Oldest ex-major leaguer Werber dies at 100

Bill Werber, who was the oldest living ex-major leaguer and a teammate of Babe Ruth, died on Jan. 22, 2009. The Berwyn, Md., native was 100.
Bill Werber, who was the oldest living ex-major leaguer and a teammate of Babe Ruth, died on Jan. 22, 2009. The Berwyn, Md., native was 100. (AP photo)
Bill Werber, who was the oldest living ex-major leaguer and a teammate of Babe Ruth, died Thursday. He was 100.

Werber, a career .271 hitter who led the American League in stolen bases three times, played with Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove in stints with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. He hit .370 as the third baseman on the 1940 World Series champion Cincinnati Reds.

Until recently, Werber would vividly tell stories of his days playing in baseball's golden era. But Werber had been in deteriorating health for the past month and recently moved into an assisted-care facility in Charlotte, where his daughter, Patricia, lives.

"He just refused to eat and that was his plan. He was just having fluids," his son Bill Werber Jr., said. "He was sharp -- extremely sharp -- up until three or four weeks ago."

As a collegian, Werber traveled briefly with the storied 1927 New York Yankees. He played for Hall of Fame managers Casey Stengel, Joe McCarthy, Joe Cronin and Bucky Harris, and locked horns in a contract dispute with Connie Mack.

Werber was also the leadoff hitter in the first televised game in 1939.

Werber, who would forget dates and times late in life, had no trouble remembering his days as a player -- including his first major league plate appearance in 1930 with the Yankees.

"Babe Ruth hit a home run and I wanted to show them how fast I could run," Werber said in an interview in June. "So I get into the dugout, and -- finally -- Babe got into the dugout. He patted me on the head and said, 'Son, you don't have to run like that when the Babe hits one.'"

A rarity for a ballplayer of his time, Werber graduated from college and was Duke's first All-American basketball player under Eddie Cameron, for which Cameron Indoor Stadium is named.

The Berwyn, Md., native signed with the Yankees after his freshman year at Duke. The contract wouldn't begin until Werber left school, but scout Paul Krichell thought Werber could learn by spending the summer of '27 sitting in the dugout and practicing with one of the best teams in baseball history.

Only Werber wasn't welcome around Murderers' Row, and left a month later to play in a summer league in North Carolina.

"They never let me in the batting cage," Werber said. "The '27 Yankees were one of the greatest ballclubs of all time and they didn't have time to fool around with a college kid."

Werber, though, eventually made it in the majors and got to play and travel with some of the legends of the game.

"I played bridge with Babe on all the train rides," Werber once said. "He had as his partner Lou Gehrig. I had as my partner Bill Dickey. Now actually, Bill Dickey and I were a lot smarter than Ruth or Gehrig and we always beat them -- for $3.50. Not a lot of money."

Werber, who became a millionaire after baseball by selling life insurance for a company started by his father, had a prosthetic below his left knee following a diabetes-related infection six years ago.

Werber, whose wife, Kathryn, died in 2000, remained independent well past his 100th birthday.

Werber was an avid reader and occasionally wrote letters to baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Werber told Selig he doesn't think women should sing the national anthem, that games today take too long and that he's disgusted with the long hair on modern players.

But Werber had no trouble talking about his days playing and traveling with the players.

"He was a kindly man," Werber said of Ruth. "He didn't shove these little kids along. They crawled all over his white shoes and his tan pants. He'd go to hospitals, but he'd never take a newspaper man with him and he'd never take a photographer with him."

Werber's 11-year career -- where he didn't make more than $13,500 in a season -- ended in 1942 with the New York Giants.

His son said that Werber will be cremated. A public service will be scheduled in Charlotte the weekend of Jan. 31-Feb. 1.

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