Off and Running

Bill Werber, Charlotte resident and the oldest living ex-New York Yankee and ex-Boston Red Sox, played with Babe Ruth and drank Scotch with President Eisenhower. And oh, the stories he can tell 

Two months shy of ninety-seven, Bill Werber can recite the home addresses of childhood friends. He’s surrendered much of his left leg to the devil diabetes, but he can still tell the story of sprinting inside a cathedral while tens of thousands cheered: Flying around the bases at Yankee Stadium on a sultry June afternoon in 1930 after Babe Ruth belted one into the masses, when the memories did not yet outnumber the tomorrows.

Bill Werber had a regular bridge game with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Bill Dickey.

Bill Werber had a regular bridge game with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Bill Dickey.

Would that all of us could lead such mundane existences. Werber, in no particular order of import or chronology, enjoyed a seventy-plus-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, Kathryn (known as "Tat"); was Duke's first All-American basketball player; had Major League Baseball's first televised at-bat; authored three books; recommended Scotch to the President of the United States; and strongly advised Marriott to avoid the hotel business.

And there is this: No one is more qualified to opine on last season's Boston Red Sox World Series victory, which eradicated talk of the "Curse of the Bambino," if not any actual hex. You see, Werber has the seventh most stolen bases in Red Sox history. He also is the oldest living ex-Yankee, former teammate of the Bambino himself.

"Idiocy," snorts Werber when asked about the curse. "I can't put a curse on you, and you can't put a curse on me. And the Babe wouldn't have put a curse on anybody, anyway."

The prosthetic leg is never far from the recliner in which Werber now spends much of each day. The sandy-brown hair has turned silver, but it still is wavy and full. His blue eyes rarely blink and never wander. He is voluble and his voice frequently rises with emotion, but his manner is courtly and his diction perfect. One imagines him cringing among the profanities of a Major League clubhouse.

A Duke banner flutters outside the one-level villa. Inside, Werber devours newspapers and periodicals in the sunlit living room. Through the open blinds, a bird feeder is visible on the tidy patio outside the sliding glass door. Shelves are filled with books, including those written by Werber, on baseball and hunting. Correspondence is stacked on the coffee table. Although slowed by painful carpal tunnel syndrome, Werber still fires off a passionate stream of letters to newspaper editors, friends, and fans on topics ranging from baseball to politics to current events.

Werber begins speaking about the recently lapsed American century. He is imparting a history lesson. He is talking about his life.

After his freshman year at Duke, Werber and his father entered into a handshake deal with the Yankees for him to join the team full time after graduation. The Yanks financed Werber's final three years of college, and he reported for duty in the spring of 1930. He soon took his first major league at-bat, in front of a raucous, capacity Yankee Stadium crowd, after injury and illness sidelined the Yankees' two regular shortstops. Batting second in the lineup, surrounded by Hall of Famers Earle Combs, Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzeri, Werber drew a base on balls without moving the bat off his shoulder.

"Ford Frick [then a sportswriter but later commissioner of baseball] wrote that when I was down two strikes, I watched four balls go by as coolly as a veteran," Werber laughs. "Cool, hell: Tat was the only one who knew that I would have been swinging wildly at every one of those pitches if I hadn't been too scared to move my arms."

Up next, Ruth crushed a home run into the right-field bleachers.

"I knew that ball was gone, but I wanted to show the people in the stands and my new teammates what kind of speed I had," Werber says with a chuckle. "So I'm really steaming around the bases. When I rounded third, third-base coach Art Fletcher had his hands in the air and was yelling, ‘Whoa! Whoa!'

"I probably scored before the Babe even reached first base. I was sitting on the bench, and the Babe made his way around the bases with those little mincing steps of his. He received congratulations from everybody in the dugout, and eventually made his way down to where I was sitting. He wiped his face with a towel, and then he turned to me, rubbed my head, and mussed my hair. ‘Kid,' he said, ‘you don't even have to run when the Babe hits 'em!'

