You can still see the four of them, Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio, at the corner of Van Ness and Ipswich, near Gate B at Fenway Park, the statue that is simply known as "Teammates." They came from the West Coast, they all did, to play baseball in their youth for the Red Sox, before and after World War II, to become legends not just of Boston baseball and that time for the Red Sox, but also of lasting friendship.
The man who had become our oldest living ballplayer, Robert Pershing Doerr -- born in 1918 and named after a famous figure of World War I and who later would join the Army near the end of World War II despite a punctured eardrum -- died on Tuesday morning at the age of 99. Doerr died in Oregon, a state he came to love the way he loved baseball and his family.
He played second base for the Red Sox for 14 years and was an All-Star nine times and was finally elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986, by what was still known as the Veterans Committee in those days. Williams, of course, was the great theatrical star of his Red Sox teams, the man still called the greatest pure hitter who ever lived, the game's last .400 hitter. But Doerr, in their time together, was a quiet star in Boston himself, the man whom Williams called "the silent captain" of their teams.
"Bobby Doerr was undoubtedly the greatest gentleman -- in every sense of the word -- in the constellation of all-time Red Sox stars," said former Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. "I will miss him, but I will not forget him or his graciousness."
Bobby Doerr is worth talking about today and remembering, and honoring, because this was not just a wonderful baseball life, it was a wonderful American life.
"His demeanor," my friend Mike Barnicle was saying on Tuesday morning after we'd all gotten the news about Doerr's passing, "was more of an assistant principal than a Hall of Fame baseball player. That's the way Ted and his old teammates treated him, as if he were Mr. Chips. Bobby wasn't just a gentleman out of the 20th century, but the one before that."
Here is what David Halberstam wrote once about the friendship between Williams and Doerr, in his wonderful book about Williams and Doerr and Pesky and DiMaggio, fittingly called "The Teammates":
"In the beginning, Ted had been closest to Bobby Doerr. Bobby was five months older, but infinitely more mature, with an uncommon emotional equilibrium that would stay with him throughout his life. He never seemed to get angry, or get down. This stood in sharp contrast to Williams' almost uncontrollable volatility, and his meteoric mood swings. It was as if Ted had somehow understood the difference, that Bobby was balanced as he was not, that Bobby could handle things that he could not. Ted somehow understood that he needed Bobby's calm, and he seized on his friend's maturity, and took comfort in it from the start."
By all accounts, they all did. Doerr, throughout his 14 seasons with the Red Sox, around his service at Camp Roberts in California in 1944 and into 1945, had an old-fashioned thing known as grace.
"Bobby was the quiet one," John Pesky once told me, standing near the batting cage at Fenway Park before a Red Sox-Yankees playoff game. "Quiet and strong and as good as anybody I ever knew."
Doerr was 92, on the June day in 2010 when they unveiled the "Teammates" statue outside Fenway. Williams was gone by then and Pesky was gone, and so was Dominic DiMaggio, another quiet man who played with Williams. When Doerr briefly spoke that day, this is what the old man said, in his own courtly way:
"I want to thank (Red Sox) owner John Henry for keeping Fenway Park so nice."
The Red Sox had won two World Series under Henry's ownership by then, the first one the team's first since the year Doerr was born, and were a few years away from winning another one. But one thing that Red Sox ownership, Henry and Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino, has always done is honor the team's past. It meant honoring Williams and Doerr and Pesky and DiMaggio even though those men never won it all; even though they lost the one World Series they all played together, in 1946, in seven games to the Cardinals. Williams hit .200 in that Series, by the way. Robert Pershing Doerr hit .409.
He finally retired after the 1951 season, because of back problems. Williams played on, all the way until he was 42, not retiring himself until he had once again fought for his country, as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. Somehow Ted Williams, even at the age of 39, was able to hit .388 for the Red Sox. If he could still have run the way he did when he was young, he might have hit .400 again.
And his friendship with his teammates endured until his own death. So many of the best stories about Williams and Doerr from their retirement involve fishing. One time they were in Oregon, and Doerr asked Williams, a master fisherman, to go salmon fishing with him. Williams agreed but mocked the idea of going after salmon, which he said was too easy.
"If you're nice to them," Williams told his old friend, "salmon will practically get into your car and let you drive them home."
Later they were in Florida, when the Red Sox were still training in Winter Haven, and Williams invited Doerr to do some "real" fishing, bonefishing, near his home in Islamorada. Pesky was there, and when Williams was out of earshot, he told Doerr, "You don't want to do this. You don't know how he gets when he's bonefishing."
Doerr went, anyway. The next day he found Pesky and said, "You were right."
Pesky asked what happened.
"We're in the boat," Doerr said, "and I asked him a question about casting."
"Oh, no," John Pesky said, laughing. "You talked to him?"
"And when I did," Bobby Doerr said, "Ted jumped up in the boat and yelled at me, 'Don't you know they can hear you?"
Bobby Doerr is gone now. He came out of my father's time in America, a time of duty and quiet honor and a toughness that never required words, or chest-beating, or show. The American baseball century that began in 1918, when he was born in Los Angeles, is the best of it in baseball, a century in the game that began with a season that saw Babe Ruth still in Boston, winning 13 games for the Red Sox and in his spare time hitting 11 home runs.
Doerr is gone, but the statue is there on Van Ness and Ipswich, and always will be. Williams and Doerr, Pesky and DiMaggio. Monument to baseball, monument to friendship. Greatest generation for the Boston Red Sox.