The Australians have an expression: “No worries.” It is their equivalent of “No sweat,” or “It’s all under control.” The expression would have been a fitting nickname for Bobby Doerr, because once he showed up, no Red Sox manager had to worry about second base for 14 years.
Just imagine the smile on the face of any big league skipper who was handed the following scouting report: “An absolutely flawless fielder who effortlessly tracks down any ground ball, whether hit to his left or right. Makes the double play as if the concept were something of his own invention. A dangerous hitter with far more pop in the bat than the average middle infielder. Particularly proficient in RBI situations. A gentleman who will be both immensely popular in his own clubhouse and universally respected throughout the league.”
That indeed would have been the hindsight scouting report on Robert Pershing Doerr, by far the best second baseman the Red Sox have ever had.
Bobby Doerr was a ballplayer’s ballplayer, signed by the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League when he was just 16 years of age. The following season he knocked out 205 hits and a star was born. Moving to the San Diego Padres the following season, the precocious second baseman hit .342 while leading the PCL in hits and all PCL second basemen in assists.
So it wasn’t as if the Red Sox didn’t know what they had when they purchased his contract prior to the 1937 season. After one year of apprenticeship understudying Eric McNair, the 20-year-old was installed by player-manager Joe Cronin as the everyday second baseman, and he would remain there until back woes brought his career to a premature end at the conclusion of the 1951 season.
It was said of the great Detroit second baseman Charlie Gehringer that he said hello on the first day of spring training and good-bye on the last day of the season, and in between he’d hit .350 without saying another word. It wasn’t quite that extreme with Doerr, but he was a soft-spoken man who never craved even a dim spotlight.
And while he never hit .350 (his career high was .325 in 1944, when the Sporting News selected him as the American League MVP), he was about a whole lot more than batting average. You can, for example, pretty well count on one hand the number of second basemen who have driven in 100 runs on six occasions.
What made Doerr so special was that he would have been welcome had he just been as good as he was with either the bat or the glove. He was a run-producing second baseman in an era when men who played that position were supposed to be table-setters. And with his glove, he could have found steady employment had he been nothing more than a .250 singles hitter.
Doerr was a dominant defensive player. He led the American League six times in fielding percentage, four times in putouts, and three times in assists. More to the point, he led American League second basemen in double plays five times, the first such occasion when he was 20 years old. (How much would you pay to see someone like this in a Red Sox uniform today?)
And he made it all look ridiculously easy.
His great positional rival was Joe Gordon, who broke in with the Yankees in 1938. During a 12-year career with New York and Cleveland, Gordon put up offensive stats that mirrored Doerr’s (in tougher hitter’s parks), and Gordon also put up some nice defensive numbers that included leading the league in putouts once and assists four times. But Gordon led the league in errors four times. The idea of Bobby Doerr ever leading any league in errors is unimaginable.
Like noted teammates Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky, Doerr had just that one World Series shot in 1946. But Doerr had nothing to apologize for, batting .409 with a double and a homer against the Cardinals.
When the war ended, Doerr was just 28 and in his prime. In the next five years, he averaged 110 runs batted in while three times leading the league in fielding percentage. He was coming off one of his best years (27 homers, 29 doubles, a league-leading 11 triples, and 120 RBIs in 1950) when his back started to give out.
The 1951 season was a struggle. He was in and out of the lineup, and he was miserable because while it hurt to play, it hurt more not to play. On Sept. 22, 1951, he decided to retire, and in typical Doerr fashion, it was a low-key announcement via a written statement.
“I have a weak vertebra in my back,” he said. “I have found from my experience the last couple of weeks I don’t like sitting around.”
He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1986, and his No. 1 has been retired by the Red Sox. But he remains one of the more underrated residents of Cooperstown.
In their learned tome, “Total Baseball,” authors John Thorn and Pete Palmer put him 69th all-time, tied with George Brett, in their “Total Baseball Ranking.” They also place him at No. 10 in the 1942-60 era, ahead of such luminaries as Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, Bob Feller, Minnie Minoso, Robin Roberts, and, yes, Joe Gordon.
His RBI-per-game average also ranks ahead of people such as Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Stan Musial, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and, yes, Joe Gordon.
Perhaps now you understand why he was a nine-time All-Star, why he’s in the Hall of Fame, and why there could not possibly be any doubt that he was the best second baseman in Red Sox history.
Bob Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.