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Exclusive Interview: Bobby Doerr

Bobby Doerr made a lot of baseball history on how own. However, the famous member of the Red Sox also pursued historical artifacts, making him a collector of baseball history, as well. Check out an exclusive interview with Bobby Doerr. 

Bobby Doerr knew an opportunity when he saw one, and he jumped on it. Then in the midst of a Hall-of-Fame career for the Boston Red Sox, Doerr was warming up at Fenway when he heard that Babe Ruth was visiting the park that day to see the Red Sox host the Yankees.

Doerr immediately ran from the field into the locker room to grab a bat. But not just any bat, a bat that had been made especially for Ruth by Louisville Slugger. In the offseason, Doerr had gone to the Hillerich & Bradsby factory in Louisville with Red Sox teammate Ted Williams to pick up some bats for themselves. While they were there, the Louisville people gave him two other bats – one for Ruth and one for Ty Cobb – that were custom made when both were still active in the big leagues.

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The bats didn’t have any particular value back then except to Doerr, who had a keen appreciation of baseball history and Ruth’s place in it. “So I ran in and got the bat and a pen and I went upstairs and found Ruth and he signed it,” said Doerr, recalling an incident that took place 60 years ago with the vividness of yesterday.

What makes this story especially poignant is that the year was 1948, and Ruth would be dead of cancer in only a few months. Also of interest would be today’s asking price for the big-handled, Ruth-signed specification bat: $50,000 or more. All of which astounds the man who owns it.

“I never thought of anything like that when I was a kid,” said Doerr, referring to the astronomical prices of vintage memorabilia these days. “Good night.”

Now 90 and living in tiny Junction City, Ore., about 20 minutes outside Eugene, Doerr keeps the myrtlewood Ruth bat under lock and key in a safe place away from his house. The same with the Ty Cobb bat, which was signed for him by Cobb and which also would bring a pretty penny today at auction. Doerr sent Cobb the bat after Cobb had retired and was living in Menlo Park in the San Francisco Bay area, and Cobb returned it to him with a hand-written letter.

That letter, which can be seen in the exhibit devoted to Cobb at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, is written in green ink, evidently the ink that Cobb preferred to sign his autograph and write letters with. But the postscript, clearly added by Cobb as an afterthought, is written in black ink and tells how he scouted both Doerr and Williams when they were playing for the minor league San Diego Padres in the late 1930s and how he recommended them to Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins as prospective major leaguers.

Cobb’s judgment was spot-on, of course. Ted Williams became, well, Ted Williams, and Doerr joined him in the Hall of Fame in 1986 after a career in which the sturdy, solidly-built second baseman played on nine All-Star teams, made 2,042 hits and, in the words of the esteemed baseball writer Bill James, was “an excellent offensive and defensive player from the day he reached the majors until the day he left.”

Two years after making the Hall, Doerr saw his No. 1 jersey retired by the Red Sox, and it now occupies a spot on Fenway’s right field facade alongside the retired numbers of his old fishing buddy Williams, other Red Sox greats and Jackie Robinson.

Despite the value of the signed Ruth and Cobb bats, Doerr intends to give them to his children and has no intention of selling them. Nor is he about to sell another treasured piece of memorabilia: the bat and ball used to make his 2,000th lifetime hit. That event occurred July 1, 1951, in a game against the Yankees and as usual, Yogi Berra was behind the plate for New York.

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After Doerr reached first base, Berra, who also has an appreciation for baseball history, called for the ball and handed it to Doerr, a gesture of respect for a rival player and a tribute to Yogi’s class as a human being.

Doerr also has that bat and ball safely tucked away under lock and key. But he will sign photos of hit No. 2,000 (Berra is in the shot, too), in addition to photos of him and Williams when they were young and full of life and in their glory days with the Red Sox.

“I get a lot of mail,” explained Doerr, whose mailbox is frequently loaded down with requests from collectors asking for autographs. “Sometimes people overdo it, sending me big batches of stuff, asking me to sign ‘Hall of Fame’ or ‘All-Star’ or ‘Captain’ with my name. But I don’t mind doing it, for the most part.”

Because Doerr signs so willingly, and often for free, his autographed merchandise commands little commotion in the marketplace. A black-and-white photo of his 2,000th hit signed in blue Sharpie goes for less than $10 on his friend John Ferreira’s eBay store, “lindsayduck.” Old Doerr baseball cards – Ferreira owns Doerr cards for every year of his career – are also bargains.

Ferreira, the former FBI undercover agent for Operation Bullpen who has since retired from the Bureau and opened a card shop in Eugene (see the Nov. 7 issue of SCD), has known Doerr for more than a decade and counsels him on the ways of collectors. “People were starting to take advantage of him, asking for 10 to 20 autographs at a time,” he says. “And Bobby knew they were going to sell these things. But he’s so nice. He signs a lot.”

