By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
A student once asked me “Who was the nicest person you ever met in baseball?”
Hmmm. That was a new one.
From the Montreal days there would be Woodrow Fryman, Wallace Johnson, Steve Rogers, Tim Wallach and Jerry White to consider.
From the retired Blue Jays a top five would be George Bell, John Buck, Orlando Hudson, Tom Henke and Todd Stottlemyre.
And at the front office level there would be the late Jim Fanning, the late Jim Fregosi of the Atlanta Braves, Hall of Famer Pat Gillick, Tim Mead and Bill Stoneman of the Los Angeles Angels.
And then it hit me ... the answer to the nicest man I ever met in baseball was Bobby Doerr, who passed away Nov. 13 week at age 99.
Doerr was on the Jays original coaching staff under manager Roy Hartsfield in 1977 and on into 1981. Yet, I did not talk to him until two decades later.
Some examples ...
_ In 1993 Blue Jays first basemen John Olerud was making a run at .400, the first to do so since Ted Williams. Attempts to reach Williams fishing on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick were unsuccessful. We asked a few people for help over say maybe a three week period. One night at home the phone rang.
“Hello Mr. Elliott, it’s Bob Doerr, I understand you are trying to reach Ted,” Doerr said softly from Oregon.
A couple of phone calls with the Hall of Fame second baseman and all was set. I would fly Toronto-Fredericton and head to the cabin.
Two days before I was supposed to leave my the phone rang. It was Doerr.
“We have a problem,” he said.
“Ted?” I shuddered.
“No, the person with him had a stroke and had to be airlifted to Boston. Ted went with. I’m sorry, we have to cancel,” Doerr said.
Doerr explained that the Jays hitter Williams loved to watch was Paul Molitor, not Olerud.
David Halberstam wrote an excellent book “The Teammates -- Portrait of a Friendship,” based on Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Doerr and Williams and their days with the Red Sox. A statue of the four now stands outside Fenway Park at the intersection of Van Ness and Ipswich Streets down the right field line.
_ Over the years at Coooperstown, I met Doerr. He always went out of his way to come over and say hello. It was as if I had covered his Boston Red Sox from 1937-51 (save for 1945 when he was in the military).
We spoke often. I always snuck in a question about Ted Williams, who wasn’t there every year due to health reasons. What a gentle, kind man.
His wife was in a wheelchair and often times he would say, “Not sure if I will be back next year.” I’d say see you next year. And I did until 2011.
_ In 1999 Pat Gillick was out of baseball -- between running the Baltimore Orioles and the Seattle Mariners.
So, Gillick used to call sometimes in the afternoon when he was bored and not helping Team USA get ready for the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg.
One day I was on our second line (go ahead line two ...) talking to Don Campbell (Ottawa, Ont.) who wanted a favour. His pitcher Peter Hoy (Cardinal, Ont.) of the Ottawa-Nepean Canadians needed help. His pop was retiring and Donald wanted me to help with the retirement gift.
Campbell’s story was ... Peter’s father, Jack Hoy, was the biggest Red Sox fan in Eastern Canada. Even after the New York Yankees signed him in 1955. He pitched two seasons at class-D Owensboro, class-D Lakeland, class-D McAlester and class-D Bradford in the Yankees system.
When his son Peter was drafted by the Red Sox -- his dad’s Red Sox -- in the 33rd round in 1988, father had some words of advice for his son the day he headed south.
It wasn’t keep the ball down, or get ahead, rather according to Campbell it was “I don’t care how you do, but you had best not come home unless you bring me signed baseballs from Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Bobby Doerr.” Well, Peter made the majors with the 1992 Red Sox, but only went 2-for-3 obtaining autographed balls for his father.
I told Campbell it was great gift idea but I can’t help, I’d lose my writer’s card. Hall of Famers kind of frown on that. All the years I have been to Cooperstown I have never asked for an autograph. Once I saw Linda Lavin’s (Alice) son almost kicked out backstage for asking for autographs. Lavin was singing the national anthem.
I returned Gillick’s call and he asked what the hold up was? I told him the story. We agreed it was an excellent retirement gift.
That night it was a replay of six seasons earlier:
“Hello Mr. Elliott, Bob Doerr, I understand you need an autographed ball for someone’s retirement,” Doerr said from Oregon. “When is the next time you are going to be on this side of the border?”
Well, we would be at Camden Yards to see the return game of the Cuban national team after being in Havana during spring training.
Standing near the cage in Baltimore I felt a jab inside my jacket pocket as Gillick and the Pan Am coaches walked by. Later upstairs I looked. It was a “Bobby Doerr, HOF 1986” signed ball.
So, I contacted Hoy who was coaching at Lemoyne college in Syracuse and set up a drop off.
_ As president of the Baseball Writers Association of America that year I spent the night at the Otesga Hotel, woke up Saturday morn and headed to the press conference as umpire Nestor Chylak, Smokey Joe Williams, Frank Selee, Orlando Cepeda, Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and George Brett were inducted.
Ted Williams was on the back veranda telling stories for hours and I missed it since I was at the Cepeda, Yount, Ryan and Brett press conferences.
The next morning at breakfast I bumped into Doerr.
“Hey did you ever get the chance to talk to Ted?”
“C’mon let’s go, there is an empty spot beside his wheel chair, be quick,” Doerr said.
Off we went, attempting to navigate going left around the table when a log jam occurred. We went the other way and as Doerr approached Williams, with me at his heels, Warren Spahn plopped down into the empty seat:
“NOW, WHERE DID WE LEAVE OFF LAST NIGHT ... YOU OLD GOAT?”
The argument between Williams and Spahn was on and not be interrupted.
Doerr apologized. It was not his fault.
Oh so close to interviewing the man my father always said was the greatest hitter of them all thanks to Doerr and three misses.
_ On the way home across highway 90, we got off at highway 81, met Peter Hoy in a rest stop and gave him the Doerr-signed ball for his father, who was retiring from working at the rink in Cardinal and driving a school bus.
Peter Hoy was pitching coach with the LeMoyne Dolphins from 1997-2009 helping LeMoyne to a 361-221 record and NCAA regional appearances in 2003, 2004 and 2007.
He now coaches the ball team the St. Lawrence College Saints which included OF Isaac Lewis (Windsor, Ont.).
Jack Hoy passed in 2012.
By now he’s probably run into the “The Teammates” Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams.