“We never had a captain, but he was the silent captain of the team,” Williams said when Doerr was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1986.
Playing at Fenway Park into the early 1950s, except for one year in the Army during World War II, Doerr was a nine-time American League All-Star. He set a record for consecutive fielding chances without an error, batted over .300 in three different seasons and drove in more than 100 runs six times.
His teams won just one American League pennant, in 1946. The Red Sox went on to lose to the St. Louis Cardinals in a seven-game World Series, but he batted .409 in that series.
“Doerr was easily the most popular player of the Red Sox and possibly the most popular baseball player of his era,” David Halberstam wrote in “Summer of ’49” (1989), an account of a memorable pennant race between the Red Sox and the Yankees. “He was so modest and his disposition so gentle that his colleagues often described him as ‘sweet.’ He was the kind of man other men might have envied had they not liked him so much.”
Remarking on Doerr’s fast hands, the novelist and Red Sox devotee George V. Higgins wrote in “The Progress of the Seasons: Forty Years of Baseball in Our Town” (1989) that Doerr “has the front paws of a polar bear.”
What Higgins found equally noteworthy was Doerr’s standing before the often critical Boston press and fans. “Bobby Doerr cannot recall being hammered by the Boston media or being insulted by the fans,” he wrote. “Reasonable enough, because he was perceived as a workman who always gave his very best.”
Robert Pershing Doerr was born in Los Angeles on April 7, 1918, the son of Harold and Frances Doerr. His father was a telephone company lineman. He was signed by the Hollywood team of the Pacific Coast League out of high school in 1934 and played two seasons in Hollywood, then a third year for the franchise when it moved to San Diego.
He was signed by the Red Sox after being scouted in the summer of 1936 by Eddie Collins, the Boston general manager and himself a former second baseman and future Hall of Famer. On that trip, Collins also discovered Williams, then a teenager with the San Diego team.
When Doerr joined the Red Sox, he was in awe.
“I’ll always remember spring training in 1937,” he was quoted as saying by Cynthia J. Wilber in “For the Love of the Game: Baseball Memories From the Men Who Were There” (1992). “I was just 18, and there was Jimmie Foxx hitting balls out of the ballpark like golf balls and Joe Cronin at shortstop and Lefty Grove pitching, and Pinky Higgins and Doc Cramer and the Ferrell brothers. My gosh, all of those guys I had their pictures up on my wall as a kid. They were all my heroes and there they were, and I was with them.”
Doerr was hit in the head by a pitch early in the season and played in only 55 games, but he became a regular in 1938, helped by Cronin, the Red Sox manager and shortstop, who encouraged him to relax on the field and gave him batting tips.
Throughout the 1940s, Doerr and Pesky vied with the Yankees’ Joe Gordon at second base and Phil Rizzuto at shortstop as the American League’s leading double-play combination. Doerr led American League second basemen in double plays in five different seasons and in 1948 set major league records, since broken, for consecutive chances without an error at his position, 414, and consecutive errorless games, 73.
Doerr was the batting hero of the 1943 All-Star Game at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, hitting a three-run homer off the Cardinals’ Mort Cooper in the American League’s 5-3 victory.
He got his 2,000th hit on July 1, 1951, at Yankee Stadium. But he developed back problems that summer and retired after the season. He finished his career with 2,042 hits and a .288 batting average, hit 223 home runs and drove in 1,247 runs. He led the American League in slugging percentage in 1944 with a .528 mark.
He was later a coach for the Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays. His No. 1 was retired by the Red Sox in 1988.
In his later years, Doerr devoted himself to caring for his wife, Monica, who had multiple sclerosis, and who died in 2003. He also loved to fish. But he returned to Boston for ceremonial occasions.
When the Red Sox marked the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park in April 2012, he appeared alongside Pesky at second base, each of them in wheelchairs, an emotional high point for a gathering that attracted dozens of former Red Sox players.
Doerr’s survivors include his son, Don; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
The enduring ties among Doerr, Pesky, Williams and Dom DiMaggio were chronicled by David Halberstam in “The Teammates” (2007). Doerr maintained a particularly close friendship with Williams, who died in 2002. They often talked about hitting, but there was a dimension to their closeness beyond that. Williams, as the product of a broken home, envied Doerr for the support he had received from his father.
Reflecting on his upbringing, Doerr, a product of the Depression years, told Cynthia Wilber that his generation “didn’t quit at things, and that was just a way of life.”
As for his major league career, Doerr said: “In those, days, I don’t think anyone ever got too complacent. Even after I played 10 years of ball, I still felt like I had to play well or somebody might take my place. I hustled and put that extra effort in all of the time.”