BY DICK TRUST
Bobby Doerr knows what it's like to wait for the greatest honor in baseball. Thirty-five years after he played his last major league game, Doerr was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. "There were a lot of ballplayers back then who deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. I had to wait my turn, I guess,” said the retired Red Sox second baseman, for whom the gates to Coo-perstown swung open in 1986 in balloting by the Veterans Committee.
“That’s one of the great thrills of your lifetime. It’s the ultimate of everything,” the nine-time All-Star said by phone from his home in Junction City, Ore.
“It’s quite a privilege to be put in the Hall of Fame. Not that many people get voted in. It’s one of the nicest things a ballplayer can have happen to him.”
The oldest living player in baseball’s Hall of Fame — he’ll be 91 on April 7 — Doerr has enjoyed more than two decades of recognition as one of the game’s elite performers. So it was with great reverence, and understanding, that he welcomed Jim Rice as good company in Cooperstown.
The former Red Sox slugger had to wait only 20 years after his retirement — and until his 15th and final year of eligibility in balloting by the baseball writers — before gaining entry on Jan. 12.
“I think it’s great. I was hoping he’d make it,” Doerr said of Rice, who will be inducted with Rickey Henderson, tapped in his first year of eligibility. “I’m glad both of them got in, not just one. Both of them deserve to be in. [Rice] is one of the top guys who should have been in years ago. But that’s the way it goes, I guess.”
Rice and Henderson will be enshrined on July 26, and though Doerr has made it an annual tradition to attend the induction ceremonies and swap stories with the many Hall of Famers who assemble in the tiny New York village, he’s not sure he’ll be visiting this year. “I’ll be turning 91 in April, so it’s getting awful hard to travel,” he said. “It’s become quite a project, hard to move around much anymore.”
Although Doerr said he’s in good health, age will likely keep him from attending games in Boston, too. “I doubt whether I’ll get back anymore,” he said.
Doerr’s most recent appearance at Fenway Park came on Aug. 2, 2007, when the Red Sox held “Bobby Doerr Day” and the silver-haired gentleman from the great Northwest took a ride along the warning track, threw out the first pitch, and addressed the crowd.
At Fenway, Doerr’s retired uniform No. 1 radiates from a deck high in right field. His number is in good company there, joining those of Joe Cronin (4), Johnny Pesky (6), Carl Yastrzemski (8), Ted Williams (9), Carlton Fisk (27), and the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson (No. 42, retired throughout the majors). Rice’s No. 14 will one day be up there as well.
Rice, Williams, Yaz, and Doerr are the only Hall of Famers who played their entire big-league careers with the Red Sox. Doerr took it one step beyond: In his 1,865 games, he played no position other than second base.
Even though it’s long distance, Doerr follows closely the team for which he played 14 years before a back injury triggered his retirement in 1951 at age 33.
“I go to my sister’s house, and when baseball season starts, she gets that TV package deal, so we watch the Red Sox every night when we can,” Doerr said. “I like what I see. They look like they’ve made some good deals. [They have] the pitching. And if [Mike] Lowell gets back in there … I think they’re going to be right up in there.”
Doerr said he’s not worried about the Yankees and the big-money acquisitions they’ve made this off-season. “No,” he said. “The Red Sox are going to be right there with them.”
Two fellow Oregonians — center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and shortstop Jed Lowrie — make following the Red Sox even more interesting for Doerr.
“I think he’s going to be one of the great ballplayers,” Doerr said of Ellsbury. “I’m glad he’s still with the ball club. And Jed Lowrie is another good young ballplayer. They’ve got some good young kids coming in there.”
Doerr hasn’t had the opportunity to meet Ellsbury, but he had lunch with Lowrie just before Christmas.
“I was really impressed with him,” Doerr said of Lowrie. “I understand he had kind of a bad wrist for most of the year. I didn’t realize that. And it affected his hitting.”
Not much affected Doerr’s hitting, or his fielding. He was a hit from the start, going 3-for-5 in his first major league game at age 19 in 1937.
Swinging from the right side, he went on to compile a .288 lifetime batting average, hitting better than .300 three times. He smacked 223 home runs, third most among second basemen when he retired, and drove in at least 100 runs six times. Five times he led American League second basemen in double plays executed, four times he led in putouts and fielding percentage, and three times in assists.
Doerr served as a Red Sox scout (1957-66), then was first base coach under manager Dick Williams in the Impossible Dream pennant year of 1967, and for two seasons afterward. He signed on as hitting coach for the expansion Toronto Blue Jays (1977-81) before leaving baseball and settling for good in his adopted state.
He was born in Los Angeles but has made Oregon his home since the late 1930s. He’s lived in Junction City since 1953 and owns a home on the Rogue River, where he fished and operated as a fishing guide. The guide business stopped “about 10 years ago,” he said, but he continues to fish with his only offspring, son Don.
Doerr fished often with teammate Ted Williams, a Hall of Famer in baseball and fishing.
“He’d come up here and fish with me on the Rogue River, and I’d fish with him down in Florida,” saidDoerr, whose wife of 65 years, Monica, died in 2003 at age 88. “He was one of the best. He was the best, of course, at whatever he tried to do.”
It wasn’t easy being Ted’s fishing buddy, but he bit the bullet and persevered. “He chewed me out pretty bad for fouling up with backlashes and stuff,” Doerr said. “He was tough to fish with.
“He demanded expertise and I didn’t quite meet up to his standards,” he continued with a laugh. “He put so much pressure on you that even if you were a good fisherman, you could not do it right for him.
“But we stayed friends. We met in the Pacific Coast League. I saw him break in and we were friends from that time on.”
OT contributor Dick Trust can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This week's OT cover
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