Friday, January 23, 2009

An Era Truly Comes to an End

The phrase "the end of an era" frequently seems to be tossed around as casually as any.

But, with the passing yesterday of Billy Werber, one can truly say that an era has come to an end.

Werber was a major league baseball player. His wasn't a household name, but he was the last surviving teammate of the legendary Babe Ruth — who, until I was a teenager, was the undisputed king of home runs. And, even in the 35 years since Ruth's career mark was surpassed by Hank Aaron, only one other baseball player has hit more home runs. And that baseball player's mark will always be regarded with suspicion because of the widespread belief that steroids played a role in achieving it.

Werber was a third baseman who played with Ruth for the New York Yankees, although he wasn't a member of the famous Yankees team of 1927 that is known to history as "Murderers' Row." Werber broke into the majors in 1930, but he only played in four games before being sent back to the minors. He was called up to the majors again in 1933, but, by that time, Ruth had left New York.

Werber also played for the Boston Red Sox, the Philadelphia Athletics, the Cincinnati Reds, and the New York Giants before making his final major league appearance in September 1942.

His name might not be well known, but Werber enjoyed some success in his baseball career. Some of his career marks — his batting average, for example — are unremarkable, but he led the American League in stolen bases three times. As a member of the Reds, he was on two National League pennant winners and one World Series champion. As a result, he was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1961.

Also, during his time in Cincinnati, Werber became the first player to bat in a televised baseball game in 1939.

Ironically, in his last years, Werber apparently did not watch baseball on TV, at least in part because he didn't like the long hair and beard worn by Johnny Damon. "I don't like the appearance of a lot of the players," he told an interviewer for MSNBC last year. "The hair's too long. Their beards are too evident. They're a grubby-looking bunch of caterwaulers."

He was 100 years old when he died yesterday, acknowledged as the oldest living baseball player. Now, that title belongs to 99-year-old Tony Malinosky, who played in 35 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937.

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