By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
CHARLOTTE -- To get an audience with the oldest living ex-major leaguer and the last remaining ex-teammate of Babe Ruth's, you agree to show up at the retirement community where he lives, at a precise time that falls between his morning and afternoon naps, and that also happens to be lunchtime. In the clubhouse dining room, you take a seat to his left, because that's his good ear. And of course, you'll have what he's having -- a hot dog with onions and a little bit of ketchup, and an iced tea -- because, hey, he's nearly 100 years old and ought to know by now what's good.
You turn down the ice cream, because he does.
After lunch, you follow along behind his wheelchair to his apartment and wait until he has lifted himself into his recliner, and then you plop yourself down where he has motioned you. And you sit there in Bill Werber's wheelchair, which is actually quite comfortable, and you wait for him to ask you what it is you want to talk to him about.
And then he talks about whatever it is he wants to talk about -- which, in roughly chronological order, is:
His upcoming 100th birthday on Friday; his youth in Berwyn near College Park; his friendship with Shirley Povich; his late wife, Kathryn, whom everyone knew as Tat; his hijinks at Duke University, where he was the school's first all-American basketball player; the house he and Tat bought in College Park, where they lived for 30 years ("The address," he says, "was 4513 Amherst Road"); the amputation of his left leg due to complications from diabetes several years ago; and his many memories of an 11-year baseball career with the Yankees, Red Sox, Athletics, Reds and Giants, and especially Hall of Fame teammates such as Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove.
And occasionally, he doubles back to add something to a previous story.
When he does this, you do not interrupt.
And when he is finished, and the afternoon nap appears as if it is going to occur whether you are there or not, you thank him for his time and let yourself out. And you marvel at the astounding recall Werber possesses in telling what seemed to be about a hundred stories in roughly two hours, but which you later determine was not a hundred, but in fact was exactly 28 stories.
And you decide, it being pretty near impossible to speak to any of Werber's former teammates or managers, you have little choice but to sift through the stories and decide which ones most warrant retelling to a larger audience. And you decide the best way to do that, without leaving out any good ones, is by multiple choice.
Story No. 1: Which would you like to hear -- A) The time Werber got kicked out of the Berwyn School, which is how he wound up going to school in the District, eventually graduating from McKinley Tech?
B) The time Povich, the longtime Washington Post sports columnist, was working as the timekeeper for high school basketball, and the gun he used to signal the end of the game failed to work, forcing Povich to grab a pair of cymbals from the band and throw them onto the court?
C) The time pitcher Paul Derringer and outfielder Ival Goodman, Werber's teammates on the late-1930s Cincinnati Reds, got into a fight in the clubhouse when Derringer accused Goodman of not having any guts after the latter allowed a fly ball to drop in?
Or, D) The time Werber broke his toe by kicking a water cooler?
The choice, clearly, should be A).
"I got kicked out of the Berwyn School," Werber said, "because I wrote a poem." He looks to the ceiling to summon the verses. " 'A great big eagle flew from the south/With old man Beebe in its mouth' -- that was the principal -- 'And when he saw he had a fool/He dropped him over the Berwyn School.' And old man Beebe wrote a letter to my father that said, 'I think your son needs schooling at somewhere other than the Berwyn School.' "
Story No. 2. Your choices:
A) The time in 1943 when Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith tried to coax Werber out of retirement with an offer of $50,000 -- at a time when Werber was making twice that (and about eight times his highest salary as a ballplayer) as a salesman at his father's insurance agency in College Park?
B) The time Ruth, after hitting a home run, chided Werber, the base runner at first, for sprinting around the bases, telling him, "Son, you don't have to run when the Babe hits one"?
C) The time during Werber's rookie season when Ford Frick, a sportswriter who would later become baseball commissioner, praised him in print for having the "coolness of a veteran"?
Or, D) The time, roughly four years ago, when Werber decided he could no longer tolerate watching baseball on television?
Hint: You're going to want to go with D).
"I think what turned me off," he said, "was seeing Johnny Damon in center field [for the Red Sox], with that full beard and the long hair down his back, and [Manny] Ramírez in left field with the dreadlocks. I wrote a letter to -- what's the commissioner's name? Yes, Bud Selig. I said the appearance of these ballplayers was abysmal, and something should be done about it. And Selig answered. His letters were always polite and well-written. But nothing came of it.