"I really loved that man," Werber says. "He was outgoing and affectionate and he got along with everybody. If I introduced you to him today, he'd probably give you a big hug and ask how you were doing. Of course, he wouldn't remember your name tomorrow!

"He would always leave Yankee Stadium dressed immaculately because he knew the young boys would be watching him. And they might spill things on his tan slacks or step all over his white shoes, but he didn't mind. He would always make time for them, no matter how late he had to be out there. That is why I rooted for the Yankees against the Red Sox in the playoffs last year. The Red Sox players' physical appearance was a disgrace and an embarrassment. They have an image to uphold for the kids and they did not do so."

Werber claims that he never was awed by his world-famous teammates. In fact, he soon joined an historic bridge foursome for cross-country train rides: Werber and Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey versus Ruth and Gehrig.

"Not to be insulting, but Dickey and I were smarter than they were," Werber says. Plus, Werber's side had an added advantage: "Babe would have a fifth of Seagram's and a glass and ice with him, and he would sip the whiskey while we were playing. He would never drink to intoxication, but he would be feeling good. And he would start giving what he called ‘funky' bids to Gehrig [to annoy him]. They would start losing, and Gehrig would figure out what was going on, and he would become extremely irritated. He would throw the cards down and demand to know how much they owed us. They'd usually have to pay about $3 or $3.50. And the Babe would just laugh like hell."

Werber was witness to one of the greatest sports dynasties of all time and teammate to some of the more eccentric characters the game has known. He tells of a post-retirement dinner with Ted Williams, when the batting legend mistakenly thought Tat was hard of hearing and shouted, "Did you hear what I said?" at her while relating a story; of Yankee Lefty Gomez batting on a gloomy afternoon while holding a lit cigarette lighter in front of his face "so [fireballing pitcher Bob] Feller can see me!"; and of the Red Sox sardonically shrieking "How'm I doin', Edna?!" at Detroit pitcher Schoolboy Rowe, after the Tigers' phenom made the mistake, during a radio interview, of posing that question to his girlfriend in the listening audience.

Werber also relates anecdotes of former managers, including Casey Stengel, whose incomprehensible pronouncements were dubbed "Stengelese" ("Detested the man," Werber says bluntly. "Thoroughly unprofessional. And the syntax! Ridiculous!"), and Ray Schalk, starting catcher for the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox," who were accused of throwing the World Series in one of the greatest gambling scandals ever to afflict professional sports ("He was emphatic that ‘Shoeless Joe' Jackson and [pitcher] Ed Cicotte played to win that Series," Werber says.)

Werber can also tell you about players hiding alligators and possums in teammates' lockers and hotel bathtubs, tossing yowling alley cats onto the backs of friends watching movies in darkened theaters, and hiding fish guts wrapped in newspaper in cars baking under the Florida sun during spring training.

Although Werber played well in limited time with the Yankees, the team decided to retain Frankie Crosetti as its regular shortstop and sold Werber to the Red Sox in 1933. He enjoyed several superb seasons in Boston, including 1934, when he led the American League with forty stolen bases, was second in the league with 129 runs scored, and was sixth with 200 hits.

In 1939 and 1940, Werber was the starting third baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, which advanced to the World Series both years. The Reds won the title in 1940, paced by Werber's Series-best .370 batting average.

However, pain from a broken toe plagued Werber for several years and eventually forced him to retire from baseball after the 1942 season. He was not unprepared for the next stage of his life, having spent several off-seasons working at his father's insurance company. He joined the business full time after leaving baseball, originally working out of an office in the National Press Building in Washington, D.C.

Financial matters were about to change for the scrappy infielder, who never earned more than $13,500 playing the national pastime.

"I made $100,000 my first year selling insurance, in 1943, and I never made less," Werber says. "That was $20,000 more than the Babe made with his biggest contract. So, you see, baseball was a waste of time for me!" The last is delivered with a wry grin.

