It was the downside of Sunday afternoon, Aug. 3. The sun had come out and a soft breeze had come up, and for a long while the Hall of Famers didn't want to depart. I can still see them all gathered for their official photograph on a bluff above Lake Otsego, the "Glimmerglass" that novelist James Fenimore Cooper described so admirably in The Deerslayer. Across the lawn Joe Sewell hobbled to his place in the first row, Ted Williams roughhoused with Robin Roberts, and Cool Papa Bell, with cane in hand, was led gingerly along a path by a younger man—his grandson, perhaps? In Cooperstown in August, even grandsons walk slowly.
I had come to Cooperstown with my wife to get the feel of this year's baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. We had arranged with Bobby Doerr, one of the inductees, that for three days we would see the town and the ceremonies through his eyes. Where he went, we would go.
Doerr, the former Red Sox second baseman, was elected along with Ernie Lombardi by the Veterans Committee, and Willie McCovey was voted in by the writers. Doerr had waited 35 years to make the Hall and, for most of that time, never imagined that he even had a chance. Now that he had arrived there were critics who said he-didn't deserve to be in Cooperstown; that his election, as well as that of a few others in recent years, somehow devalued the Hall.
But there would be no controversy this weekend. Just a memorable visit with Doerr, hours spent in and around the venerable Otesaga Hotel, high above the Glimmerglass, and the gradual realization that the Veterans Committee was right after all. Doerr deserved his plaque and niche.
October 12, 1986
For the weekend, they put Doerr's plaque in the center of the Hall of Fame Gallery on a small pillar topped by an oversized baseball and some red, white and blue ribbons. His bas-relief likeness is not bad, compared to the others in the Hall, although the eyebrows should have been thicker, the better to capture his piercing gaze. The plaque reads: "Robert Pershing Doerr...Quiet leader of Red Sox during 1940s. Consistent second baseman, top double play man and fine clutch hitter. Lifetime batting average of .288 with six seasons of over 100 RBIs." It goes on to note a few of his fielding records and his .409 average in the 1946 World Series but runs out of room before it can mention his nine appearances in the All-Star Game.
I never saw Doerr play, although I have seen posed snapshots of him snaring grounders far to his left, his 5'11" frame straining for the ball. Everything about him—his shoulders, his hands, his manner—is still square and correct. His black hair has turned pure white now; he has an outdoorsman's face and wears sports jackets and golf shirts, making him look a little like the chairman of a country club. In the lobby of the Otesaga on Saturday, the day before the induction ceremonies, he immediately introduced us to his wife, Monica, his 93-year-old mother, his sister and his sister-in-law. All five had arrived the day before after an unhurried nine-day drive from Junction City, Ore. Also on hand for the celebration were Doerr's son, daughter-in-law and an assortment of grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Not everyone completes a transcontinental voyage with his 93-year-old mother right on schedule, and in the lobby of the Otesaga on Friday, Hall of Fame president Ed Stack was anxious. Last March, when the Veterans Committee elected Doerr, Stack called him at his fishing cabin on Oregon's Rogue River and said, "Bobby, from this moment on, your life is never going to be the same." Now, after Doerr had pulled his station wagon behind the tall white columns of the hotel, he spotted Stack, pointed his finger and hollered, "You were right!"
Early that evening Ted Williams came by Doerr's room. Of all the players on the Red Sox, Doerr was Williams's closest friend and frequent companion. They were an odd couple that hunted and Fished together in the off-season, and on the road in summer they would go to the movies to see Westerns starring Ken Maynard, Bob Steele and Hoot Gibson. Doerr was placid, quiet and proper; Williams was tempestuous, loud and coarse. It was as though Ted was drawn to Bobby because he possessed the virtues for which Ted had always yearned.