"Joe McCarthy was the manager of the Yankees in 1930. I didn't care for Joe McCarthy. He drank whiskey, and I didn't approve of that. But he demanded his ballplayers all dressed and acted like ballplayers. They all wore hats or caps on the road -- Ruth wore a cap -- and they all wore coats and ties and acted like gentlemen. And they were groomed nicely."
Story No. 3: The choices are -- A) The time he told a classmate at McKinley Tech during his junior year that he was going to marry the girl he just saw come out of a classroom that Werber himself was about to go into -- and how, several years later, he did?
B) The time he decided to sign (or rather, enter into a handshake agreement with) the Yankees in 1927, while still at Duke, because their scout, Paul Kirchell, impressed him more than the others -- particularly the Cleveland Indians scout who showed up one time with a grease stain on his white tie?
C) The time his marriage to Tat nearly got him kicked off Duke's basketball team, because of a school rule about married students?
Or, D) The time Ruth hung Yankees teammate Jimmie Reese, a scrappy second baseman, by his shirt from the hook in his locker and wouldn't let him down until the game started?
The winner: C). It's very sweet.
"We were married on September 16, 1929, and it was my senior year. Now, Duke had a rule [that] if you were married and lived in the environs of Durham, you couldn't participate in any sport. So a week before Christmas, when basketball was starting, I sent [Kathryn] home. And I was living at the Sigma Chi fraternity, and I was depressed. So I went to the athletic director and said: 'I'm not going to be any use to you in basketball. I'm going to fail my studies and leave the university.' And he said, 'There's the telephone -- call her up and get her back down here.' And I did. They changed the rules for me.
"But then the papers got hold of my marriage, and pretty soon the dean, Dr. William Hane Wannamaker, came looking for me. But when he found me, I said to him, 'Dr. Wannamaker, just wait until you see the girl.' "
Story No. 4: The choices -- A) The time Werber spent several weeks with the 1927 Yankees (the legendary "Murderer's Row" team) during his summer vacation from Duke -- essentially serving an unpaid apprenticeship -- and hated it so much, he left?
B) The time (or actually, many times) Derringer, the Cincinnati pitcher, would get drunk after a game, but would show up early at the stadium the next day to punish himself by running it off?
C) The time in 1939 when Werber was released by Connie Mack, the legendary manager/owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, over a contract dispute?
Or, D) The time he offered to give back $1,500 in salary to Reds President Warren Giles because Giles had been kind enough to give Werber a raise in that amount the previous season -- and because he didn't think Giles would accept it?
The winner: C).
"Mr. Mack would wait until the last second to send out contracts with letters. When I received my contract, the letter said: 'We had a bad year [in 1938]. We had a high payroll. And we anticipate a bad year coming up.' When I got the letter, I wrote back to him. I said: 'I know we had a bad year. I know the payroll was high. I know we're going to have another bad year.' But I said, 'In substance, Mr. Mack, what I would advise you to do is sell your ballclub and get into a more profitable business.'
"That was a bad error. And I never heard from Mr. Mack again. A while later, Mr. Giles called from Cincinnati and said, 'Bill, we've acquired your contract from Mr. Mack.' "
Story No. 5:
A) The time doctors informed him of the need to amputate his infected left leg by telling him, "We either have to cut off your head, or cut off your leg," and Werber chose the latter?
B) The time legendary Yankees second baseman Tony Lazzeri replaced Ruth's eyewash with water and appalled the hulking slugger by guzzling it down?
C) The times Ruth and Gehrig would team up against catcher Bill Dickey and Werber for long games of bridge during train rides?
Or, D) The time Lazzeri preyed upon Ruth's indifference toward lesser teammates by "introducing" Ruth to a "new kid we signed out of Harvard" -- and whom Ruth greeted with enthusiastic warmness -- but who was actually a relief pitcher named Myles Thomas, who had been their teammate for four seasons.
Let's try C), since it involves Ruth drinking -- always a fine story.
"The minute we'd start down the train line, Ruth would yell, 'Cut the cards!' He'd take a glass full of ice about this tall" -- Werber holds his hands about eight inches apart -- "and fill it with Seagram's, then add about this much water" -- he holds two fingers about an inch apart. "And he'd sit there and sip it.
