-old rookie in 1937, sporadically cracking a lineup that included Hall of Famers Cronin and Jimmie Foxx. By the next season he was playing alongside the two legends every day as the Red Sox’s regular second baseman, and in 1939 the trio was joined by another future Hall of Famer, Ted Williams.

With nine All-Star Game appearances, a .288 lifetime batting average and a career .980 fielding percentage, Doerr carved himself a legacy as one of the greatest second basemen of all time. A bad back forced him to retire at age 33 in 1951, and in 1986 he joined his three former teammates in Cooperstown. Only one living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, 92-year-old front-office legend Lee McPhail, is older than Doerr.

What is so uplifting about the long and wonderful life of Bobby Doerr, though, is that unlike so many athletes before him and since, he fully embraced his life away from baseball once his playing days were over. When he was an 18-year-old prospect playing AAA ball in San Diego, he discovered two passions that proved to have a lot more staying power than his professional playing career, if not his love for the game itself.

The first was flyfishing for salmon and steelhead on the Rogue River in southern Oregon. A native of Los Angeles, Doerr was introduced to the area by the San Diego team’s trainer, and the experience had a profound effect on his life.

“It was 1936,” he recalled, “my last season in San Diego. Our trainer, Les Cook, was a big fisherman and he had a place out on the Rogue River that he used to tell me about all the time. Then one time he invited me up here, and I just thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I’ve been an Oregonian ever since.”

Doerr wound up spending the winter of 1936 in a cabin in the woods on Cook’s property in rural Illahe, Oregon. It was then and there that he met the teacher of the community’s one-room schoolhouse, his future wife Monica.

“We met in ’36, the year the Sox bought my contract,” he said. “I went to spring training with the team in Sarasota in 1937 and played about a third of that season for Boston. We were married in 1938, and I became a regular that year and stayed that way from then on.”

Bobby and Monica had a son, Don, in 1942, and the family lived in tiny Illahe until Doerr retired in 1951. The following year he moved them north to Junction City, his wife’s hometown, so that Don could attend a bigger school.

They maintained a 160-acre spread he’d purchased in Illahe, where Doerr continued angling on the Rogue at every opportunity. In 1960 he sold it and built a cabin in nearby Gold Beach, where he and Monica spent most of their time until she passed away about six years ago.

“We’d usually spend September through June at the place in Gold Beach,” said Doerr, “and the summers up here in Junction City. Then, of course, I lost her a few years ago, and now my legs are a little flimsy so I’ve been staying in Junction City.

“We had a really good life together,” he continued. “She got MS at about 38 years old, and then it went into remission for 10 or 15 years. Then it came back and she had to use a cane and a walker. But she wasn’t fussy about things. We still took a lot of trips together and we did everything we wanted.”

Today, Doerr continues to follow baseball and the Red Sox in particular. He did some scouting and coaching over the years, and he’s still in touch with iconic old Sox Johnny Pesky and Boo Ferris, and Dom DiMaggio, until his recent passing. In fact, because of his “flimsy” legs, the 2009 induction in Cooperstown will be the first one he’ll have missed in years.

“My sister and I, we got the package on TV where we can watch every single Red Sox game,” he said. “They’ve been great the last few years, so it’s really been a lot of fun. And the organization is really good to us older players. I finally got a World Series ring in 2004.”

Doerr played in one Fall Classic for the Sox, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1946. He batted .409 in that series, far eclipsing his teammate and very close friend, Williams, who struggled to a .202 average through the six games.

“I don’t think there’s been anyone after Ted who was much better,” Doerr said of the famously gifted and doggedly scientific hitter. “But if anyone was better or is better, it won’t be because they were more knowledgeable about hitting than Ted was. He was so sharp and so knowledgeable about what he was going to be looking at, what the speeds were going to be from certain pitchers and things like that.”

By continuing to follow the game he loves so closely today, Doerr, like the rest of us baseball fans, is increasingly disheartened by the continued revelations surrounding performance-enhancing drugs and supplements.

“It’s such a shame this stuff keeps popping up,” he said. “It just makes you feel that there are so many players now who might have been involved at one time or another. I’m sure glad this stuff wasn’t around in my day. Who knows how many people would’ve done it?

“But,” he continued, “it’s cheating. That’s all it is.”

Linc Wonham is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Eugene, Oregon. He has been a sports journalist for 20 years and has contributed to and edited over 100 books on baseball. He can be reached at lwonham@aol.com.


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