Doerr fondly related a story about Williams's famed concentration. Once during an afternoon game at Fenway, a large cloud passed directly over home plate, prompting Ted to step out of the box just before a pitch was thrown. How peculiar, Doerr thought. But Williams explained that his chances of getting a hit otherwise would be reduced because he wouldn't have the benefit of seeing the ball in bright sunshine. "Me, I would have hit three days under the cloud before I realized there was a difference," Doerr said.
Williams, a first-year member of the Veterans Committee, helped put Doerr in the Hall with his lobbying efforts. The two have seen each other from time to time over the years, but this was the first visit to Cooperstown for Doerr since Ted's induction 20 years before. To see them together, you would have thought it was the 1940s all over again.
On Saturday evening we went to a reception at the Hall, which is on Main Street, a few blocks away from the lake. Fans stood behind barricades in front of the building watching the Hall of Famers arrive in long cars under the glare of klieg lights, lending an Academy Awards atmosphere to the evening.
Doerr entered the building guiding Monica's wheelchair. She has had multiple sclerosis since 1947, when she was 34, and it was a good thing Doerr retired when he did in 1951, for he has had to be at her side ever since. She sometimes walks with the aid of a walker, and in the winter on the Rogue River back in Oregon, when they go fishing together, he carves out small steps for her in the snow with a shovel.
The Hall of Fame Gallery was crowded with about 400 people when Doerr arrived, and Monica, seeing the crush, told her husband she didn't think she could stay. He whispered to her that they would leave after he wheeled her one length of the room where his plaque would be. In one corner, though, Stan Musial and his wife, Lillian, cleared room for the wheelchair and the Doerrs stayed with them, out of mind and almost out of sight of the rest of the crowd.
I asked Doerr how surprised he was over his election, and he conceded that he had figured he had a chance when shortstops Pee Wee Reese and Luis Aparicio were elected in the last few years. Before then he had never really given the Hall of Fame a thought; the most votes he had received during the baseball writers' balloting was 78 in 1971. (If Doerr's career had begun after 1945 that total would have fallen 22 short of the votes needed to be eligible for consideration by the Veterans Committee.) "This is like waiting on line two or three hours for a good movie," he said. "Once you get in, you find out it's worth it. You just hope you don't wake up and find out you were dreaming."
After half an hour, Jane Fonda, who was there as a guest, sought out Doerr to congratulate him. Imagine that, the antiwar activist of the '70s and the patriotic veteran named after Black Jack Pershing, the American general from World War I, shaking hands like two old Army pals. Fonda said she had always wanted to meet Bobby Doerr, and she introduced him to her young son, Troy. Doerr signed a few more autographs—he signs them Bob, not Bobby—and then came back to our earlier discussion.
About the criticism of his election he said, without resentment, "What are you going to do? Are you just going to have outfielders and catchers and first basemen and third basemen playing in a ball-game? People say you cheapen it: 'How can you put a Doerr in there with Gehrig and Ruth?' Well, I understand that, too. I have a hard time thinking of myself in a class with those guys. But you've got to have second basemen and shortstops." Doerr is the ninth second baseman among 170 members of the Hall. Surprisingly, he hit more home runs than all of them except Rogers Hornsby, and he has the best fielding percentage of all but Jackie Robinson. Doerr's credentials are in order.
On Sunday afternoon, it was threatening showers when the Hall of Famers gathered on the broad verandas of the Otesaga, which was built in 1909, the same year Shibe Park and Forbes Field opened their gates. Many of the more recent inductees were there—Enos Slaughter, Bob Lemon, Al Lopez, Reese. Then the group went in cars to the ceremonies, which were held in a park in front of the Hall of Fame Library. As the Hall of Famers filed onto the stage, it began to sprinkle and a few people in the crowd put up umbrellas. Doerr, dressed in a bright blue blazer, dark red tie and white shirt, spoke first. He is not a comfortable speaker and was fearful he would forget his opening lines, but he thanked everyone—Monica for helping him, the Veterans Committee for electing him, God for allowing him to grow up in America and even his coach at Fremont High School in Los Angeles. "To stand here and see all these Hall of Famers," he said, nodding to the likes of Lefty Gomez, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron, who was dressed in a business suit and yellow running shoes, "I feel like a boy, not a man 68 years old."