"And he liked to irritate Gehrig. He'd give him good bids for a while, but then he'd start giving 'funky' bids. That's what Gehrig would call them, 'funky' bids. And Gehrig would get upset and eventually throw his cards on the table and say, 'How much do we owe you?' And usually it was about $3 or $3.50."
Story No. 6:
A) The times the nattily attired Ruth patiently signed autographs for kids even as they walked all over his shiny, white dress shoes?
B) The time Grove, Werber's teammate in Boston, taught him how to butter corn on the cob by slathering butter on a piece of bread, then twisting the corn inside the bread?
C) The time Grove impressed a scout who had visited his home in Lonaconing, Md., by showing off his ability to kill squirrels with rocks?
Or, D) The time Foxx, who never appeared to be very fast on the diamond -- and who, in fact, routinely was held to a single when he hit a ball off the Green Monster at Fenway Park -- outran five other players, including the speedy Werber, to win $100?
No question. It has to be C).
"The scout, Ira Thomas, goes out into the woods to look for him, and eventually, here comes this tall, rawboned guy. And he's got squirrel tails tied around his belt, with the heads hanging down. So the first question Ira Thomas asks him is, 'Are you Lefty Grove?'
"And Lefty says, 'I be.'
"He said, 'Well, where's your gun.'
" 'I don't use no gun.'
"He said, 'Well, how do you kill the squirrels?'
" 'I kill them with rocks.'
"He says, 'I don't believe you.'
"And Lefty says, 'Well, you see that insulator on that crossbar?' And he takes one of the rocks from his pocket, and throws it with his right hand -- and the glass just shatters in all directions.
"And Thomas is amazed, but he says, 'I thought you were a left-hander.'
"He says, 'I am. But when I throw it left-handed, I tear them all up.' "
Story No. 7:
A) The time Werber stole home on the Chicago White Sox when first baseman Zeke Bonura lobbed the ball back to the pitcher after a pickoff attempt one too many times?
B) The time Werber and Ben Chapman of the Yankees, considered the two fastest men in baseball, raced around the bases for $100 -- and wound up tied?
C) The time Werber sued the New York Giants to get his last two weeks' worth of salary after he retired in 1942, and went before legendary commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis for a hearing on the dispute -- and won.
Or, D) The time Werber, playing for the Red Sox, turned a base on balls into a triple?
A triple out of a base on balls? It's gotta be D).
"Schoolboy Rowe was pitching for Detroit, and he was after his 16th consecutive win. I walked. And [Ray] Hayworth is catching, and [Bill] Rogell is playing shortstop and [Charlie] Gehringer is playing second. And I'm going to first base, and I look over and Rogell has his back to the infield, tapping clods of dirt with his spikes. And Gehringer is doing the same thing.
"So when I hit first base, I had a full head of steam, and when I started going for second, you could hear the roar of the crowd all the way at Back Bay Station. Gehringer turns around, startled. Rogell turns around. They see me. So Hayworth throws the ball, and I slide into second base, and the ball goes out to Jo-Jo White in center field. So I slide into third base -- a triple out of a base on balls.' "
And with that, Bill Werber's eyes are shining, and he is laughing out loud, and then he is yawning. And his mouth starts to tell another story -- that would have been number 29, and the start of yet another multiple choice -- but the momentum ebbs, and the thought passes out into the clouds.
"He's got the mind of an 80-year-old," Werber's son, Bill Jr., would say later, which doesn't sound like a compliment, but surely is, as Bill Jr. is 77 years old himself.
Silence fills the apartment, and Bill Werber, a few days shy of 100, simply chuckles a few more times. And you are near-certain there are plenty more stories in there, and if you chose to wait out the afternoon nap, they would spring forth in waves.
But it is already past his naptime, and you are exhausted, too, and so you lift yourself out of Bill Werber's wheelchair. You glance quickly around the apartment, noting the lack of a single piece of baseball memorabilia, but walls and shelves full of family pictures -- including quite a few of Tat, plus their three children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, all of whom will be there for the big birthday party on Friday.
It is time to be going, so you shake Bill Werber's hand -- a strong grip he has -- and head for the door. As you close it gently behind you, turning the knob so as not to disturb him with the click, you hear another sturdy laugh -- and then, a little softer, "A triple out of a base on balls!"