Beware of people on pedestals

A conversation with baseball's Bill Werber shatters notion of hero worship

He would have been a fine hero at a time when I was looking for one. He was a former Major League ballplayer in his mid-90s living alone in Charlotte, North Carolina. I ran across his name 17 paragraphs into an obscure article in the sports pages and was surprised to learn such a relic could still be around. I dialed his number hoping to find a semi-lucid hospice patient with a couple of vague dugout memories and instead discovered an American treasure.

He had a voice like Shelby Foote from Ken Burns's Civil War series and a delivery to match. He was articulate, eloquent, and highly educated. He was a walking time capsule of the 1920s and '30s.

I could hardly believe my ears. Where had this man been? Why wasn't he being interviewed by Bob Costas?

He saw Cobb play; he sat in the dugout with the '27 Yankees. He graduated from Duke with honors and a desire to be a lawyer, but instead drifted into baseball and ended up playing with the Yankees, Red Sox, Giants, Reds, and Philadelphia A's. There was no one like him. At a time when ballplayers were uneducated country boys, Bill Werber came into the league a literate young man with an athletic gift who could live the ballplayer's life and then tell its stories better than any peer.

Now, some 60 years later, with his vivid memory and vast vocabulary still powerfully at his disposal, he was sitting on the phone spinning yarns with mesmerizing detail.

I grew transfixed hearing of his long train rides with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, enjoying card games and gin. The names that rolled off his tongue were a who's-who of baseball's golden era. He talked of ball-field heroics with Tony Lazzeri, Lefty Grove, Bucky Walters; elegant hotel stays with Joe McCarthy, Connie Mack, Mel Ott; beers with the players; high jinks in the evenings after day games. Every story sang, every detail danced.

I thought back on this wondrous phone call last weekend when reading of the 70th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's "luckiest man" speech. Baseball was taking this year's Independence Day to honor one of its all-time favorites—a man who exemplified the ideal American ballplayer, on and off the field. Before that phone call with Bill Werber in 2000, it had been Lou Gehrig resting atop my hero pedestal. I loved him dearly, going so far as to ask my wife if we could give our son "Gehrig" for a middle name.

Werber, however, was no fan of Gehrig, calling him aloof, unfriendly, cold, and distant. Ruth was the one he said I should emulate. I remember saying to myself, as Werber criticized Gehrig's personality, think twice before placing people on pedestals. Someone's bound to knock them off eventually.

That caveat would soon echo louder.

I bought a plane ticket and flew out to Charlotte to meet this new hero of mine. I was prepared to record hours of interviews over several days, bathing in the warmth of his Southern charm.

On the second day, in the midst of a long, lively face-to-face chat, I heard what I thought was a vague racist reference. I decided to pursue it by bringing up the obvious question of baseball's segregation and was stunned to learn Werber thought the majors should have "remained segregated." With my head now spinning and his Southern drawl sounding less like Shelby Foote and more like a Klan grand wizard, I questioned him further and drew from his lips the word "savages" as he described how he viewed blacks in America today.

The man who had dropped Lou Gehrig a couple of notches in my esteem had just hurled himself, violently, off a similar pedestal. My heart sank. The kindly old grandfather figure before me vanished. I felt nauseated and lost all interest in the project. I ended it with meaningless throwaway questions and stumbled out his door, dejected.

I've since tried to steer clear of the hero-worship business.

And though I should learn my lesson, a biography has been written of Gehrig called Luckiest Man. I've read it, and not a soul in that book refers to him as aloof or unfriendly. He was just "shy," Bill, that's all. And if Gehrig were alive today, I pray he wouldn't mind taking the field with some brown-skinned, handsome men. 

 
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