Werber's new line of work also brought him into an ever-increasing circle of friends. One was Marriott, who was operating a small chain of modest restaurants in Washington while dreaming of something bigger.

"He told me that he was considering going into the hotel business. And I said: ‘You don't want to do that. You're a Mormon, and you're going to have to serve tea and coffee and alcohol, which you don't believe people should drink. I think it would be a mistake,'" relates Werber, a Protestant. "[Marriott] said, ‘I know, I know, but I think we're going to give it a try.'

"Can you believe that?" Werber explodes with laughter. "I tried to talk Marriott out of going into the hotel business! Shows what I know!"

Marriott, however, continued to trust Werber's business—and hunting—acumen. Werber owned large parcels of land in Maryland and Virginia. He also bred bird dogs. One day he received a call from a fretful Marriott: President Eisenhower had accepted his invitation to hunt quail on his Virginia estate. As a hedge against scarce birds, Marriott sent a foreman to purchase 100 pheasant in Pennsylvania and asked Werber to bring his dogs to help with the hunting.

Werber showed up on a bitterly cold December morning. He hunted with the foreman to get the dogs warmed up, before returning to the Marriott house.

"There stood President Eisenhower warming himself in front of a huge fire," Werber says. "He was wearing thin khaki. And I said, ‘Mr. President, it is bitterly cold out there. You are not going to enjoy it. You are going to catch pneumonia. There's a bottle of King's Ransom Scotch upstairs in your room. I recommend that you stay inside and enjoy that bottle and visit.

"And the president said, ‘Mr. Werber, that's excellent advice. I believe I'll do just that.' I had never even heard of King's Ransom Scotch before that, but [Marriott] had learned the president liked it, so he had some delivered for him. We had an absolutely marvelous Christmas visit.

"When I returned home that night, I told Tat how special the day had been. I wanted to write the president a letter expressing my appreciation, but I was afraid that he would think I was attempting to advance myself. So I didn't write it. And a week later, a very touching letter from the president arrived, thanking me. Incredible. I always regretted not sending that letter."

In 1972, Werber retired from the insurance business, and he and Tat moved to Naples, Florida. They relocated to Charlotte in 1998, to be close to their elder daughter, Patricia Bryant, who lives here with her husband, Bill. The Werbers' son, Bill, who, as a small boy played catch before games with legendary Red Sox pitcher Lefty Grove, was a two-time All-American baseball player at Duke before taking over the family insurance business; he now lives in Maryland with his family. The Werbers' other daughter, Suzie Hill, lives in Durham with her family. There are eight Werber grandchildren, including Charlotte Latin teacher and soccer coach Buck Bryant, and five great-grandchildren.

Several years ago, diabetes staked its claim on Werber's leg, which had contributed so much speed to his life. Then, in March of 2000, Werber lost his balance: His beloved Tat passed away at the age of ninety-one. "Worse than losing my leg," Werber says. "Worse than losing my right arm."

The afternoon has grown late and shadows fall across the stack of correspondence on the coffee table. The letters include one from Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, thanking Werber for a newspaper article he had sent, and a card that arrived from Idaho last Christmas: Lonny Frey, the ninety-four-year-old second baseman from the 1940 World Champion Reds, dropping a line to his ninety-six-year-old third baseman buddy.

"Lonny was always a good Catholic boy," Werber says. "I'm a Presbyterian, but when we were in New York, I would go to St. Patrick's Cathedral with him and we'd drop money in the poor box. If I got a couple of hits the next day and he didn't, I'd tell him: ‘Lonny, your religion is doing me more good than it is you!'"

A visitor remarks upon Werber's perfect recall. Surely, some of the memories and images have faded over the decades?
"No," Werber says softly, the blue eyes misting slightly. "I can remember it all as if it happened yesterday."

He falls silent.

Suddenly, he booms: "I've got to take a nap now, but when are we going to speak again? We've got a lot to talk about. We've got to continue your education!"

And, just like that, Bill Werber is off. And running again.

Lawrence Grayson is a freelance writer in Charlotte.