There are perks to working for a prestigious, respected, much-admired media outlet. I mean, aside from the exorbitant salary and the universal public adulation.
You see, one of the pleasures of working in newspapers is the opportunity to meet people. Interesting people. Extraordinary people. People of disparate backgrounds and experiences who have one thing in common — they have a story to tell. All of which is a roundabout way of getting to the point of this column: I was saddened by the recent death of baseball Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr.
Doerr played second base for the Boston Red Sox from 1937 to 1951, missing the 1945 season while serving in the Army. He hit 223 home runs with a .288 batting average and was an outstanding fielder at a key defensive position, and he was selected for induction to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1986. He also was a subject of David Halberstam’s 2003 book “The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship,” about Doerr and fellow Red Sox Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio.
Anyway, Doerr lived a rich life, and before he died at the age of 99, he was the oldest living major leaguer and the last one to have played in the 1930s.
He had lived in Oregon since his playing days, being married to Monica for 65 years until her death in 2003, and through that I had the pleasure of interviewing him several times. Through that, I had the pleasure of getting to know a man of quiet grace and humility.
As former teammate Mel Parnell said of Doerr in “Summer of ’49,” another Halberstam book: “I was a kid, and I thought he was about the nicest teammate a person could ever have. And now, more than 50 years later I’ve thought more and I know more about the world, and I’ve decided he’s just about the nicest person I’ve ever met.”
In 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years, slaying a curse that had bedeviled everyone associated with the franchise. So, I gave Doerr a call.
“I think the best description is, I feel relieved,” he said. “Now I don’t have to answer all those questions about ‘Maybe next year?’ It seemed like destiny there. It seemed like it was just meant to be. Maybe it will be a dynasty of the Red Sox now.”
A man of dignity
Doerr lived to see two more Red Sox championships, in 2007 and 2013, and yet it is not the accolades or the statistics or the history that stand out. It is the dignity.
In that, Doerr is not unique. While the rogues and the rascals of the sports world tend to draw an inordinate amount of attention — the same can be said about politics or entertainment or the media or any other high-profile endeavor — there are plenty of exceptional, thoughtful, respectful people who embrace their responsibility as public figures. There are plenty of professional athletes who exude humility, despite having fame and wealth and being in the top 1 percent of their chosen profession.
It is tempting to ignore that, to romanticize the past, to view the era of Doerr and Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial as a bucolic and sanitized version of a long-lost America. Never mind that when each of them started their careers, blacks were not allowed in the major leagues — or in professional football, basketball or hockey. Never mind that a system of indenture gave team owners unfettered power over the athletes.
None of that, of course, was the fault of the players. Nor should it detract from the story of Bobby Doerr, who said after Boston’s curse-breaking championship in 2004 that he called a friend and told him, “Well, I guess we can die now.”
That didn’t happen for another 13 years. And when it did, I was reminded of an exceptional gentleman of uncommon grace, the kind who makes this profession so enjoyable.