DURHAM, N.C. – Here’s a trivia question: Name the Duke basketball All-America who also won a World Series ring as a starting infielder for a World Championship baseball team.
If you answered Dick Groat, you are only half right.
Bill Werber accomplished both feats before the celebrated Groat set foot on the Duke campus. He was, in fact, Duke’s first basketball All-America in 1930 and exactly one decade later, he was the leadoff hitter and third baseman for the 1940 World Champion Cincinnati Reds.
Duke’s oldest living sports hero will celebrate his 100th birthday on June 20 at his home in Charlotte, where he continues to follow Blue Devil basketball with a passion.
“I wouldn’t miss a game,” Werber said recently. “I follow it very closely.”
Until very recently, the former Duke star would make the drive from Charlotte to Durham to attend games in person. But two years ago, he had part of his left leg amputated due to diabetes and that’s forced him to follow the Blue Devils on television.
“When I had my leg off, Mike (Krzyzewski) called me in the hospital,” Werber said. “We had a nice talk. He told me he was sitting in his backyard, watching his two Labs ... he’s a very nice person.”
Werber said that Krzyzewski reminded him of Eddie Cameron, his own coach at Duke — except that he didn’t have as much respect for Cameron’s basketball acumen.
“Eddie was a very fine man, but he didn’t know basketball,” Werber said. “He was a football man. Harry Councilor knew a lot more about basketball. He used to dribble up and down past him and not pay attention to anything he said.”
Werber, who came to Duke from his home in Berwyn, Md., to play basketball and baseball for the newly re-named university, told Cameron about a big man from his Washington, D.C., high school who wanted to come to Duke. When Cameron resisted, Werber and Councilor went to athletics director James DeHart and convinced him to offer a scholarship to Joe Croson.
“Joe showed up with this little black bag filled with his shaving kit and a change of socks — that was all he had,” Werber recalled.
But the addition of Croson to Werber and Councilor turned Duke into a power in the old Southern Conference (which, at the time, included most of the schools that now make up the SEC and ACC). His 1929 team beat Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia to reach the conference championship game in Atlanta, but fell to N.C. State in the finals. A year later, Duke was even better — winning 18 of 20 games and beating LSU, Georgia Tech and Kentucky to return to the title game. But once again, Werber’s Blue Devils came up a bit short, losing to Alabama in the finals.
“Coming back from Atlanta after losing the second time, I can remember we were in the washroom crying, along with (Dean William) Wannamaker,” Werber said. “We thought we should have won. But you have to realize, we only had five players.”
Werber didn’t have time to dwell on that disappointment. He had to join the Duke baseball team, where he played for former Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Jack Coombs. Werber was a shortstop who batted over .400 in all three of his varsity seasons for the Blue Devils.
But he had a secret: After his freshman season, Werber and his father had already agreed to a contract with the New York Yankees.
Werber revealed the secret deal in his 2001 book, “Memories of a Ballplayer” (co-written with C. Paul Rogers). Yankee scout Paul Krichell, already famous for finding Lou Gehrig a few years earlier, made the deal — “struck with a handshake and a meeting of the eyes between Krichell and my father,” Werber wrote.
The Yankees thought so much of Werber’s potential that they suggested that the young college star spend the summer of 1927 traveling with the Yankees, so he could sit next to manager Miller Huggins and absorb some of his baseball wisdom. For three weeks, Werber was a non-playing member of the most famous baseball team of all time — occasionally taking batting practice or shagging balls while the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri and Earl Combs took their pregame licks.
But Werber — a 19-year-old college boy — found that it was a lonely existence. He had little in common with the older players and they resented even the few swings he got in batting practice. So Werber left the team and played summer ball instead.
He returned to the Yankees in the summer of 1930, immediately after his graduation from Duke. This time he was under contract and in uniform. On June 25, 1930, Werber made his Major League debut, replacing Yankee shortstop Lyn Lary. In his first at-bat against veteran St. Louis pitcher George Blaeholder, Werber recalled that he was too nervous to swing and ended up taking six pitches in a row — two strikes, then four straight balls for a walk. The next batter up was Ruth and he promptly blasted a home run (one of his 49 that season) into the right field bleachers, driving Werber home with his first Major League run.
