Red Sox legend Doerr dies at 99

November 15, 2017

Bobby Doerr was a beloved figure inside the confines of Fenway Park, a sure-handed second baseman who represented one of baseball’s golden eras, but he was never more at home than when guiding a drift boat on Oregon’s Rogue River.

Doerr fell in love with the Rogue Valley while playing for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League in the 1930s. Oregon became his offseason home during a 14-year career with the Boston Red Sox, and Doerr spent his final years in Junction City before his death Monday at age 99.

Doerr was a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, an avid outdoorsman and, as the last surviving player of his generation, a model of good health and longevity. Still, none of those descriptions quite captures his essence.

“Every call I’ve had so far and every contact I’ve had always remarks about how kind he was, and generous,” said Bobby’s son Don, who lives in Eugene. “I think that’s the biggest label that would apply to him.”

Older fans will remember Doerr as a contemporary of Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky with the Red Sox, those relationships forming the basis for David Halberstam’s 2003 book “The Teammates.” Younger fans will remember Doerr’s annual birthday celebrations at Guaranty Chevrolet in Junction City, where he greeted crowds of admirers well into his 90s.

“Silent Captain”

Doerr was known for his vivid storytelling and his warm relationship with baseball fans who gravitated to his presence.

“I guess he always felt like it was a privilege to be able to have the career that he did,” Don Doerr said. “He always wanted to accept it for what a wonderful opportunity it was.”

Known as Boston’s “Silent Captain,” Doerr finished his career with 2,042 hits and made the All-Star Game nine times, finishing third in the MVP race in 1946. He set a Major League record in 1943 by going 73 games without an error, a streak that encompassed 414 fielding chances.

“I think the fielding records he had were very dear to his heart,” Don Doerr said. “If you looked at the type of glove he was using at that time, it was amazing he could catch anything.”

Though he didn’t achieve the fame of Williams or Pesky, Doerr was one of Boston’s most celebrated players. He entered the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986, and the Red Sox retired his No. 1 jersey in 1988. A statue of Doerr, Williams, Pesky and DiMaggio stands outside Fenway, where Doerr was honored as part of the stadium’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2012.

The Yawkey Foundation, created in the family name of the former Red Sox owners, donated $100,000 to Sheldon High School in 2016 for a hitting facility that bears Doerr’s name.

Early days

“Bobby Doerr was part of an era of baseball giants and still stood out as one himself,” Red Sox owner John Henry said in a statement. “And even with his Hall of Fame achievements at second base, his character and personality outshined it all. He will be missed.”

Doerr’s easygoing nature was a counterbalance to the mercurial Williams, his friend and fishing buddy. The two met in the Pacific Coast League and were discovered on the same scouting trip by Boston General Manager Eddie Collins. A Sports Illustrated article written at the time of Doerr’s Hall of Fame enshrinement characterized their relationship:

“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.”

“Many of the stories Dad had about fishing with him are quite interesting,” Don Doerr said. “Ted was such a perfectionist and a fanatic about things. When Dad would get into Ted’s boat and not knock the sand off his shoes, Ted would become quite irate.”

Doerr was born April 7, 1918, in Los Angeles, where his father worked for a telephone company. He made his first trip to Oregon at the age of 11 or 12 and got a glimpse of the place that would become his adopted home.

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be in the mountains,” Doerr told The Register-Guard in 1974.

Doerr grew up playing sandlot baseball and signed with the Hollywood Stars at age 16, earning $260 a month while still in high school. He used the money to buy a house in the Rogue Valley near the fishing community of Illahe, though the contract needed his father’s signature because he was not yet 18.

Illahe is where Doerr met Monica Terpin, a teacher in the one-room schoolhouse. The two were married in 1938, just as Bobby was breaking through in Boston, though his budding baseball career had little to do with their romance.

“She didn’t know a football from a baseball,” Doerr told The Register-Guard in 2003. “Baseball wasn’t impressive to her.”

2,000th hit

Doerr made his Major League debut in 1937, batting .224 in 55 games. He would appear in at least 100 games for the next 13 seasons, the lone exception being a one-year stint in the military in 1945.

Of Doerr’s nine All-Star appearances, the most memorable was the 1943 game in Philadelphia, where Doerr hit a three-run home run that propelled the American League to a 5-3 victory.

“Mort Cooper threw me a high hanging curveball,” Doerr said in 2003. “I’ll always remember it coming in just like that, and I just about fell back and hit a home run off of it.”

The Red Sox had winning teams during most of Doerr’s career but, in an era before divisions and wildcards, often were doomed to finish behind the hated Yankees. Doerr’s lone World Series appearance came in 1946 when the Red Sox lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Doerr recorded his 2,000th hit in 1951 at Yankee Stadium and retired after the season because of a back injury. He returned to Oregon and began splitting time between the Rogue Valley and Junction City, where he built a house and acquired a plot of farmland.

Coach Doerr

Doerr maintained a connection to baseball, first as a scout and later as a hitting coach for the Red Sox and Blue Jays. He was part of the Boston coaching staff in 1967 when Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown and the Red Sox returned to the World Series, losing again to the Cardinals in seven games.

As hitting coach for the Blue Jays from 1977-81, Doerr mentored a young second baseman named Danny Ainge, a North Eugene graduate who would leave baseball after three years to sign with the Boston Celtics.

“Bobby was the guy I’d talk with after every at-bat,” Ainge told the Boston Herald. “I learned more about baseball from Bobby than anyone else.”

Doerr was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986, 35 years after his playing career ended, in a vote by baseball’s Veterans Committee. After thinking his Hall of Fame chance had passed, Doerr gave a glowing induction speech in Cooperstown, N.Y.

“I thank God I could grow up in a country (where) I could choose a profession that I love so much,” he said. “Growing up I’d hoped I could become a Major League ballplayer and then hoped I could play in an All-Star game and a World Series.

“Being inducted into the Hall of Fame today just tops off all the nice things that ever happened to me in baseball.”

Graceful aging

In his later years, Doerr became known for his longevity as well as his baseball accomplishments. He became baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer in 2012 and the game’s oldest living player last November.

Doerr continued spending salmon and steelhead seasons in the Rogue River wilderness until the final decade of his life. His wife died in 2003, and Doerr lived with his sister before moving to an assisted-living facility in Junction City, where he spent his final years under hospice care.

Don Doerr attributed his father’s longevity to a combination of clean living, positive outlook and active lifestyle. During a visit to Fenway in 2005, an 87-year-old Bobby Doerr shared his secrets for graceful aging with the Boston Herald.

“It all begins with a healthy frame of mind,” he said. “I have very good friends, a great faith in God, which is very important to me, and a good sense of humor.

“I’m just a happy person.”

Follow Austin Meek on Twitter @austinmeekRG . Email austin.meek@registerguard.com .

Update hourly