Catching Up With a 99-Year Old Veteran
May 3, 2008 14 Comments
In case it is not yet known I am currently in the research stage of writing a book on the storied career of former major leaguer Bucky Walters. It is a dual-story, actually, involving not just Bucky’s career but also the fifteen-year effort of his grandson, Jeffrey, to get Bucky inducted into the Hall of Fame. The book is not necessarily advocating Bucky’s induction but what both Bucky and Jeffrey accomplished is remarkable and deserves to be more commonly known. In conducting my research I came into possession of a scrapbook made by Bucky’s wife as well as newspaper clippings from the ’30s and ’40s, and letters to Bucky from some pretty prominent baseball people.
Still missing first-hand accounts, I sought out any former teammates. Luckily, Jeffrey and I found that Bill Werber, a ten-year veteran of the Red Sox, Athletics, and Reds, was still alive. Werber, who helped spearhead one of the most underrated infields of all time (Frank McCormick, Lonnie Frey, Bill Werber, Billy Meyers), is currently 99 years old and living in a retirement home in North Carolina.
I called him this past week in order to conduct an interview about Bucky but, in the end, my fascination split its interests between Bucky and Werber himself; I went from asking questions for the book to just talking to a former MVP-candidate. It is always important to record these voices since they won’t be with us much longer and so I decided to post portions of the interview transcript here, hoping that you will find some of this as interesting as I did while speaking with him. The hardest part of this interview was knowing when to chime in with another question; while Werber is still very cognizant it became very hard to tell if he had finished a thought or was still gathering them.
For the most part, you will see direct quotes from Werber himself. Some of the information was slightly altered to make more sense to those perhaps unfamiliar with names/stories from 1927-1943.
ES: Now, according to what I can see here it appears you were first called up to the major leagues in 1930, with the Yankees. What can you tell me about your experiences on such a dominant team?
BW: Well, haha, I was actually called up earlier, though I didn’t play at all. In 1927 I was called up for the first time. The scout that liked me made me a proposition. He was a big admirer of Miller Huggins, the Yankees manager at the time, and thought it would be to my benefit to sit on the bench and travel with the team, learning how Miller ran the ballclub. I was on the team in the summer of 1927 for two to three weeks. I was lonesome because I lived in a hotel by myself, and the ballplayers had little time for a college kid. After all, they were in a pennant chase. They would push me out of the batting cage, and take over for me at shortstop in fielding practice. This made me very unhappy. I went to see Ed Barrow, the Yankees general manager, and told him “Mr. Barrow, this is not of any benefit to me. I should be taking batting practice, running, fielding grounders, but I never get the chance.” He tried to talk me out of it but I had made up my mind.
ES: What can you tell me about that 1927 team? You said they didn’t necessarily acknowledge you, but Ruth, Gehrig, what were these guys like?
BW: They were, well, a… rambunctious… crew. They won the AL pennant by ten to twelve games that year and they were called, well the writers called them, Murderer’s Row. Murderer’s Row was their nickname. They also beat the Pirates four straight to win the world series.
ES: Now in 1934, you did something now considered a form of betrayal, in going from the Yankees to the Red Sox. How did this happen?
BW: I was sold to the Red Sox in the early part of the 1934 season. In Spring Training I hit around .350 and thought the job was mine, but Joe McCarthy, the Yankees manager, sold me, Dusty Rhodes, George Pipgras, and Henry Johnson to the Red Sox. I came over to play shortstop and Bucky Walters was already there at third base. Later on, Bucky Harris, the Red Sox manager, bought Lyn Lary. Lyn took my spot at shortstop and I ended up taking Bucky’s spot at third base. At this point they sent Bucky to Philadelphia, where Jimmy Wilson turned him into a pitcher. Joe Judge, our first baseman in Boston, used to complain that Bucky and I threw to first too hard. He used to say “Hey, don’t throw the ball so damn hard!”
ES: The next time you and Bucky played together would not be until 1939 when both of you were part of a tremendous Reds team. How did you come to play for Cincinnati?
BW: I held out all of the spring in 1939. I wasn’t with the Reds but rather I was playing third base for the scrub team at the University of Maryland. I held out until a couple of days before the Reds broke spring training. I didn’t know anybody there except for Bucky Walters, and he and I weren’t very close. We were friendly but we weren’t extremely close. Once the team came north to play Spring Training exhibition games against the Red Sox I joined the team.
ES: Now, going back, in 1934-
BW: -in 1934, I played third base for the Red Sox and hit .321 with 67 rbis. I was considered by Ed Barrow, general manager of the Yankees, to be the best player in the entire American League. Unfortunately, I injured my toe that year and was never the same again.
ES: How did you injure your toe?
BW: I was frustrated by Lefty Grove and so I kicked a bucket full of Florida water, with a sponge in it. I fractured my big toe and developed a spur. I also had a calcium block form on the interior part of the big toe joint.
ES: Was it ever fixed?
BW: Well, I went to see Dr. George Bennett, at Hopkins Medical Center in Maryland. He shaved the calcium block off and removed the spur. This was in the winter of 1935. I was never the same ballplayer following the surgery that I was before. I played in discomfort for seven more major league seasons. In 1942, I played third base for the Giants.
ES: Yeah, it seems that you didn’t play the whole year either. How did you come to be on the Giants?
BW: I had retired after 1941, telling Mr. Giles (Warren), general manager of the Reds, that I was in a lot of pain and was going to retire. He called me one day while I was in Washington, working out of my father’s office, and said “Bill, I know you’re retired, but three clubs are interested in your services.” I asked him which and he told me the Giants, Pirates, and Cubs. “What are you selling me for?” I asked. He told me he was selling me for $35,000 and added that he would give me 10% if I accepted. Now, 10% of 35,000 is 3,500, and in 1942, 3,500 is a lot of money! “Sell me to the Giants,” I said. “If I sell you and you change your mind, will you give me the 3,500 back?” Giles asked me. I told him of course I would.
