Bobby Doerr is the greatest second baseman in the 114-year history of the Boston Red Sox. In a 1969 poll of Red Sox fans, Doerr was named as the best second baseman joining such former stars as fellow Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Jimmie Foxx on the Red Sox All-Time Team. When the poll was repeated in 1982 only Doerr, Williams, Yaz and Foxx retained their spot as the very best at their positions.
In the 2012 fan poll, Dustin Pedroia was selected as the starting second baseman for the All-Fenway Team and Bobby Doerr was relegated to “first reserve.” Sine Bobby Doerr played his last game in FenwayPark in 1951, and Pedroia has been an outstanding Red Sox contributor for the six most recent seasons, the vote of the fans is understandable. But until Dustin puts together six more seasons to match his great performance to date, Bobby Doerr will remain the greatest second baseman in Red Sox history here at bostonbaseballhistory.com.
Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky was certainly qualified to assess Bobby Doerr’s place in Red Sox history. Pesky was associated with the team for over 60 years, and he played in the same infield with Doerr for seven seasons.
In a 2008 interview Johnny told me, “Bobby Doerr was as good a second baseman as I have ever seen. He was so steady in the field that you had to see it to believe it. Heck, if he hadn’t retired at age 33 we would be considering him for the best second baseman in baseball history.”
Bobby Doerr joined the Boston Red Sox in 1937. Chronic back problems forced him to retire following the 1951 season. He ranks fifth or better in eight important Red Sox career offensive categories. He was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1986 and his number “1” was retired by the Boston Red Sox in 1988. More importantly, when you speak with anyone who has ever met him, the first thing they say is, “He is as nice a man as I have ever met.”
L. A. BORN AND RAISED
Bobby Doerr was born in Los Angeles, California, on April 7, 1918. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1920s was a very different experience from today. “We had plenty of places to play baseball. The weather was good and it seemed to me we played ball almost every day.”
Bobby quickly earned a reputation as a fine young infielder. His American Legion team, which included future major leaguer Mickey Owen, won the state championship in 1932. In 1934 the Hollywood Stars of the top-flight Pacific Coast League offered Bobby his first professional contract.
“I was only 16-years old, so my father had to sign for me. This was the middle of the depression and if a fellow was lucky enough to have a job, he made maybe $18-$20 a week. The Stars were offering me $200 a month. My father told me he would sign for me if I promised to finish high school between baseball seasons. It took me a couple of winters, but I did eventually get my high school diploma. I wanted to honor my promise to my father.”
Despite his tender years, Doerr played well for the Stars. When the club moved to San Diego for the 1936 season, Doerr moved along with them as the starting second baseman and a bona fide major league prospect.
THE WEST COAST CONNECTION
Bobby Doerr was actually the first person connected with the Red Sox to meet Ted Williams. “We were taking batting practice before a game when our manager came over to us and said, ‘Let this kid take a few swings.’ There was a lot of grumbling from the veterans about giving up batting time to a skinny high school kid. But that kid was 17-year old Ted Williams and when he took a couple of cuts you just knew he was going to be a good one.”
Red Sox General Manager Eddie Collins traveled to San Diego to check out the Padres’ shortstop George Myatt during the 1936 season. He went to see Myatt but the two players who caught his eye were Doerr and Williams.
Doerr recalls, “One day I heard that Eddie Collins was in the stands and I was so nervous, I made three errors. Mr. Collins came down to the clubhouse between games of our doubleheader and told me to relax; he was going to sign me anyway.
“Mr. Collins told our owner that he wanted to sign me and he also ‘wanted to sign that skinny kid.’ Mr. Bill Lane, our owner, told Collins that Ted Williams was a great young talent, but he wasn’t ready to sign. Collins said that was O.K., but ‘I will leave only if you will promise to give me the first chance to sign the kid next year for the Red Sox.’ So, in some small way I played a role in Ted coming to the Red Sox.”
Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams were friends for 65 years. But Doerr had known Johnny Pesky even longer. “I first met Johnny in 1934. He was the clubhouse boy in Portland, Oregon. He was a hard working guy even then.
“I didn’t meet Dominic DiMaggio until he came to the Red Sox in 1940. I did play with his brother Vince on the Hollywood Stars though. I remember Vince took me to his home for a visit, and he told me what a terrific player his little brother Dominic was, but Dom wasn’t home at the time,” Bobby recalled.
Dom DiMaggio treasured the relationship between Doerr, Williams, Pesky and himself. “It is really amazing,” he told me in 2008. “There we were, four guys from the other coast, ranging from Portland in the north to San Diego in the south, and we all end up in Boston together. We all broke into professional baseball in the 1930s and 60-plus years later we all still close. It is extraordinary.”
FOURTEEN SEASONS AT FENWAY PARK
When the 1937 Red Sox broke training camp in Sarasota, Florida, 19-year old rookie Bobby Doerr was headed to Boston for the first time. “The east coast was so different after having grown up on the west coast. Boston always fascinated me. I remember the first time I saw FenwayPark. My reaction was, ‘Wow. What a beautiful ballpark.’ I always loved playing in Boston.”
