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Nice Guys Sometimes Finish First

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Today marks the 93rd birthday anniversary of Robert Pershing ("Bobby") Doerr, the oldest member of baseball's hallowed Hall of Fame. It's a good time to reflect on this man who attained so much as a sports hero, but whose character and personality made him stand out even more.

He was, of course, a magnificent baseball player. His initial professional contract was at age 16 with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League and he was not yet 19 when he came up to the Boston Red Sox for spring training in 1937. He would remain the Red Sox mainstay at second base, except for a year or so of military service in World War II, until back problems forced his early retirement after the 1951 season.

His whole career was spent at second base. Five times he led the league in double plays by second basemen, and to watch him execute this difficult maneuver was to see the grace and elegance of Nureyev in Swan Lake. In 1948 he handled 414 consecutive chances, through 73 games, without making an error, establishing an American League record. His lifetime fielding average, .980, was a league record when he retired.

But he was far from the "good field, no hit" player. He led the league in slugging percentage one year and hit 223 home runs during his major league career, at his retirement the third most for any second baseman. He was widely recognized as a clutch hitter. Bob Feller, the greatest pitcher of his era, threw 12 one-hit games, and in two of the 12 the single hit was made by Bobby Doerr.

As great as his baseball accomplishments were -- they were, of course, the basis of his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985, at the time as one of only 159 players to attain this distinction -- his personal qualities were what those who knew him always mentioned first. David Halberstam, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of 22 books, called him "very simply among the nicest and most balanced men I have ever met." All who ever came in contact with him -- teammates, managers, reporters, bat boys, and everyone else -- would agree. The contrast with today, when so many superstar athletes behave like spoiled children, could not be starker.

I can add a personal experience involving this innately good man. I grew up in Anthon, Iowa, a village whose sole claim to fame was a large mink ranch run by the Gothier family. Doerr was interested in mink and had met the Gothiers at a mink show. He and his wife Monica used to stop over for several days on the trek from Boston to their home in Oregon after the baseball season ended. In 1949 the Doerrs' visit happened to coincide with the celebration of our high school team having won the state fall baseball championship. Bobby added much luster by his participation in those functions.

Fast forward 50 years, when the remnants of that team gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the state championship. Monica and Bobby Doerr joined us. It couldn't have been easy for this couple then in their eighties, getting from their home in rural Oregon to an even-more isolated town in Iowa, with Monica in a wheel chair because of multiple sclerosis. Yet there they were, talking baseball, eating the modest dinner that was the best the town could offer, and signing autographs until well into a hot summer night. It seemed as though they would just as soon be there as anywhere else in the world. And come to think of it, they probably would.

Leo Durocher, about as opposite to Bobby Doerr in personality as anyone could be, once responded to an observation that someone was a nice guy, forging an expression that would bring Durocher a certain measure of immortality: "Nice guys finish last." It has been widely applied to sports and even to life itself. How often it's true is arguable, but surely there's no better exception than Robert Pershing Doerr, a very nice guy who happened to finish first. So, happy birthday, Bob, and thanks for the memories.

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