ES: The only other team of yours we haven’t covered is the Philadelphia As. How did you end up there and what was your experience like?
BW: Joe Cronin became manager of the Red Sox and I didn’t like him and he didn’t like me. Without getting into all of the history there, it escalated and he would have his pitchers throw at me, Earl Whitehill in particular. He traded me to the As for… for Pinky Higgins. Pinky played third base for the Red Sox and I played third base for the As. I had another good season with the As but I was never the same ballplayer I was prior to my surgery. Dr. Bennett told me, “Bill, if I operate on you ,you may not ever play ball again… but if I don’t operate on you, you will not play ball again.” I didn’t complain because I didn’t want the owners to know I was playing injured.
ES: What can you tell me about playing alongside Lonnie Frey and Billy Meyers? You guys formed one of the most underrated infields of all time.
BW: Well, I thought Frey and Meyers were good ballplayers but they lacked fight and lacked fance. I organized “The Jungle Club,” and got these guys to be aggressive and fire the ball around the infield. I told them that other teams would watch us in fielding practice and, if we fired the ball around, they would think we have “it” today. I instilled some fight into them. We called Lonnie the leopard, because he had liverspots all over his body in the shower. Meyers we called the jaguar and I was the tiger. Frank McCormick, our first baseman, wanted in on the deal. He was 6’4 and a leading hitter, knocking in all of our runs. I told him, “Frank, you don’t hustle. You aren’t aggressive enough. If you hustle more we may let you in the club.”
He would ask me like every other game, “Was my hustle good today?” He wanted us to call him the wildcat. I told him we would think about it and let him know in the clubhouse. After a big day against the Boston Braves, we were going to the Copley Plaza Hotel and again he asked me if he hustled today. I laughed and told him, “Frankie, you’re in the club… and we’ll name you after drinks at the Merry Go Round (a bar in the Copley Plaza Hotel). We went there and he bought us drinks and we told him, after much thought, we were going to call him the Hippopotamus. All of a sudden he didn’t want to be in the club anymore. We told him we were joking and that he was, of course, the wildcat.
ES: How did something like the jungle club help the team?
BW: Little things like this put spirit in the club because the guys worked harder and hustled more. I think I was responsible for the 1939 pennant because I put hustle where it wasn’t before. Bucky got infected with the spirit, too, winning 27 games that year and the MVP.
ES: Can you tell me your favorite story from back then?
BW: Oh, wow, hmm… here’s one. Bucky Walters and I were coming back from a movie and were staying at the Warwick Hotel. Now, we were roommates back then, and so Bucky heard a party inside a door adjacent to ours. He knocked on the door and asked the woman that answered if we could come join them. She told us no and shut the door. Well, Bucky called down to room service and had a milkshake and sandwich sent up to him. He then took a chair and sat outside the room, drinking the milkshake and eating the sandwich. Soonafter, the same woman and a man came out and started arguing in the hall because he screwed her without a rubber…. and Bucky’s just sitting there drinking his milkshake and eating his sandwich, like he’s back at the movies.
ES: Now, sir, something I would appreciate some light shed upon is the untimely death of catcher Willard Hershberger. I know he committed suicide because he blamed himself for a terrible loss but what was that like from your end?
BW: We were in Boston and Willard Hershberger cut his throat with a straight razor blade and bled to death over a bathtub in the Copley Plaza Hotel. This effected everyone but Bucky moreso because he was the pitcher on the mound. Bucky and I had stopped rooming together at this point but he told me he couldn’t room by himself that night. His wife and their young son were supposed to come stay with him, but the boy had a sore throat or something and couldn’t make it. I told him he would be fine as we were all talking to each other about it in the lobby. Bucky proceeded to go up to my room, pack my suitcase, and bring it into his room.
The hardest part was that everyone loved Willard Hershberger and nobody blamed him for the game except himself. We had been up 4-1 in the ninth inning and, with Bucky on the mound, especially how well he was throwing, we weren’t gonna’ lose that game. With two outs, he walked a batter, gave up a two-run homer, walked another batter, and then Harry Danning I believe hit a two-run homer. Now we were down 5-4 and lost the game. We took the train to Boston following the game and Hersh sat across from me, head buried in his hands, blaming himself the entire time.
Things like this happen and they happen fast. Hersh wasn’t to blame. Nobody was to blame. This was just one of those games we weren’t supposed to win. The scariest part for me was that we talked that night. We went to go see the movie Maryland, My Maryland and all he did the whole time was blame himself.
Though this was not the full interview, these were definitely my favorite parts. I had an absolute blast talking to this man and will be following up with him in a week or two. He couldn’t believe that someone my age (22) actually cared about his era and I informed him of SABR and how there are tons of people interested in his era. Werber has not followed baseball since his retirement in 1942, confirming with me that the Athletics no longer play in Philadelphia and asking if the Phillies still operate out of there. What impressed me the most was his knowledge of his own statistics. Though I only included one example of it in this article, he remembers a lot of his numbers.
If anybody has any questions they would like answered, please post them in the comments. I will be talking to him about a few things next time, mainly the infamous 1939 World Series play wherein Ernie Lombardi was knocked out at home plate by Charlie “King Kong” Keller, as well as his first at-bat in the first ever televised game. The Reds partook in the very first televised baseball game, pitched by Bucky Walters. I will also ask about what happened when Bucky Walters almost killing a man with a fastball.
Overall, there is a new entry into my favorite players list, and he is currently 99 years young, living in a retirement home in North Carolina.