Bobby Doerr spent most of his Hall of Fame baseball career in the shadow of Ted Williams, but the 1936 season was a notable exception.
When the original Padres were founded as members of the Pacific Coast League, Doerr was the star of the team, and Williams was just another body on the roster. Doerr finished third in the league in hitting with a .342 average, and Williams batted .271 without a home run in 42 games.
True, there was a catch to this disparity. Doerr already had spent a season and a half with the Hollywood Stars before they moved to San Diego in 1936. Williams didn't join the Padres until he graduated from Hoover High School in June.
Nevertheless, the two were almost identical in age--Doerr had turned 18 in April, Williams in October. Doerr, a native of Los Angeles, got the jump on Williams by joining the Stars with two years left at Fremont High, then completing work for his diploma between seasons.
As it turned out, Doerr's head start enabled him to reach the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox two years ahead of Williams. He went up in 1937, and Williams stayed with the Padres that season and then played in Minneapolis in 1938 before joining him.
Because Williams became a superstar and was always in the limelight, Doerr's ability as an all-around second baseman was never fully appreciated. Williams was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first shot in 1966. Doerr waited 35 years after his retirement in 1951 before the Committee on Veterans voted him in.
But Doerr, 72, has no bitterness about being relegated to the background by Williams' fame. On the contrary, Williams is one of his best friends, and he cherishes the memory of watching Williams break in as a pro in the Padres' inaugural season.
Now living in Junction City, Ore., Doerr recalled the old days before driving to San Diego for the Equitable Old-Timers event at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium this Saturday night. He will manage the American League team, and fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, who lives in Del Mar, will manage the National League.
"I look back at my time in San Diego as one of the happiest and enjoyable seasons I ever had," Doerr said. "The weather was so nice, and the people were so nice. It was more fun than Hollywood. We were closer to the fans, and we drew better.
"And to think I was there when Ted Williams came in. Nobody knew who he was, and I got to see one of the greatest players of all time break into baseball."
Doerr recounted what took place when Williams went to Lane Field for a tryout after finishing high school.
"Everybody was gathered around the batting cage," Doerr said. "Frank Shellenback, our manager, said to us, 'Let this kid get in and hit a few.' He (Williams) weighed about 145 and he was 6-3, and some of the guys were upset about losing some swings.
"Shellenback, who also pitched for us, threw him seven or eight pitches, and he hit two or three out of the ballpark. Now everybody was asking, 'Who is this kid?' One of the guys said, 'I don't know who he is, but this kid will be signed before the week is out.'
"Sure enough, we were down at the railroad station to go on the road, and there was Williams parading up and down. He didn't play for a while, but you could see he was going to be something special."
Opening day for the first Padres was March 31. They beat the Seattle Indians, 6-2, behind 40-year-old Herman (Old Folks) Pillette. Doerr, batting third, had a double and a single in four at-bats.
The Padres tied for second place with the Oakland Oaks with a 95-81 record, finishing only 1 1/2 games behind the Portland Beavers. But in the four-team playoffs, they were eliminated by the Oaks, four games to one.
"We had a good team and a few characters," Doerr said. "Pillette was a funny guy, and so was George Myatt, my partner at shortstop. Pillette called everybody Ugh, and Myatt called everybody Stud, so we called them Ugh and Stud.
"We also had a guy named Eddie Mulligan, who never cussed--never. He got thrown out of a game one time because he called the umpire 'a run-around alley-cat.' Those were his bad words."
Another key member of the first Padre team was Vince DiMaggio, late older brother of Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio and Dom DiMaggio, who was to become one of Doerr's buddies with the Red Sox. Like Doerr, Vince reached the majors in 1937, with the Boston Braves.
"Vince was a wonderful guy," Doerr said, "He was a lot of help to me. Sometimes I lived with him and his wife in their apartment."
Doerr's biggest game as a Padre? That's easy. He went six for six when the Padres trampled the San Francisco Seals, 23-4.
"I looked it up in the scrapbook my father kept," Doerr said. "I had a double and five singles, and we got 25 hits altogether. We scored in every inning."
