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Jackie MacMullan

At 89, Doerr is still a fan from afar

BOBBY DOERR Honored at Fenway in August BOBBY DOERR Honored at Fenway in August (FILE/JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)
By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / October 26, 2007

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The fish weren't biting yesterday, so Bobby Doerr reluctantly set down his rod and collected the brush in the backyard of his cabin along the Rogue River in southern Oregon.

"I want to start a fire and get it all burned before the game starts," said the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, who will turn 90 in April.

There are only five retired numbers in right field at Fenway Park, and Bobby Doerr's No. 1 is among them. He is the man Ted Williams once declared "the glue" of that wonderful 1946 Red Sox club that won the American League pennant and revived the baseball pulse at Fenway. Boston would ultimately fall to St. Louis in the World Series, but Doerr did his part, batting .409 and flummoxing the Cardinals with his deft skills at second base.

He was a nine-time All-Star during his 14 years in the majors - all with the Red Sox - and led the league in slugging percentage in 1944 and triples in 1950. His career batting average of .288 did not begin to explain his value as an infielder, a clutch hitter, an understated yet invaluable teammate. While his friend Williams was bombastic, controversial, and opinionated, Doerr offered a measured, calm counterbalance. They formed a bond with Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky that was so endearing and enduring, the late David Halberstam chronicled it in a book entitled "The Teammates."

Doerr still catches his breath when he watches his beloved Red Sox on television and the cameras pan to right field displaying the retired numbers, as they did Wednesday night.

"I do enjoy seeing that No. 1 flash across the screen," he said last night. "It was one of the great honors of my life."

He returned to Fenway for the final time this summer when the Red Sox commemorated the 60th anniversary of Bobby Doerr Day, Aug. 2, 1947.

He brought along friends and family, an entourage of 15 in all, and breathed in the atmosphere of baseball in the 21st century. Times have changed, of course. The players are wealthier, the owners more impatient, and the fans significantly more discerning.

Bobby Doerr is grateful to the current Red Sox ownership for drawing the old-time players close, for embracing them as a pivotal part of their history.

"They make us feel welcome there," said Doerr.

Although his hallowed place in Red Sox lore was long ago cemented, it has not prevented him from being an everyday fan with questions about the local nine. After I asked this true New England treasure a few questions, he had a couple of baseball queries of his own.

"Hey, what happened to the kid that threw the no-hitter?" he asked. "How come he isn't on the playoff roster?"

Told Clay Buchholz was shut down because of a "tired arm," Doerr responded, "A tired arm? So does that mean he's hurt, or not?"

Good question, Bobby.

The former second baseman wonders how bullpens became so specialized, how the catcher has held up through so many career games. He's glad the manager finally found a way to get Jacoby Ellsbury in the lineup.

"I love that Ellsbury kid," Doerr said. "I think he's going to be one of the star players going forward. To be that young and to step in and do as well as he's done . . . I've got a good feeling about him. I got to see him while he was here at Oregon State, and he struck me as someone that generated a lot of excitement, like another Ted Williams."

Doerr confesses he anticipated a difficult series with the Colorado Rockies, and was stunned to watch the 13-1 Game 1 blowout unfold.

"Oh my gosh, the way that other club had been going, I was hoping they could just squeeze out a win," Doerr said. "I never expected what I saw. That Josh Beckett is as good as there is. That curveball he's throwing is just wicked. And when he demonstrates that control and that command, he's almost impossible to hit."

In 1946, the Red Sox relied on Boo Ferriss and Tex Hughson, who routinely threw 140 pitches or more every time out. Hughson was 20-11 with a 2.75 ERA and 278 innings that season, while Ferriss was 25-6 with a 3.25 ERA and 274 innings.

"I was in the service in '44, which was the year Ferriss had pitched so well," Doerr recalled. "I remember going to spring training in '45 and being really anxious to have a look at him. The first time I stepped up to the plate against Boo, he almost knocked the bat out of my hands. He had this incredible sinker, and he was a great competitor.

"Then we had Tex, who had very good control and a nasty curveball and a very effective fastball. He was a little bit like Beckett, although not quite as dominant."

By 1947, both Ferriss and Hughson were experiencing arm trouble. Ferriss slumped to 12-11, then made only nine starts over the following three seasons. Hughson also posted a 12-11 mark, and made only two starts the rest of his career. Back then, there were no trainers to show pitchers how to ice down, stretch, or take anti-inflammatories. Pitch counts were for sissies. Closers and middle relievers were oddities.

"We just didn't develop bullpens like they do today," Doerr said. "I watch that [Jonathan] Papelbon, and I'm just amazed. We never had a guy like that. If we did, we would have won the pennant in '48, '49, and '50 - and maybe even a couple of World Series, too."

Doerr will spend most of the fall and winter at his peaceful cabin, casting for steelheads until the air becomes too cool or his joints too stiff. It is quiet near the river, particularly since the death of his wife, Monica, in 2003 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis that confined her to a wheelchair in the final years of her life. Williams is gone, too, and Bobby worries about DiMaggio's health, but, Doerr said last night, "Johnny is still with us, still going strong."

Pesky's friend Bobby, the former second baseman, is doing the same thing. Last night, shortly after the brush was cleared, he sat down with his son Bob and settled in to watch his team make a run at its second World Series championship in four seasons.

"I like this team," said the Hall of Famer. "I'll be watching."

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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