Bobby was the backup second baseman in 1937, but in 1938 he took over as the starter at second. The year 1938 was important in another way: he married his wife Monica. “I first met Monica in 1936 on a fishing trip to the Rogue River in Oregon. She was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. It is a beautiful part of the country and it’s where we made our home for many years.” Bobby’s beloved wife Monica passed away in 2003 at age 88.
In 1939 Bobby batted .318, and continued his near flawless fielding. In 1940 he knocked in 105 runs, the first of six seasons in which he would exceed the 100 RBI level. In 1941 he was named to the first of nine American League All-Star teams. Typical of Bobby Doerr, he lists Ted Williams’s game-winning home run in that 1941 game as his greatest thrill.
All-Star honors followed in 1942 when he drove in 102 runs and in 1943 when he led all American League second baseman with a .990 fielding average. In the 1943 All-Star game, Bobby’s three-run home run led the American League to a 5-3 victory. In 1944 Bobby batted a career high .325 and he was named The Sporting News American League Player of the Year.
He enlisted in the Army Infantry Corps in September of 1944, missing the 1945 season, but when the 1946 season rolled around Bobby and his teammates were back from the military and ready to put together one of the best seasons in Red Sox history.
The 1946 Red Sox broke out of the gate fast and stayed in first place for almost the entire season. They won 15 games in a row from the end of April to mid-May, and 40 of their first 50 games. Bobby Doerr was one of eight Red Sox representatives on an American League All-Star team that was victorious 12-0 in the first All-Star game ever played at FenwayPark. The team clinched the 1946 American League pennant on September 13th in Cleveland.
How important was Bobby Doerr to the success of the 1946 team? Ted Williams has said, “We never could have won the 1946 pennant without Bobby Doerr.” Johnny Pesky echoed Ted’s sentiments. “Bobby was a leader on the field and in the clubhouse. In a clutch situation you would want Bobby at the plate or you would want the batter to hit the ball to Bobby. He was quiet, but you would see that he would never get rattled and that helped give you confidence.”
The Red Sox took a three game to two lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1946 World Series, but the Cardinals won the last two games in St. Louis to emerge as the Series victors. Bobby Doerr had a hit in each World Series game and batted .409 for the Series. In the ninth inning of Game Seven, with the Sox down by one run, he singled to put the tying run on second, but the Red Sox fell just short.
The 1947 season was another All-Star year for Bobby, but the Red Sox were never seriously in contention, finishing a distant third. The following season was another close call for the Red Sox. The team finished the 1948 season in a tie for first place with the Cleveland Indians and the first American League playoff game was held at Fenway Park.
Denny Galehouse was the surprise playoff starter for the Red Sox, but he was gone by the fourth inning and the Indians coasted to an 8-3 victory. Doerr hit a home run in a losing effort and he remembers the disappointment. “We wanted to win it for the Boston fans and for Tom Yawkey who was a great owner. And it would have been nice to play the Boston Braves in the World Series. We used to play them in the City Series before the season started, and facing them in the World Series would have been tremendous.”
The 1949 Red Sox held a one game lead over the New York Yankees as they headed into the Stadium for the two final games of that season. Doerr had a clutch triple off Vic Raschi in the final game but the Yankees swept both games to win the pennant.
Bobby Doerr’s best year may have been 1950. He had hit about .350 in the second half of 1949, and his hot bat carried over to the following season. In 1950 he scored 103 runs, batted in a career-high 120 runs, and matched a career best with 27 home runs. He also led the American League with 11 triples and a fielding average of .988. But, despite a team batting average of .302, the 1950 Red Sox finished four games behind the Yankees in third place.
When the 1951 season began, Bobby Doerr was at the peak of his baseball skills. He had just turned 33 on April 7th, he was a nine time All-Star, and he was a recognized leader on one of the strongest teams in baseball. Then misfortune struck in the form of a bad back. “I woke up one day and my back hurt so much I couldn’t get out of bed. I went to see the doctors at the Lahey Clinic, and they said the only solution was an operation. But there was no guarantee that I would be able to play again, and it was a very serious operation. I decided the only thing I could do was retire.”
The statistics Bobby Doerr compiled in fourteen seasons give us some sense of his greatness. But to understand how truly great he was, you have to listen to his teammates. Joe Cronin, who was Bobby’s first double play partner and his first manager, once said, “I consider him as fine a player to ever put on a spiked shoe.”
Dom DiMaggio played in center field behind Bobby Doerr at second base for nine seasons. “He was absolutely amazing. Time after time I would see a ball headed up the middle and I would come charging in ready to field it. But Bobby would move smoothly to his right, backhand the ball, and throw the runner out at first. It was really pretty to watch. You never saw Bobby leave his feet; there was nothing showy about him. He had such sure hands. He was a fabulous fielder.”
LIFE AFTER RETIREMENT
Following Bobby’s retirement from baseball, the Doerr’s made Junction City, Oregon, their year-round home. Bobby tried his hand at cattle ranching for a number of years. “I found out just how hard you have to work to make any kind of living in that business. It was interesting, but you had to have a large herd to make any money.”
