He was the oldest former major league ballplayer when he died last month at the age of 100. Bill Werber was a teammate of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth with the Yankees in 1930 and again three years later. He also played for the Red Sox, Philadelphia Athletics, Cincinnati Reds and New York Giants before retiring in 1942 with a .271 career batting average. He outhit Hank Greenberg .370 to .357 in the 1940 World Series, leading the Reds over the Tigers in seven games.
Werber is the answer to this trivia question: Who was the first batter in the first-ever televised major league baseball game?
It happened in 1939 at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. Werber led off for the Reds. The game was described by play-by-play man Red Barber, who was stationed in the upper deck behind third base next to a camera (the other NBC camera was placed behind home plate). NBC’s experimental station W2XBS was headquartered in the Empire State Building with a limited range of only fifty miles, reaching an estimated one hundred households.
After baseball, Werber entered the insurance field. He credited his long life to a great 70-year marriage (his wife died in 2000) and his having refraining from smoking and drinking.
As we approach spring training, it’s a good time to remember some other former players who died in recent months.
● Mickey Vernon’s playing career spanned four decades (1939-1960) and he won two batting championships as a member of the Washington Senators (1946 and 1953). Cleveland third baseman Al Rosen was heading for the triple crown in 1953 as he led the American League in three categories going into the last game of the season. However, Vernon’s two hits in the last game gave him the batting title, one point ahead of Rosen’s .336. Rosen had to settle for leading the league in home runs (43) and RBI (145).
Vernon, who lived to age 90, had many thrills as a player and manager of the Senators. The biggest, he claimed, was in 1954. “It was opening day in Washington,” he related years later at an Old Timer’s Game. “I hit a home run in the bottom of the 10th to beat the Yankees. President Eisenhower was sitting near our dugout and stayed for the whole game. He sent some Secret Service men on the field after I crossed home plate. They escorted me to his box and the president told me I was his favorite player and he wanted to congratulate me. That was my most memorable day in baseball.”
● Preacher Roe had one of the most memorable faces on baseball cards to us yeshiva kids. His wide cheeks and small chin reminded us of the popular comic strip hero Popeye. Roe was a pitching hero to Brooklyn Dodgers fans in 1951 when he won 22 games and lost only three. From 1951 through 1953 he won 44 games while dropping eight. Roe, who died at 92, was very popular with the press, his teammates and the fans.
Most thought that since he was from a tiny town in far off Arkansas, Roe was just a country hick. Roe played the hillbilly role well but he actually graduated from Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas, and once taught high school mathematics. He started his big league career as a 29-year-old rookie with Pittsburgh in 1944 and was traded to Brooklyn in 1947 – the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Roe hung up his spikes in 1954 at the age of 39, after compiling a career record of 127-84 with a 3.43 ERA.
● Herb Score, the fireballing Cleveland Indians pitcher who was rookie of the year in 1955, died at 75. I was with my young yeshiva classmates when Score held our hometown Tigers scoreless. We thought Score was going to be the greatest lefthander of all time. Sandy Koufax broke in with the Dodgers that year (1955) but wasn’t a great pitcher until the early 1960s. Score, though, was great in his rookie season.
Score had won 38 games in the big leagues when he took the mound against the Yankees on May 7, 1957. His career would be shattered that night as a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald caught him in the eye, breaking his nose and several facial bones.
Score spent the rest of the year recovering and though he stayed on in the majors from 1958 to 1962, he wasn’t nearly as effective. He won only 17 games over that four-year span while losing 26. Popular with Cleveland fans and an accomplished speaker, he went on to spend 30 years as a broadcaster for the Indians.
I saw Score often on the baseball beat and recall many of our conversations. He was born in New York and grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and adopted outfielder Pete Reiser as his favorite player. Score credited teammate Al Rosen with helping him get over a severe case of the jitters the first time he faced Mickey Mantle and the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.
● Former pitcher Dock Ellis was an outgoing, outspoken fellow and probably remained so until the end when liver disease claimed him at 63. He was a writer’s dream, funny and quotable. He was the Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock of the baseball world.
Ellis broke in with the Pirates in 1969, pitched a no-hitter the following year and had a 19-9 record in 1971. Traded to the Yankees after the 1975 season, he was the toast of New York in 1976 as he posted a 17-8 record.
I did a lengthy interview with Ellis around the batting cage in Yankee Stadium during that summer of ’76 when He admired my straw cap and placed it on his head while putting his Yankees cap on my head. It must have looked strange to early arriving fans, but it wasn’t strange to his teammates. He didn’t move the caps back until after the interview.
The Yankees moved Ellis to Oakland the following season, then it was on to Texas, the Mets and back in 1979 to Pittsburgh where he wrapped up his career, finishing with a 138-119 mark and an ERA of 3.46. His numbers would have been good enough to earn him an annual salary exceeding some $15 million today.
But enough about yesterday. I’m off to follow the sun and spring training. Tell you about it next month.
Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His Baseball Insider column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, is available for speaking engagements and may be reached in his dugout at firstname.lastname@example.org.