The former Duke star got just 14 at bats before he was sent to the minors for more seasoning. Werber was assigned to Toledo, where he played for manager Casey Stengel. He was ready to rejoin the Yankees in 1933 and Werber thought he had a good chance to beat out young shortstop Frankie Crosetti for the starting job, but after giving Werber a long look in preseason, manager Joe McCarthy decided to keep Crosetti and sell Werber to Boston.
Werber became a budding star with the Red Sox, moving to third base and finishing 12th in the 1934 American League MVP voting after batting .312 and leading the league in stolen bases. Yankee general manager Ed Barrow called him the best player in the American League. But early in the 1935 season, a frustrated Werber kicked a bucket of water and broke his big toe. Surgery helped him play again, but never solved the problem.
“For the last seven years of my career, I played in pain,” he said.
Connie Mack, who managed Werber’s college coach, Jack Coombs, and sent his son to Duke, acquired the former Blue Devil star in Philadelphia after the 1936 season, but sent him to Cincinnati when the two squabbled about contract terms before the 1939 season.
Baseball historian Bill James credits Werber as the catalyst for turning the Reds into a championship team. It was Werber who invented the Jungle Club; the team’s four infielders were all “Jungle Cats” — second baseman Lonnie Frey was Leopard; shortstop Billy Myers was Jaguar; Werber at third was Tiger. First baseman Frank McCormick wanted in, but Werber told him, “You don’t hustle enough.” McCormick worked harder and eventually Werber named him Wildcat.
The Reds won the 1939 pennant, barely edging the Cardinals, but were swept by the Yankees in the World Series. A year later, Cincinnati coasted to an easy pennant and beat the Detroit Tigers in seven games to win the World Series — with Werber batting .370 for the series.
He finished his career with the Giants in 1942, finally retiring because of the pain in his big toe. Washington Senators manager Clark Griffith tried to lure him out of retirement in 1943, offering to top his 1942 salary of $13,000. But Werber was finding success in the insurance business, reporting that he ended up making $100,000 in 1943 — $20,000 more than Babe Ruth made in his best season.
Werber ended up playing 11 seasons with a career batting average of .271. He led the American League in stolen bases three times and led the National League in runs scored in 1939. His baseball career has brought the ex-Duke standout some measure of acclaim. He has the distinction of being:
• The oldest living Major League veteran, a title he inherited in July of last year.
• The last living teammate of Babe Ruth.
• The first Major League player to bat on television.
“August 26, 1939 — I was leading off for Cincinnati against the Giants,” he said.
The game was televised as an experiment at the New York World’s Fair, another event he remembers fondly.
“We’d play Brooklyn, then after the game, we’d get off the subway at the next stop,” he said. “We’d always visit the Heineken tavern and have a frosty, cold one.”
Werber remembers those days fondly: “Those were good times.”
Because of his status as the oldest living Major Leaguer, Werber finds that he’s attained a special status with collectors.
“I get about seven pieces of mail a day, usually with two or three baseballs, asking me to sign,” he said. “They don’t know I can’t do it. I have carpal tunnel syndrome.”
But despite that affliction, a slight hearing problem and the loss of his leg two years ago, Werber is in remarkable shape as he approaches his 100th birthday. His mind is still sharp and he still gets around on a motorized scooter.
Werber made the most of his life after baseball. He was a successful insurance executive for more than 30 years. He wrote three books — one about his love of hunting and two about his baseball days. He headed the Duke Alumni Association and was an important fund-raiser for the Boy Scouts.
The former Duke and Major League star married Kathryn Potter — known as “Tat” — before his senior year at Duke and they were together for more than 70 years until her death in 2000. Werber’s son, Bill, was also a baseball star at Duke, where he played with Dick Groat. His oldest daughter Patricia is a Duke grad and now lives near her father in Charlotte. His youngest daughter, Susie, also graduated from Duke and lives in Durham. She married the son of Duke football All-America Dan Hill and for years she was one of Durham’s finest amateur tennis players.
The family will gather for a private birthday party on June 20. The next day, a wider circle of friends will gather at a Charlotte country club for a celebration of the life of Duke’s first athletic hero.