Ferreira also describes his friend as modest, a quality that surfaces when Doerr talks about the man who currently occupies his old second base spot for the Red Sox, 2008 American League Most Valuable Player Dustin Pedroia. “I’d put him up there with the best I’ve seen,” says Doerr. “He makes plays and he’s a darn good all-around player.”

And how does he compare to Bobby Doerr in his prime?

“I wasn’t that good,” Doerr replied.

As good as he is, Pedroia in fact has some work to do before he catches up with the self-effacing Doerr, who still stays in touch with two of his former Red Sox teammates, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky, whose number is also on the right-field wall at Fenway. “Dom called me about a week ago,” said Doerr when he spoke to this writer in late November of last year. “The same with Pesky. He seems to be doing all right.”

Doerr, DiMaggio, Pesky and Williams were all profiled in David Halberstam’s fine book, Teammates, which talked about how all four of them grew up and played ball as youngsters on the West Coast, then moved onto the Red Sox and became lifelong friends. Now Williams is gone and tragically, so is Halberstam, killed in a car accident in 2007 while researching another book.

Still active and independent, cruising around the lush green Oregon countryside in an SUV, Doerr can rattle off the starting lineup of the 1930s Chicago Cubs: “Stan Hack, Charlie Grimm, Gabby Hartnett…” as if they were about to take the field tomorrow. The Cubs of that era held spring training in the Los Angeles area, where as a boy Doerr watched them play in Wrigley Field, the old Coast League park of the Los Angeles Angels.

Doerr eventually played at the West Coast Wrigley, too, as a member of the Hollywood Stars. In the mid-1930s, the Stars moved to San Diego and became the Padres, and that was where the teenaged Doerr met another teenager who was trying out for the team.

“It was June 1936. He was 17 years old, 6’3” and 147 pounds. He was standing in front of me by the batting cage and there were lots of other players, ex-major leaguers who were on the club. But nobody was giving him a chance to hit. So Frank Shellenback, the manager of the Padres, says, ‘Let the kid hit a few.’ Then Ted steps in and after he hits six or seven balls, all of them line drives, everybody was saying, ‘Who’s this kid?’ Ted and I became close friends after that because we were the same age. We’d go to movies together.”

Then, after Ty Cobb dropped by one day to see them play, they went to Boston together – Doerr in 1937 and Ted two years later.

Doerr remembers his old friend as a consummate perfectionist – “the Ben Hogan of baseball” – who was always innovating, always finding ways to make himself better. Before the days of pine tar, Williams created an olive oil and resin concoction to help him grip the bat. And like pine tar, when mixed with dirt the olive oil and resin would turn his bats filthy – except for one spot, the hitting spot where ball made contact with bat seemingly every time.

“You’d pick up his bats and all of them would have a white spot where the ball hit the bat. He’d always hit the ball in that one perfect zone,” recalled Doerr who, to his lasting regret, never saved any of those bats. Nor did he keep any of his old flannel Red Sox jerseys. Nevertheless, he does have balls, bats and photos signed by the likes of Ted, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Bob Feller, Moe Berg and more, along with “hundreds and hundreds of Hall-of-Fame plaque cards, all autographed,” according to Ferreira.

Doerr has accumulated this material over the years, getting lots of balls signed when he played. In addition, he has collected autographs and other memorabilia at the dinners and events he’s attended at the annual Hall-of-Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown. Doerr plans to skip this summer’s Hall-of-Fame celebration, however, because air travel has become increasingly hard for him, and he has to be careful about his walking. For these reasons, he hasn’t been back to Fenway in years, though he still keeps current with Pedroia and his pals, watching games at his sister’s house on her cable TV.

Doerr started in American Legion ball in Los Angeles in 1932, the same year his father Harold began compiling scrapbooks of his playing career. Harold, a telephone company employee, kept newspaper box scores and clippings of every game his son ever played, up until his last game with the Sox in 1951. These albums, says Ferreira, who has seen them, form an “incredible history” of baseball during these years.

Doerr plans to contribute them – along with the bulk of his collection, though not the signed Ruth and Cobb bats and his 2,000th-hit stuff – to the mini Fenway Park project in Quincy outside Boston. Now scheduled to open this year, the long-delayed project consists of a youth baseball field modeled on Fenway and the Legends Museum where the memorabilia of Doerr and other Red Sox stars will be housed.

Another aspect of Doerr’s collection won’t be going back east because it no longer exists. What happened to him happened to generations of baseball card collectors. After he retired, he kept a shoebox full of old baseball cards – his cards and the cards of other guys he played with and against – in a trunk in a room in back of his house. “Then one day I brought it inside and set it on a chest of drawers,” he says, thinking that he’d look through the box to see what cards it contained. But then it disappeared. “So I asked my wife, Monica, what she did with it and she said, ‘Oh, I threw that out.’ She didn’t realize what it was. She thought it was a bunch of junk.”

Not junk, of course. But small cardboard pieces of the history of baseball and Bobby Doerr’s America.

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