The baseball world lost its oldest former player yesterday, when 100-yr old Bill Werber passed away. Last summer, and practically up until September, Bill and I shared several conversations. The last living teammate of Babe Ruth, and member of the great 1939-40 Cincinnati Reds teams, Werber had been helping me with research for a book on Bucky Walters. I quickly learned that, despite his age, Werber’s memory surpassed many of those not even one-third of his age.
Bill received his first major league callup in 1927 as a member of the Yankees. He didn’t see any playing time but was told it would benefit him greatly to sit on the bench and learn from the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and skipper Miller Huggins. The boys largely ignored him, though, as the callup came in the midst of a pennant race, and he felt very alone. His official career would not begin until 1930, three years later, when he played a mere four games with the Bronx Bombers.
Three more years later, as a 25-yr old, Werber found himself traded to the arch-nemesis Red Sox after just three games in Yankees pinstripes. In 108 games with Boston, Bill hit .259/.312/.379, a .323 wOBA worth -2.6 runs below average. Perhaps the experience was all he needed, because Werber went on a tear from 1934-1940, putting together a very impressive 7-yr run. In that 1934 season, his best, he hit .321/.397/.472, an .868 OPS and .400 wOBA that produced +34 runs above average.
From 1935-1940, even though he failed to match the .400 wOBA, the same metric ranged from .358-.375. Never much of a slugger, the bulk of Werber’s success came in the ability to get on base. In the same 7-yr span, his OBP ranged from .357-.397. In 1934, as you will soon hear below, Werber injured his toe and was never the same player again. His statistics do not suggest anything of the sort. As an interesting sidenote, he is also the first batter to ever appear on a televised major league game, a fact he had no idea about for quite some time.
He retired twice, once after the 1941 season, and once more after the 1942 season. How he was coaxed back into the major leagues after the first retirement will be left to Mr. Werber himself to explain. All told, Werber finished his 11-yr career with a .357 wOBA and +86.8 batting runs above average.
To honor the former three-time stolen base champion and igniter of the 1939-40 dynamic Reds teams, I have pieced together eight minutes of one of the recorded interviews I have with him. He will explain how he injured his toe, which happens to be one of those zany injuries, as well as how his career ended on two different occasions. Lastly, he will explain how the Reds infield of Frank McCormick, Lonny Frey, Billy Meyers, and himself came to be known as “The Jungle Club.” In advance, let me apologize for the quality, as this interview was conducted more for research purposes and I didn’t expect to publish any of it.