In 1957 he accepted the Red Sox’ offer to become a roving instructor in their minor league system where he shared his wisdom gained in 17 seasons of professional baseball. For the next ten seasons he traveled from the low minors to Triple-A ball coaching Red Sox prospects on the art of hitting and fielding.
Mike Andrews went on to become the Executive Director of the Jimmy Fund, but in the early to mid-1960s he was working his way through the Red Sox farm system. “Bobby was really my mentor all the way to the big leagues. The first thing that struck you was what a nice man he was. If Bobby told me to move my left foot 3 inches to the left, I would do it and go out and get four hits. That’s how much I believed in him.”
In 1967, new Red Sox manager Dick Williams asked Bobby to move to the big leagues with him as a coach. Bobby agreed and he played an important role in the success of “The Impossible Dream Team.” Players viewed the even-tempered Doerr as an excellent buffer from the volatile Williams.
Mike Andrews was a direct beneficiary of Bobby Doerr’s presence in 1967. “There I was, a rookie second baseman, and I’m getting advice from the best second baseman in Red Sox history. And he never talked about himself; he only gave you examples of situations. Dick Williams was pretty flamboyant, but Bobby always kept his cool. He was a real positive influence on the team.”
Bobby remained a coach with the Red Sox until Dick Williams was fired at the end of the 1969 season. He later returned to the big leagues as a coach with the Toronto Blue Jays from 1977 to 1981.
HALL OF FAMER
In 1986 the Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee voted Bobby Doerr into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Bobby responds with typical humility when talking about his Hall of Fame designation. “To be honest, I never thought of myself as a Hall of Famer. When I got the call, it was my ultimate thrill in baseball.”
Bobby’s long-time friend and teammate, Ted Williams, was a member of the Veteran’s Committee that gave Doerr his long due recognition. “I didn’t have to do much lobbying for him,” Williams said at the time. “Bobby did all the work on the field.
“I’ll tell you what kind of guy Bobby was,” Ted added. “When we played for the Red Sox we didn’t have a captain, but Bobby was the silent captain. He was the guy everybody likes, the guy everybody wants to be around. He was just an all-around great player.”
Bobby’s induction into the Hall of Fame in August of 1986 was an important event for the Doerr family. Bobby, his 90-year old mother, and his lovely wife Monica had the biggest smiles for miles around. It was also a great thrill for then National League President, the late Bart Giamatti. Giamatti, who had previously been the President of Yale, had grown up as a diehard Red Sox fan. And among the Red Sox of his youth, Bobby Doerr was his greatest hero.
Giamatti sought out the Doerr’s after the formal induction ceremony and said, “Mr. Doerr, you are my lifelong hero.” The Doerr’s were overwhelmed by his words. After a poignant silence Monica Doerr responded, “Mr. Giamatti, you are the former President of Yale. You are a hero to people like us.”
Bart Giamatti later told friends that meeting Bobby Doerr was one of his great moments. First, because he had finally met his hero, but also because he was the person that Giamatti wanted him to be.
The Boston Red Sox retired Bobby Doerr’s number “1” in a special ceremony in May of 1988. His was the third number retired by the Red Sox, following Joe Cronin’s “4” and Ted Williams’ “9” in May of 1984.
“In my rookie year, I actually had number nine,” Doerr chuckles. “Then the following year they gave me number six. In 1939 they gave me number one, and I wore it until I retired in 1951.”
When Bobby Doerr celebrated his ninetieth birthday on April 7, 2008, Governor Ted Kulongoski proclaimed it as “Bobby Doerr Day” in the state of Oregon. At a formal ceremony, held on the campus of the University of Oregon before a host of dignitaries and members of Doerr’s family, the Governor presented him with a replica of the Louisville Slugger Bobby used as an active player.
Bobby still follows baseball closely. “There is a lot that is different about the game today. We didn’t have the designated hitter when we played and the role of the closer didn’t exist. The biggest difference is in the wide range of player backgrounds. Jackie Robinson didn’t integrate baseball until 1947 and I retired in 1951, so we didn’t have the diversity you have today.”
Bobby’s favorite player is fellow Oregonian Jacoby Ellsbury. “I saw him when he played for OregonState, and I knew he was going to be a good one,” Bobby says. “But he developed even faster than I expected. He’s going to be a top player for a long time.”
Red Sox fans were thrilled when Bobby Doerr returned for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of FenwayPark on April 20, 2012. When Bobby and his great pal Johnny Pesky were announced to the sellout crowd they received the warmest ovation of the day and they were mobbed by former Red Sox players. At age 95, Bobby Doerr is the oldest living member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
NUMBER ONE FOR ALL-TIME
It is often said that Red Sox hero Ted Williams is John Wayne come to life. If that is so, then Bobby Doerr is Gary Cooper: the quiet, handsome gentleman, who always does the right thing.
Perhaps Bobby’s friend of over 60 years, Johnny Pesky, said it best. “When I think about the definition of the word ‘gentleman’ to me it is Bobby Doerr.”
Bobby Doerr: he’s number “1.”
Bobby Doerr’s Rank in Red Sox History
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Portions of this article originally appeared in Red Sox Magazine, the official program of the Boston Red Sox.
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