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Oldest living ex-major leaguer has stories to tell

June 15, 2008|From the Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bill Werber steered his motorized wheelchair to the end of the table. The waitress pointed to the lunch menu, but the oldest living ex-major leaguer had no use for it.

Days shy of his 100th birthday, Werber knew what he wanted: a hot dog -- with onions and a little ketchup. After his first bite, the link to baseball's golden era began his storytelling.

"Babe Ruth hit a home run and I wanted to show them how fast I could run," Werber said of being driven in by Ruth after drawing a walk in his first major league plate appearance in 1930 with the New York Yankees. "So I get into the dugout, and -- finally -- Babe got into the dugout. He patted me on the head and said, 'Son, you don't have to run like that when the Babe hits one.' "

Werber chuckled. Ruth's old teammate may occasionally forget dates and appointments these days, but remembers vivid details of playing ball when games routinely lasted less than two hours, starting pitchers were rarely taken out, and fielders left their gloves on the field when it was their turn to bat.

Werber, a career .271 hitter who led the American League in stolen bases three times, is the last of his generation. Just don't ask him about his impending 100th birthday on Friday.

"It's an annoyance," said Werber, before taking another bite of his hot dog.

According to the Society for American Baseball Research, the next oldest ex-player is 98-year-old Tony Malinosky, who played 35 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937. It's believed the oldest living former professional player is 102-year-old Millito Navarro, the first Puerto Rican to play in the Negro Leagues.

Werber played at a time when baseball was segregated -- and had no equal on the American sports landscape.

As a collegian, he traveled briefly with the storied 1927 New York Yankees. He was teammates with Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove. He hit .370 in the 1940 World Series as the third baseman for the champion Cincinnati Reds, despite playing most of his career in pain after breaking his toe in 1934 by kicking a water cooler in anger.

He played for Hall of Fame managers Casey Stengel, Joe McCarthy, Joe Cronin and Bucky Harris, and locked horns in a contract dispute with Connie Mack. Werber was also the leadoff hitter in the first televised game in 1939.

"I was vociferous and cocky and if they wanted to fight that was all right for me," Werber said of his career. "I was ready to go anytime. I've mellowed somewhat -- and I'm crippled."

Werber, who became a millionaire after baseball by selling life insurance for a company started by his father, has a prosthetic below his left knee following a diabetes-related infection six years ago.

"The surgeon gave me a choice: I could cut off my leg or I could cut off my head," Werber said in his deep, booming voice.

There was too much to tell -- and too little time -- for Werber to stop. Just make sure to speak loudly and clearly when asking the hard-of-hearing Werber to tell another fascinating tale of his life as a 5-foot-10 infielder in the 1930s.

"I played bridge with Babe on all the train rides," Werber began. "He had as his partner Lou Gehrig. I had as my partner Bill Dickey. Now actually, Bill Dickey and I were a lot smarter than Ruth or Gehrig and we always beat them -- for $3.50. Not a lot of money."

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