Friday, June 19, 2015

Doerr Defying Age

Doerr was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986 (Boston Baseball History)
Having survived 97 years and 72 days, Bobby Doerr is officially the longest-living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He just passed former catcher and manager Al Lopez, who passed away on October 30th, 2005. Doerr, the oldest living former Red Sox, is also the only living person to have played a major league baseball game during the 1930s.

Pretty cool.

Doerr debuted on Opening Day 1937, not even two weeks past his 19th birthday. Under owner Tom Yawkey and player manager Joe Cronin, Boston was slowly returning to respectability after nearly two decades in the American League cellar. Doerr joined an infield with future Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx at first and Cronin at short, plus All-Star Pinky Higgins at third. The outfield featured perennial All-Stars and .300 hitters Ben Chapman and Doc Cramer, while the rotation was anchored by Bobo Newsom, Wes Ferrell, and the indomitable Lefty Grove.  For Doerr to make such a star-studded roster out of spring training, less than a year after graduating high school, was exceedingly impressive.

Batting leadoff in Cronin's lineup card, he paced Boston's 11-5 rout of the Philadelphia A's with three hits. His next game he cracked two more hits, including a double. The game after that he slugged his first home run, a two-run shot that drove Yankee starter Bump Hadley from the game.

What was shaping up to be a phenomenal rookie season for Doerr was derailed in just his fourth big league game, when Ed Linke beaned him above the left ear his third time up. Doerr remained conscious and returned to the starting lineup for Boston's next game, but soon fell into a nasty slump. He was batting a lowly .232/.338/.319 when Cronin removed him from the starting lineup in favor of the veteran Eric McNair, who went on to enjoy a fine season by hitting .292 with 12 home runs, 10 steals and a .793 OPS. Doerr remained on the big club but played sparingly until September, by which point he was too rusty to be of much use. He finished his rookie year at .224/.313/.313 in 170 plate appearances--easily the worst figures of his career.

Doerr cracked the starting lineup for good the following year, earning the confidence of Cronin and settling in as the team's everyday second baseman. The consistency and added experience led to immediate improvements at the plate, where he batted .289 with a .363 OBP, 80 RBI, and 202 total bases. Boston improved by leaps and bounds too, jumping from 80 wins and fifth place in 1937 to 88 wins and second place in '38.

Both Doerr and the Sox continued to improve in 1939. The Red Sox received a boost in the form of Doerr's former minor league teammate Ted Williams, who was one of the best hitters in baseball upon arrival. Doerr, just four months older than Williams but already in his third big league season, batted a robust .318 and more than doubled his home run total from the previous season.

Williams and the Sox slipped in 1940, but Doerr didn't. He enjoyed his first 100 RBI season by driving in 105, something he would accomplish five more times over the remainder of the decade. He also clubbed 37 doubles, 10 triples, and 22 homers--all career highs to that point--while slugging .497 and racking up 296 total bases.

While Doerr was snubbed from the All-Star team in 1940 (Joe Gordon and Ray Mack were selected instead), he made the '41 squad despite seeing his production dip across the board. He was on hand for the American League's miracle comeback in the bottom of the ninth. Trailing by one and down to their final out, the AL walked off in shocking fashion on a three-run homer by Teddy Ballgame.
Doerr and Williams attended nine All-Star Games together (Padres Public)
Doerr was an All-Star again in 1942, and received MVP consideration for the first time after exceeding 100 RBI again and drastically improving his defense. His offense sagged a bit in 1943 with the deadened ball in use during the war years, but he rebounded to have his finest season in terms of rate stats in 1944, when he batted .325/.399/.528--all career highs. His season--for which he was named AL Player of the Year by the Sporting News--was cut short, however, by draft orders that required him to report for induction at the beginning of September. Doerr had previously been exempt because he was married and had a son, but with the war at its peak in 1944 that was no longer enough to keep him out of the service.

Doerr returned from the service in 1946 along with Williams and teammates Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, and Tex Hughson, who helped lead Boston to 104 wins and its first pennant since 1918. Doerr was an integral part of that team, what with his 18 homers, 116 RBI, and outstanding defense at second. He finished third in the MVP vote that year behind Williams and Hal Newhouser--the only time he ever polled in the top five. Though Boston lost the World Series to St. Louis in seven games, Doerr shined in his lone Fall Classic, batting .409 and leading the Red Sox with nine hits.

Though Boston was unable to replicate its successful 1946, narrowly missing out on several pennants, Doerr continued to be an elite run producer throughout the rest of the decade, driving in tons of runs because of his high batting averages and batting order position behind Peaky, DiMaggio, Williams, and later Vern Stephens--all on base machines. His defense remained strong as well, with he and Pesky teaming up to be one of the best double-play combinations in baseball.

A bad back ended Doerr's career prematurely after the 1951 season, even though he was just 33 and still near the top of his game. Accordingly, his career statistics are not particularly impressive, for he played only 14 seasons due to injury and war. Even so, he still amassed more than 1,000 runs, 2,000 hits, 1,200 RBI, and 200 homers--good numbers for a second baseman--and made nine All-Star teams. He was also, as mentioned, a strong defender and had great power for his position, with his 223 home runs ranking third among second basemen at the time of his retirement. From 1946-1950, only four players drove in more runs.

One can only wonder what Doerr would have accomplished had he not a) been plunked as a rookie, b) lost a prime season to World War II, and c) been forced to retire when he still seemed to have several good years in front of him. His numbers likely would have approached Jeff Kent's, although it's impossible to say how he would've aged, especially since most players back then were done by the age Doerr was when he retired.

Though many of Doerr's Red Sox records have since been broken by Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, he is still the only player in franchise history to hit for the cycle twice. Brock Holt might have something to say about that.

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