Unlike most successful hitters, Doerr often tinkered with his batting stance.
"I changed my stance more often than anybody else in baseball," he said. "I'd be open, closed, square--you name it. Looking back now, I'm kind of sorry I did it. If I'd had more patience, I probably would have been better off."
Doerr had great respect for Shellenback, who also had been his manager the previous season in Hollywood. "Shellenback was a wonderful man," Doerr said. "He was like a father to me. He could discipline young guys and chew them out pretty good, but you knew you had it coming."
Of Bill Lane, the Padres' first owner, Doerr said, "He was a grumpy old guy, and I was half-scared of him. I never really knew him that well."
Near the end of the season, Eddie Collins, a Hall of Fame second baseman of earlier vintage, was scouting the Padres for the Red Sox. He wound up making a deal for Doerr and exacting a promise from Lane to give him first call on Williams the next year.
Doerr thus reached the majors at the age of 19, so turning pro after his sophomore year in high school proved to be a good move.
"In those days, there was a depression, and we played baseball 365 days a year," Doerr said. "A lot of major league players were around, so eventually the scouts saw me. I was a third baseman in high school, but I didn't like it, and I never played anything but second base in the pros."
Probably the most appropriate way to assess Doerr's talents is to compare him to the Cubs' Ryne Sandberg, a runaway choice as the best second baseman in baseball today. Like Sandberg, Doerr hit for both average and power, ran well, threw well, was sure-handed afield and had excellent range.
At the plate, Doerr compiled a lifetime average of .288, including a high of .325; hit 223 home runs, including a high of 27, and drove in more than 100 runs six times, including a high of 120. He hit for the cycle twice.
In the field, he set a major league record by accepting 349 consecutive chances without an error and, after that record was broken, set another of 404 chances. During the latter streak, he set a major league record of 73 consecutive errorless games.
Beginning in 1941 and excluding 1945, when he was in the Army, Doerr was named to the American League All-Star team nine times in 10 seasons. Inexplicably, he missed in 1949 despite hitting .309 and batting in 109 runs.
Doerr's credentials doubtless would have been even more impressive if he hadn't developed a back ailment that forced him to quit baseball after the 1951 season at age 33. He feels that had he avoided injury, he could have played at least three more seasons.
"You could say Sandberg and I were quite a bit alike," Doerr said. "I went to my left better than my right, and Sandberg is outstanding going either way, but I was pretty good to my right.
"Overall, I'm probably proudest of my six years of over 100 runs batted in. Hitting behind Williams and Vern Stephens and the other guys we had, you'd think there would have been nothing left for me."
Williams, 71, reached at his summer home in New Brunswick, had glowing praise for Doerr as both a player and a person.
"Bobby was as great as any second baseman of my time," Williams said. "And besides being a supreme second baseman, he was everything good in a guy. He didn't swear, and he didn't run around. He was just an all-around great guy."
Williams cited Joe Gordon as a second baseman who came close to Doerr, but Myatt put Doerr clearly at the top.
"Bobby made everything look like a routine play," said Myatt, 76, who lives in Orlando, Fla. "Gordon would be standing on his head to make the same play. Bobby could go farther and get more ground balls."
Williams, perfectionist that he was, criticized Doerr on one count:
"I think Bobby was a better hitter in the minor leagues than in the big leagues. He tried to adapt his style to Fenway Park with its short left field, and he wanted to pull the ball all the time. On the road, it hurt him a little bit."
Doerr conceded he might have had higher averages if he had continued to spray the ball as he did with the Padres, with whom he hit just two home runs in 695 at-bats. Still, who could argue with his major league numbers?
On the subject of waiting so long to enter the Hall of Fame, Doerr said, "Ted was the big name then, and the writers watched every move he made. I never really thought about the Hall of Fame until some of the other infielders got in. Then I thought I might have a chance.
"Somebody told me I just barely missed in '85, so I wasn't all that surprised when I made it the following year. However, it was definitely one of my greatest thrills."