Sunday, June 22, 2008

Oldest Player to Play with Babe Ruth Turns 100

Baseball is a game of big, round, meaningful numbers. Bill Werber knows about that: He got exactly 200 hits in the 1934 season and here he is 74 years later, still around to talk about it.

Werber, the oldest living major leaguer, turns 100 years old on Friday.

"It appears," he said from a senior housing facility in North Carolina, "that I'm going to live past 100."

Werber played with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, with Jimmie Foxx and many others. He played for Connie Mack. He played on a world championship team with the 1940 Cincinnati Reds. He went fishing with Ted Williams. He was the first player ever to take an at-bat in a televised major league game. He was the first All-America basketball player produced by Duke University. And, even at 100, he can still remember almost all of it.

"That's because I'm intelligent," he said.

Bill Werber (sliding) played in the major leagues for 11 seasons, and won a World Series with the Cincinnati Reds in 1940.

Werber's career began in 1930, and ended in 1942. He played mostly third base for the Yankees, Red Sox, A's, Reds and Giants, hitting .271 with 1,363 hits, 78 home runs and 215 steals. In 1934 for the Red Sox, he batted .321 with 40 steals. He played the final seven years of his career in pain due to a damaged toe, but he never complains about that. On a daily basis the memories he collected from his 13-year career bring a smile to his face.

And no one makes him smile more than the mention of Babe Ruth.

"I was very fond of the big monster," Werber said. "He knew he was the adopted son of a bar owner named Ruth, he never knew his own mom and dad. He was kind to children. He signed autographs by the thousands. Kids would walk all over his white shoes and tan pants. It didn't matter. He would visit hospitals, and he'd never take a newspaper man or cameraman with him. I got a nice letter recently from his granddaughter. She sent me pictures."

Werber played two years with the Yankees and he and Ruth became close friends.

"Babe was a good bridge player," he said. "He knew all about it. [Yankee catcher Bill] Dickey and I were partners against Babe and Gehrig. We'd play on the train for 2½ hours. Babe used to give what he call "phonky" bids to irritate Gehrig. He liked to irritate Gehrig."

And teammates liked to irritate Ruth.

"They used to play tricks on the Babe," Werber said. "They'd nail his shoes to the floor. Or, they'd take the eyelets out of his shirt so his shirt would fly open. Babe made $80,000 a year. He'd get a check every two weeks for $7,500. Mark Roth, the secretary of our club, would put the pay envelopes on each player's stool in the locker room. He'd use scissors to open each envelope. Guys would take Babe's check out of the envelope and tape it on the mirror in the bathroom in the clubhouse. Guys would be combing their hair, or putting talcum in their jock, and there was Babe's check looking right at them. He'd leave it up there all day. When everyone was done, he'd take it down, and go on his way."

Werber never played with Ted Williams, but he knew him.

"I liked Ted," Werber said. "I told him a ghost story once on a train ride. It was a good ghost story. We sat Ted in a certain place so he could hear it. We had two other guys, Tom Connelly and Roger Cramer, placed strategically around Ted. At first, he didn't buy into it, but then he did. At the climax of the story, I yelled, 'I am the 12th man!', my eyes were dilated, my fingers were outstretched. Ted jumped in the air, then he beat me over the head."

Werber also visited Williams' home more than once.

"Ted was funny," he said. "We had dinner at his house after fishing with him one day in the Florida Keys. Ted had had a few too many martinis. We were with our friend, Dick Locker. Dick told Ted, 'You're going to have to talk a little louder to Bill, he's deaf.' Well, all through dinner, Ted thought that it was Mrs. Werber who was deaf. So, every time that Ted would say something, he'd lean across the table to Mrs. Werber and say, 'Did you hear what I said?' And Mrs. Werber would say, 'Yes, I heard what you said, Ted.'"

Werber said the highlight of his career was playing for the world champion Reds in 1940. Not only was that team a champion, but, Werber said, that team knew how to have fun.

"We had a second baseman named [Lonnie] Frey who had liver spots all over him," Werber said. "So I started calling him, The Leopard. He looked like a leopard. And he ran like a leopard. So I started a club on the Reds called The Jungle Club. Frey was the Leopard. I was The Jaguar. Our big first baseman was Frank McCormick. He was the better hitter in the league that year. He told me, 'I want to be in the Jungle Club.' I told Frank, 'But Frank, you don't hustle enough to be in the Jungle Club.' He said, 'If I hustle for a week, can I be in the club?' I said, 'Maybe if you hustle for a month, you can be in the club.'"

So, we were in Boston, he had a big game, and he took a couple of guys out for beers after the game. He said< 'Did I hustle good enough today?' I said, 'Yes, you did, Frank. We've decided to put you in the Jungle Club.' He said, 'What's my nickname?' I said, 'We have a suitable name. You'll be The Hippopotamus.' He said, 'I don't want to be The Hippopotamus. I want to be The Wildcat.' I said, 'Frank, you are a wildcat.' He ran out in the hall and said, 'I'm in the Jungle Club. I'm The Wildcat!' Things like that really help a ballclub play better, playing kid games."

It was with the 1940 Reds that Werber led off in the first game on television in baseball history.

"I didn't even know about it until four years later," Werber said. "I was walking through the country club where I was a member when this young fellow read out of a book of trivia that I was the first batter ever to bat in a televised game. And I didn't even know it."

Werber hasn't watched a game on TV in years.

"I don't watch any baseball anymore," he said. "I stopped watching because of Johnny Damon and, what's his name? Alvarez? … Ramirez? … Yeah, [Manny] Ramirez. He had that long hair thing going down the back of his neck. And Damon had that beard. I wrote a number of polite letters to [commissioner Bud] Selig. I don't believe in being abusive, that won't get you nothing. He wrote me some innocuous letter back. It didn't say anything."

Werber loved his career as a player, and he loved playing basketball at Duke, but being a very smart man, he knew baseball would only last so long. When he retired, he made a second career in his father's line of work: insurance.

"I made a $100,000 salary my first year out of baseball [working at New England Life Insurance]," Werber said. "Hey, that's $20,000 more than Babe Ruth made in his best season."

Bill Werber laughed heartily about that. After 45 minutes on the phone, recalling his favorite stories, Werber took a nap. At 100 years old, and lucid beyond belief, he slept well.