The last of “The Teammates” has died — and with it, possibly, our last living connection to a time in American professional sports we’ll never see again.
Robert Pershing Doerr (the middle name is for Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the armies during World War I) played in an era where athletes may have been idolized, but certainly weren’t coddled. Doerr, as well as his most noteworthy contemporaries, saw their careers interrupted by World War II. In fact, one of those contemporaries, Ted Williams, served two hitches, one in the second world war and the other in Korea.
In his own right, Doerr became a Hall of Famer, although it didn’t happen until 2007 — rather late in his life (he was 89).
To those who knew him, though, he was a Hall of Fame person long before he gained official recognition in Cooperstown. Williams called him the “quiet captain of the Red Sox.” That’s pretty heady stuff coming from Mr. Teddy Ballgame himself.
Doerr and Williams met in San Diego in the 1930s, when they were minor leaguers and developed a fast friendship. They met a third comrade, Dominic DiMaggio, when the Yankee Clipper’s younger brother had his contract purchased by the Red Sox. The final “teammate” joined the Red Sox in 1940. Perhaps you’ve heard of Johnny Pesky.
Picture it. Ted was Ted. He was a .400 hitter and probably the best pure hitter Major League baseball ever saw. Dominic was “The Little Professor,” half because he wore round-rimmed Coke-bottle glasses, and half because he was one of the smartest ballplayers of his era.
Pesky, who settled in Swampscott during his long association with the Red Sox, was the prototype No. 2 batter. Pesky was adept at doing all the necessary things No. 2 hitters do. Plus, he had the patience at the plate to wait out pitchers throwing over to first base to keep DiMaggio close.
But it was Doerr who maintained the equilibrium of that clubhouse. He was the quiet leader — the guy whose presence reassured everyone around him that all was OK.
And don’t forget. These were the Red Sox who invented the heartbreak that was to define the club right up to the time it finally got the monkey off its back in 2004. The 1946 Red Sox were one of those murderers row groups that won 104 games in an era where teams only played 154. Yet they fell to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, in part, many would say, because Williams only hit .200. Doerr, on the other hand, batted over .400 for the seven games. In fact, all through his career he was known as a clutch hitter.
And there is no doubt that Doerr was anything other than the best second baseman in Red Sox history. Some may be anxious to give that honor to Dustin Pedroia, but those people do not know history. It was Doerr hands down.
In a way, though, they were similar. Doerr’s career was cut short due to a back injury, and Pedroia seems to be staring down the abyss that would signify the end of his playing days, as injuries and surgeries continue to mount.
Beyond anything any of them accomplished in life, the enduring friendship the four former ballplayers forged became a story unto itself. This isn’t unique, of course. Friendships emerged from those old Green Bay Packers teams of the 1950s and 60s and, later, among players on the Big Bad Bruins of the sixties and seventies.
But only Williams, DiMaggio, Doerr and Pesky had a book written about them by one of the 20th century’s most renowned historians. David Halberstam, a serious writer, had an unabiding love of baseball — especially the years that preceded today’s free-agent era. During those years, he said, ballplayers strove to be successful within the framework of the society in which they lived — as opposed to today’s times where athletes demand and receive exorbitant salaries.
He considered the four — even Williams — noble examples of those times. He called his book “The Teammates: Portrait of a Friendship,” and you can see a statue of the four men — Doerr, Pesky, Williams and DiMaggio — outside Fenway Park, on Van Ness Street.
Doerr, who was 99 when he died Monday, was the oldest surviving former Major League player. And it’s safe to say that now that he’s gone, he has taken his era with him.