by David LaBelle
We all need heroes, guideposts who show us the way through this world of tangled paths.
Tuesday, one of mine left this earth.
I never saw Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr play baseball, since he retired in 1951, the year I was born. Though both of us were raised in southern California, less than 60 miles apart, I wasn’t even aware of Doerr until The Teammates by the late David Halberstam introduced us.
After this discovery, I began a mission to find him, hoping he was still alive. It took some doing, but eventually I met the legend and was blessed to spend a few hours with him over a couple of days in 2014. At 96, Doerr was the oldest living member of National Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
“Beloved,” is a word often used to describe him.
In his later years, he was known for being prickly Ted William’s lifelong friend and the greatest second baseman in Boston’s storied history. Few individuals could navigate William’s fiery personality with the grace and forgiveness Doerr could. When asked about William’s documented tantrums, he smiled and softly shared, “Ted had a tough childhood.”
If Bobby Doerr ever said an unkind word about anyone, nobody’s sharing it.
With a faith in God, this steady, generous man led by quiet example. Whether playing the game he loved with unequalled passion or caring for his beloved Monica, who suffered with multiple sclerosis much of her life and died in 2003, Doerr was a sober guidepost and contrast to the loud bravado of so many undisciplined and selfish athletes. He viewed his baseball life as a true privilege and proved it by his actions. Doerr believed so strongly in giving back to the game and his fans. Hours were spent daily, autographing whatever was sent to him, without charge. This was a lifetime habit he maintained, even towards the end of his life when his unsteady hands struggled to scribble his own name. I watched in amazement as he pushed his wheelchair up to a table in his modest room in the assisted-living facility, and sat signing photographs, cards and baseballs. Who does this anymore? I thought.
I’ve been blessed to meet and photograph many incredible people and listen to their stories. Other than the late John Wooden, a great basketball player and coach, no other sports figure has left a deeper, more positive and lasting impression on me than Bobby Doerr. Much like the sober Wooden, Doerr was a picture of faith, contentment, grace and humility.
Both lives challenge me to be a better person.
I pray, as I age, I can carry myself with the same dignity and peace I witnessed with these two amazing individuals.
I may never live to see another Halley’s Comet, nor another professional baseball player with the integrity of Bobby Doerr, but I can tell my grandchildren I have met one of the greatest baseball players and gentlemen ever to put on a uniform.
Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr represented everything good about baseball.
Thank you, Bob, I am a better person for knowing you.
Our world is one soul less gentle.
From a column written for Ruralite Magazine, October, 2014
Most of us have heroes— people we admire and sometimes even seek to imitate. I have a few, most from a time long before I was born, but occasionally I discover a contemporary whose courage or character beckons me to learn more about them.
Three years ago, while reading “The Teammates” by the late David Halberstam, I was introduced to Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr, a Hall of Fame second baseman who played his entire career with the Boston Red Sox. A quiet leader on and off the field, his role-model character seemed too good to be true. Of the many people Halberstam immortalized with his writing, perhaps none was dearer to his heart than Bobby Doerr.
The more I read about the man, the more I hungered to meet him, and I wondered if he was still alive.
Thankfully, he was.
I wrote to Doerr, hoping for—but not really expecting— a reply to my request for a visit and interview in Oregon. To my surprise, within a week or so I received a handwritten note and a signed Hall of Fame card from the famous ballplayer. He apologized for having to decline my request and explained that his beloved sister, Dorothy, had just died. Since he had been living with his sister, he felt unsure of what the future held for him.
I was stunned and impressed that he wrote back to me, especially during a time of grief and uncertainty. This guy is too good to be true, I thought to myself.
While in Oregon this past summer, I decided to see if I could locate Doerr. I arrived in Portland late, but before dawn the next morning I began an Internet search, hoping to locate baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer.
I was greeted immediately with the headline: Bobby Doerr dead at 96.
My heart dropped.
Not again, I thought. I had waited too long.
In past years, I have planned interviews and photo shoots with famous people, and they died before I could meet them.
I called my wife, almost in tears, sharing what I had learned. I told her I was going to drive to the small town where Doerr last lived and see if I could interview people who knew him.
As I pulled into town heavy hearted, I was surprised to find no signs honoring the famous ballplayer. In fact, there was no visible evidence of his passing. No farewell messages. No flowers at the ballpark bearing his name. Nothing.
Bewildered, I spotted a mailman and asked him if he knew where Doerr had last lived. At first he didn’t recognize the name.
“The Hall of Fame baseball player,” I said. “I know he lived in town or near here for many years.”
Busily sorting mail while walking his route, he stopped and said, “five on six,” then ducked into a building to deliver mail.
Five on six?
I looked up at the street signs and realized it might be some sort of code, so I indulged my hunch and followed the street I was on. Across the railroad tracks and at the end of the road, I found a beautiful retirement and assisted-living complex.
I went inside with camera and notebook, introduced myself and said I had just read that Bobby Doerr had passed. I expressed my condolences and asked if I could talk to somebody who knew the ballplayer.
They looked at me as if I was an alien from another planet.
“I just had breakfast with him,” quipped a caregiver.
An assistant quickly called for an aide and whispered something to him. The man nodded.
I told them about the website, and they called it up. Sure enough, it proclaimed Doerr dead and even had a quote from someone speaking about the beloved player.
A prank, acruel hoax for sure.
By midday, I was finally able to meet and interview the baseball legend I so admired.
Sometimes the stars seem to align and you find yourself in exactly the right place at the right time. This was one such time.
I want to thank Bob’s son, Don, for sharing his father with the me and the world. And Shuree Sleeper, the Doerr family’s longtime aid and friend, couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. I know both are grieving.
If you’d like to know more about this beloved man, I’ve attached a link to another story I wrote about Doerr and his longtime caregiver.
I’m also including links from current articles.