He was once one of the most effective players in the major leagues.
He played alongside Babe Ruth once and outhit him by 100 points and outhomered him by 28.
He set a major league home run record that stood for 57 years.
He led the league in homers and runs batted in in 1935.
He started the first two All-Star games for the National League.
He had a career batting average of .300.
He did everything a, say, Kirk Gibson or a Dave Winfield can do, but the most money he ever made in a year was $12,500.
Yet, his neighbors never heard of him. He got one vote--one!--for the Hall of Fame in his lifetime and that was not a first-place ballot.
The man on the phone was apologetic. "You ever heard of a Wally Berger?" he asked me.
You bet I heard of Wally Berger. Any kid growing up in New England in the '30s heard of Wally Berger. He was almost the best player the Boston Braves ever had. It's for sure he was the best player the "Boston Bees" ever had (that feckless nickname only lasted a couple of seasons).
In the modern (Atlanta) Braves' brochure, listing the best nine players on the much-traveled franchise, center field is given over to Felipe Alou (Henry Aaron and Hugh Duffy are the other two outfielders).
Felipe Alou was a splendid ballplayer. But so was Walter Antone Berger. Felipe Alou had 206 career homers. Wally Berger had 242. Felipe Alou batted .286 lifetime. Wally Berger batted .300. Felipe Alou batted in 852 runs. Wally Berger batted in 898.
It's been that kind of life for Wally Berger. First of all, he played most of his career in the old Braves Field in Boston, which was so spacious Babe Ruth is supposed to have remarked when he walked into it, "Very nice. Where's the first tee?" Wally remembers the right-field fence curving out to 380 or so; the left-field fence was 359, and the center-field fence was infinity. Today, it's better known as Logan Airport, jokes Wally.
Raised in San Francisco (where he was a high school teammate of Joe Cronin's) but turned down by the San Francisco Seals Coast League team, Berger rode the rods to Pocatello, Ida., to get into organized baseball, and he tore up the Northwest League with a .385 average. The Los Angeles Angels bought him for $700. If he made the club.
He made the club all right. He hit .327 and .335. In 1929, he hit 40 home runs. Boston bought him for $40,000 but paid him the munificent sum of $750 a month. If a ballplayer doesn't get that an inning today, he goes to court.
Wally Berger hit 38 home runs, batted .310 and drove in 119 runs in his rookie year. No rookie had ever hit that many homers before--not Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg or Mel Ott--and no rookie was to hit more for the next 57 years--not Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, although Frank Robinson equaled the record. Mark McGwire finally broke it last year, hitting 49 for the Oakland Athletics. McGwire had 118 RBIs, one short of Berger's rookie total.
Berger is 82 now, living with his wife of 47 years, Martha, in Manhattan Beach. McGwire's breaking his record brought him out from anonymity, which had become almost endemic with the old center fielder, and today, when you sit with him and reminisce, it's 1935 again, Roosevelt is President, the country is singing "Happy Days Are Here Again," Carl Hubbell or Dizzy Dean is on the mound and Wally Berger is hitting 30 or so home runs a year and driving in 100 and scoring 90. In 1935, he led the league in homers (34) and RBIs (130) for a team that finished last and drew only 232,754 for the entire season. That wouldn't be a good week for the L.A. Dodgers.
Wally regards Babe Ruth not only as the greatest player he ever saw but the greatest anyone ever saw.
"He was gone, his legs were gone, when he came to us, but in his day he used to hit even the balls he was fooled on so high that it was like catching a meteor. He found nothing difficult about hitting a pitched ball."
Berger's best pitcher was Carl Hubbell.
"In the All-Star game of 1934, I was in center field as he struck out Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons and Cronin, and I was thinking 'All right, you s.o.b.'s, how do you like that! We got to look at that stuff all season long!' Hubbell could put you in a slump if you tried to adjust your stride to his screwball. You were better off to take your outs and get ready for the next game."
Dizzy Dean was less of a problem. "Dizzy had no curve. Dizzy had a fastball. Period. It was a good fastball, but I could hit a fastball. Dazzy Vance's fastball gave me more trouble. Dizzy's brother, Paul, had a better curveball, and he was almost as fast as Diz."
Bill Terry was the best hitter he ever saw.
"I never knew how to play him. I used to tell the manager, 'You position me,' because I could never figure out where Terry was going to hit the ball. He would just kind of peek out there and see where you were playing him and he would hit the ball behind you--or over you." He got 254 hits one year. He also hit .372, .401, .349 and .350--and managed the team.
Berger remembers Braves Field as not only so spacious that a streetcar line ran right into the ballpark, but also as one raked by a persistent and consistent wind that blew in off the Charles River and bent fly balls right back in the batter's face or over to the left-field seats.
"I think I led the world in foul home runs," he recalls. Smoke from an ever-present locomotive on the railroad tracks outside of center field was also an aggravation. The Boston & Albany engineers used to like to park out there and watch the ballgame, and occasionally wafted over such a thick cloud of black smoke that Berger more than once lost a fly ball in the soot.
Wally Berger did not have a long career--5,163 at-bats (Pete Rose had 14,053)--but it was a quality one. In 1930, he hit more home runs than the rest of the team combined. He hit 38; the rest of the team hit 22.
It was a career that merited more than one Hall of Fame vote and it was quite probably the best career ever by a guy who got paid by the month. Someone once asked pitcher Burleigh Grimes, a notorious grump, what Berger's weakness was, and Grimes snapped, "His weakness is the solo home run."