Oldest Living Major League Ballplayer Tells All

Centenarian Bill Werber lettered in basketball at Duke, played bridge with Babe Ruth, and outmaneuvered Connie Mack. And lived to tell about it.
Writer: 
October 1, 2008

The Census Bureau believes nearly 82,000 Americans are 100 years of age or older. But only one of them played major-league baseball. And he's not about to act his age.

"Are you with me?" Bill Werber calls out, as he races his electric wheelchair through the carpeted hallways of the Carriage Club, an assisted-living complex in southeastern Charlotte. You still have to move fast to keep up with the former third baseman, who led the American League with forty stolen bases for the Boston Red Sox in 1934.

Werber '30 has a firm handshake and a steady gaze. He remembers, in rich detail, playing bridge with Babe Ruth and going bird hunting with Frank "Home Run" Baker, a slugger of the early 1910s. ("Frank Baker was the best shot I ever saw with a shotgun," Werber says.) He was the first player to bat in the first televised major-league game—Cincinnati at Brooklyn, August 26, 1939—and he helped the Reds win the World Series in 1940.

Batter up: Werber as a Yankee in 1933, and at home, top
Batter up: Werber as a Yankee in 1933, and at home, opposite.

Batter up: Werber as a Yankee in 1933, and at home, top. National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.

More than eighty friends and family members attended Werber's 100th birthday party, at a Charlotte country club. "They turned away as many as they seated," he says with a smile. "Standing room only!" As befits a man who was born on June 20, 1908—the same year a songwriter named Jack Norworth wrote "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," the anthem of baseball's seventh-inning stretch. It's been a busy spring and summer for Werber, as a steady stream of journalists have dropped by his table at the Carriage Club restaurant or called for telephone interviews with the Oldest Living Ballplayer.

Werber doesn't disappoint. The author of three books about baseball and his place in it, he's happy to explain why he doesn't watch the game anymore. It's a well-argued stance that's earned him prominent play in USA Today and Sports Illustrated: "I got so disgusted four years ago, when Boston won it, and I saw Manny Ramirez with the long hair down his back, and Johnny Damon with the big whiskers on his face. They looked so sorry, and they weren't setting a good example for kids, and that causes problems for families."

Werber wasn't a drinker or a smoker, and he gives his wife, Kathryn, to whom he was married for seventy years until her death, in 2000, credit for helping him live so long. "I was devoid of friction in my marriage," he says. All three of their children attended Duke—Bill Jr. '53, Patricia '56, and Susie '69—as have two of his eight grandchildren.

Although he's deaf in his right ear and lost his left leg below the knee two years ago to complications from diabetes, Werber is generally in good health. Spend a little time with him over lunch—iced  tea, a hot dog with chopped onions and ketchup, a cup of soup, and fruit salad—and you'll be rewarded with a rollicking tour of the history of Duke and of baseball.

He arrived at the recently renamed Duke University in September 1926, a two-sport recruit from Washington. He'd agreed to come to Durham sight unseen. "I envisioned a campus with ivy-covered walls and magnolia trees, but Duke was dust," Werber says. "Everywhere you went, there were planks on risers, and when it rained there was maybe three or four inches of mud. If you slipped off the boards, that's where you'd go, into the mud.

"Train tracks ran right up the middle of the campus, because the chapel was still being built. The workers unloading the rail cars—the bricks to build the chapel—would do it by lantern light, and they would do it to chants, moving those bricks out of the cars until 10:30 at night."

Catch him if you can: Werber, below, steals third base during eighth inning of Reds-Dodgers game June 30, 1939

Catch him if you can: Werber, below, steals third base during eighth inning of Reds-Dodgers game June 30, 1939. Diamond Images/Getty Images

Werber has stories, good ones, about many of the names now carved into stone around West Campus. Such as William Wanamaker, the dean of students: "He was constantly admonishing us to study. He told us, 'Lock your doors after dinner, and see that they stay locked, because your fraternity brothers will come in, and they will steal your time. And you're not here to have your time stolen. You're here to study.' And he was right."

He remembers when Jack Coombs, the baseball coach, asked William Preston Few, the dapper university president, to officiate an intra-squad game. "Dr. Few umpired behind the pitcher with a fedora hat on, and a cane. And he was a good umpire! When it was a strike, he'd mark it to the right, in the mound behind the pitcher, and when it was a ball, he'd mark it to the left. There was never any instance where a call was disputed."

Werber delivered on his promise as an athlete, leading Duke to an 18-2 record for the 1930 basketball season (becoming the university's first All-America selection) and subsequently batting over .400 as a senior shortstop. Baseball wasn't just the most popular professional sport in those days, it was the only viable career option for an athlete. The NFL was a backwater, and the NBA wasn't founded until 1946.

There was no baseball draft, so the sixteen major-league teams signed players by the hundreds and dispersed them to hone their skills in the minors. Both teams and players stretched the rules; Werber made a secret handshake agreement with Paul Krichell, a scout for the New York Yankees, in 1927, and went on to complete his college career.

The Yankees of 1927 were at the peak of their power. The heart of their batting order—Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri—was known as Murderers' Row. That year, the team would win 110 games and lose only forty-four. Krichell arranged for the young Werber to spend a few weeks with the team over the summer, taking batting practice and observing. The experience erased any romantic notions he might have had. "I wasn't awestruck with 'em," he says. "Some of 'em were a pain in the ass to me."

Pause. "I was a pretty cocky kid. Acknowledged."

He joined the Yankees in 1930, after graduation, playing a few games as a seldom-used infielder. While the hazing rituals of the day could be brutal—Ruth once snuck up on Werber and urinated on him in the shower—the young player became a bridge partner of catcher Bill Dickey. Ruth and Gehrig were their most frequent opponents on road trips. "Ruth had a glass that he carried in his suitcase, a big tall glass, and he also carried a fifth of Seagram's. He'd pour this glass full of whiskey and put a little ice in it, a little water in it, and then he'd sip it and get jocular.

"Ruth liked to irritate Gehrig, so he'd make bad bids deliberately. Gehrig would throw the cards in the middle of the table because he knew what was going on."

Werber liked the Babe in spite of their unfortunate shower-room encounter and wasn't bothered by his political incorrectness. "Babe was loud," Werber says. "Whenever he referred to Lazzeri, who he was fond of, he'd say, 'Where's that goddamn wop?' We had a ballplayer on the club who played under the name of Jimmie Reese, but he was Jewish. His real name was Hymie Solomon. And Babe always referred to him as 'that little kike bastard,' or 'that Jew sonofabitch.' But this is the truth: These were terms of endearment." And those were different times.

Ruth did occasionally engender resentment from the women he loved and left, Werber recalls. "One day he told us an intimate story in the clubhouse at spring training in Florida. There was a light drizzle, and it was cold, and we were sitting around a stove. Lazzeri was always needling Ruth and he said, 'Tell us about that babe in Ybor City.' Well, he'd told this girl that spring training was about to start, and he was going to have to terminate their relationship. But the real reason was that he'd found someone better."

All-around athlete: Werber led Duke to an 18-2 record for the 1930 basketball season, becoming the university's first All-America selection.

All-around athlete: Werber led Duke to an 18-2 record for the 1930 basketball season, becoming the university's first All-America selection. Duke Sports Information

"And he was in this country club at night at dinner with this other girl, and he saw the Spanish girl appear in the doorway. She saw him through these big glass doors, and she reached into her pocketbook and took out a revolver. About that time Babe thought he'd better leave, and he ran through the doors out onto the golf course, and she fired, and she hit him in the leg. And then he showed us the scar on the back of his leg and said, 'Aw, she was a good girl, it didn't amount to nothing.' "

Werber spent most of the next few seasons in the minors, and the Yankees sold him to the Red Sox in 1933. In Boston, he quickly evolved into a solid and occasionally spectacular third baseman, batting a career-high .321 in 1934. Traded to the old Philadelphia A's in 1937, Werber eventually went head-to-head with their legendary owner/ manager, Connie Mack, in contract talks.

"Mr. Mack would always wait until the last day to get his contracts out because it reduced the time you'd have to argue," Werber says. "It put pressure on the players. Now I finally got his contract, and he wrote me a nice letter saying the club had had a bad year, and this would be a bad year to come, and that his payroll was too high. So I wrote a letter back to him. I said, in summary, 'Mr. Mack, what I would advise you to do is to sell your ballclub and get into another business.' He took this, and rightly so, as being an affront. So he sold me to Cincinnati, and that worked out very well."

The deal paid off right away for the Reds, who got themselves a fiery leadoff hitter who helped drive them to the National League pennant in 1939 and the World Series title the following year. "Cincinnati was unique," he says. "I hadn't been there too long before the doorbell rang. It was the personnel director of the Kroger grocery and baking company, big outfit. He came in—had a big basket full of champagne and wine, a pineapple, bananas, apples, oranges —and he said, 'We admire the way you put hustle into this ballclub.' Well, I had put hustle into the ballclub. That was fun."

But by 1941 his career was clearly on the decline, brought on by a painful, surgically repaired big toe he'd broken years before when he kicked a water bucket in the dugout. "I had an ugly disposition," he says. (The website baseballreference.com, which highlights similar players across eras, compares Werber to a hard-nosed star of the 1990s, Lenny "Nails" Dykstra, among others.)

After eleven seasons, Werber quit the game, a .271 career hitter with 271 doubles, 539 runs batted in, and 215 steals. In the fall of 1942, he joined his father in the insurance business in Berwyn, Maryland, outside Washington, where he was an overnight success. "The most I ever made playing baseball was $13,500, plus World Series checks, but the first year I was in business, I made over $100,000," he says. "That was $20,000 more than Babe Ruth ever made playing baseball."

Lunch is over now, so he takes the elevator down one floor and rolls through the hallway to his one-bedroom apartment. It's decorated with photos of friends and family, children and grandchildren, and on a side table, there's a scrapbook filled with birthday cards and messages. Many of them reflect Werber's nearly lifelong link to Duke. (He was pleased to get a birthday phone call from Mike Krzyzewski, who also had four basketball shirts delivered as a gift.) Former athletics director Tom Butters' name had come up in conversation, and Werber plucks out the card Butters sent. Butters wrote, in part: "Bill Werber is the most principled man I have ever known. He has stood behind those principles for nearly a century. While I have not always agreed with him, I have always respected him, and do to this day. I would put my life on the line for this man."

Werber is visibly moved by the words. But after a moment, he brightens—time for another story. "Tom Butters was late for an appointment with me once," he says. "The [donation] check that I'd been prepared to write for him was pretty substantial for those times. But he showed up an hour or two late, and I refused to talk to him. I sent him on his way. He didn't like that much.

"Later I heard he was talking to somebody who told him they were going to go see Bill Werber, and Butters said, 'For chrissakes, don't be late!' "

Werber laughs a long time about this one. Principles never get old.

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