Then something almost corny happened, something that would only happen in a Hall of Fame ceremony. As Doerr thanked the late Joe Cronin for teaching him how to relax ("He used to have a saying: 'Have fun, sing a song' "), the rain stopped and the sun broke through. The crowd looked around, the umbrellas came down and everyone sat back comfylike for the rest of the ceremony. Doerr didn't seem to notice the change in the weather and went right on, even making a stab at some humor. "One day Ted gave me some suggestions he thought were going to help me with my hitting," he recalled. "I said, 'Ted, I just don't feel comfortable hitting that way.' He threw up his hands and walked off and said, 'O.K., if you want to be a lousy .280 or .290 hitter, go ahead and hit your way.' " Williams, who was sitting behind Doerr, laughed at the story. But the truth is, Ted is still a bit annoyed with Bobby for opening his stance and thinking too much about the inviting leftfield wall at Fenway.
The annual Hall of Fame Game, played the day after the ceremonies at Doubleday Field, a little patch of paradise hidden a block away from the Hall, was an anticlimax. Doerr was unrecognized by most of the Rangers and Royals who were there for the exhibition, and he was called "Mr. Doerr" by the others. Instead of staying for the entire game, he and Monica left halfway through the fifth inning and returned to the Hall's exhibit rooms, which they had not had time to see earlier. A few fans were about, but not many of them knew who he was, so, accompanied by a red-jacketed Hall attendant, the Doerrs had what amounted to a private tour.
Doerr had sent the Hall the ridiculously small glove he had used while setting a record of 73 games without an error back in 1948 and the bat with which he had hit the homer that won the '43 All-Star Game. They were displayed on the first floor. But that was about it for Doerr memorabilia. He wheeled Monica past the cases of uniforms and catchers' masks and finally came to a photo montage of the All-Star Games of the '40s. It included blowups of newspaper stories about the games, and he looked up "Doerr, 2b" in the box scores. The old names seem to set him thinking.
"See there, 1946?" he said. "I couldn't hit that day because the Sunday before, Elmer Valo hit a shot at me that I caught on one hop, but it peeled my thumbnail back and it was so painful I couldn't handle the bat. I went 0 for 2 against [Claude] Passeau and [Kirby] Higbe. That was the game Ted hit the homer off [Rip] Sewell's eephus pitch."
He spotted a staged picture of American League manager Del Baker kissing Williams in the locker room after his homer had won the 1941 All-Star Game. "Get a load of Baker and Ted," laughed Doerr. "I was right there when they took that. Didn't get a hit that game. I went 0 for 2, a grounder and a pop-up." I was amazed at Doerr's recall and looked for a section of the display dealing with his homer in '43, but there wasn't any.
There was a car waiting at the rear of the Hall, and after Bobby helped Monica into the front seat and put the wheelchair in the trunk, we all went back to the Otesaga. He was leaving the next morning to return to Oregon with the four women and he wanted to go to the other end of town to buy some provisions for the trip, so we said goodbye in the lobby.
Afterward, like the Hall of Famers, my wife and I wanted to linger, so we walked out on the bluff where the photograph of the inductees had been shot the day before. We remembered how Doerr had sat on a park bench, signing a dozen autographs for a woman in a sundress who had brought along some photographs. Far out on the lake water-skiers had been carving their turns. Finally, when his colleagues were ready for their group portrait, Doerr had hopped up and joined them on the stand between some shade trees. Then they talked the afternoon away. I think it must have been from this vantage point that Cooper wrote these lines about his peculiar village:
The lake he loved, the forest paths his feet
In other days were wont to fare along,
Are lush with summer opulence, are sweet
With sunshine and with song.