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Red Sox great Doerr, 88, still playing catch

10/13/2006

Editor's note: This feature is the lastest entry in our Athletes in the Outdoor series.

ILLAHE, Ore. — Bobby Doerr eases the bow of his boat onto a rock to steady it in the river, then plays the silvery jack salmon into an eddy, where he gently guides it into a net.

At 88, the Hall of Fame Red Sox second baseman is still a master at his second-favorite sport, fishing the Rogue River for salmon and steelhead with a fly.

It's a love affair that started 70 years ago, when he was a kid from Los Angeles playing for the AAA San Diego Padres. The river led him to his wife, a country girl from Oregon, and gave him home-field advantage in a debate with teammate Ted Williams over how best to hit a baseball.

"The trainer of the ballclub, Les Cook, had been coming up on the Rogue River for years," recalled Doerr, leisurely casting a fly into a riffle within sight of his rustic cabin while running a 65-horsepower outboard to keep the 21-foot boat steady in the current.

"Every day after batting practice in San Diego I would go into the training room and talk to Les Cook because he had all these pictures on the wall of fishing and hunting. Some way or another growing up in Los Angeles I felt I always had a little country in me."

Cook invited Doerr to come to Rogue River country with him, and Doerr jumped at the chance. He even bought a bamboo fly rod on a road trip to Sacramento, Calif., to take with him.

"There was no roads in here at the time," Doerr said. "We had to get a boat at Gold Beach and take the boat up the river to Agness. In Agness, we put our stuff in a little pickup truck and hauled it up to Illahe, which was eight miles above Agness.

"It was like turning a clock back 100 years. There was no lights here. Wood cook stoves. Kerosene lamps. Outdoor toilets. Big wash tubs we took our baths in. I still thought I was in heaven."

Illahe was a backwoods community where folks rode out the Great Depression by scratching a little gold out of the creeks and a little food out of the bottomlands. A boat brought the mail. A pack train brought in groceries. The Cooks stayed at a homestead near The Ford, where the river was shallow enough to ride a horse across. Doerr stayed in a little cabin nearby.

That first winter, Doerr met Monica Roseman Terpin, the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse, at a dance at the Civilian Conservation Corps camp. He lost her three years ago following a stroke.

"One Saturday night we didn't go down to the CCC camp," said Doerr. "The neighbors across the river invited us to go to a card party and a little dance. The neighbor rowed us across the river. 'Chapel in the Moonlight' was a famous number at that time. They had a little phonograph. We danced to that."

On the way home, the night was so cold that the boat seat was iced over, and Monica took off her coat so he could sit on it.

"I thought, 'Boy oh boy, that was the greatest thing to ever happen," Doerr said. "I think that was the time when I fell in love with Monica. That was the winter of '36. In 1938, we got married."

Doerr was called up to the Red Sox the next spring, two years ahead of Williams, who had been with him on the minor-league Padres. Except for the 1945 season, which he spent in the Navy, Doerr returned from Boston every winter to a 160-acre homestead he bought in Illahe for $2,250.

In 1951, a bad back forced Doerr to retire from baseball, and the next year he moved his family to Junction City, his wife's hometown, so their son, Don, could go to middle school. They kept the place in Illahe.

In his 14 seasons with the Red Sox, Doerr batted .288, had 2,042 hits, 223 home runs, 1,247 RBIs, and was named an All-Star nine times. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Red Sox retired his No. 1 jersey in 1988. His teams only got past the Yankees to the World Series once, in 1946, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals.

"In the last week of the season the Yankees were always ahead eight or 10 games and I just couldn't wait to get back home" to Illahe, Doerr said.

In 1960, Doerr sold the old homestead and built a cabin on a hill overlooking the Brewery Hole, named by the late ballplayer Lefty O'Doul for the white foam floating in the eddy. It's the hole where Doerr caught his first steelhead in 1936 and where he still catches most of his fish.

There are no trophy cases in this cabin, which is heated with wood Doerr splits himself, and the windows sometimes are smeared by the paws of a black bear. A commemorative Hall of Fame bat is slung in a gun rack next to a couple of rifles, a pile of mail asking for autographs is on the kitchen table, a blanket depicting Fenway Park is draped over the couch.

"The Baseball Encyclopedia" sits in a bookcase next to "McClane's Standard Fishing Encyclopedia." The one thing Doerr said he would make sure to save in case of fire is a framed set of flies tied by his father.

Seventy years of fishing the Rogue has not dampened Doerr's love for it. Larry Mullinnix, who used to be caretaker at the nearby Winkle Bar cabin owned by the late Oakland A's owner Walter Haas, recalls teaching Doerr a new technique: lobbing a heavily weighted fly upstream and watching the line for a twitch signaling a bite.

"I came home that night and I get a telephone call," said Mullinnix. "He sounded like some 12-year-old who got into the candy jar. He said, 'I can't believe it. I hooked two fish and got them in the boat. I cannot believe it."'

Red Sox teammate Dom DiMaggio, who still sees Doerr regularly and fished the Rogue with him last year, recalls "legendary" stories of Doerr fishing in Florida for tarpon with Williams.

"Bobby threatened he'd never go fishing again with Ted four or five times," said the 89-year-old DiMaggio. "He'd say to me, 'Dommy, I was so insulted, I felt like a real small individual the way he yelled at me in the boat. I made a little noise and he jumped all over me. I caught a fish and it made a turn and I lost the fish and he gave me some more abuse. I'm quitting him.'

"Ten days later they were fishing again."

Doerr never held a grudge, and today fishes with a graphite fly rod prototype designed by Williams that has yet to go into production.

When Doerr retired, he picked up a bamboo fly rod made to Williams' specifications and named in Doerr's honor — a rod that Doerr still had to pay for.

Williams came to the Rogue twice: in winter 1961, when they were rained out for two weeks straight, and in fall 1987, when they took a three-day float trip down the Rogue for steelhead, holding a debate about hitting while pulled up for lunch at Tate Creek on the last day.

"At lunch stand you always had three or four hours to pass the time, to wait for good shade in the afternoon to get the good fishing," said Doerr.

"Ted Williams is a .344 lifetime average hitter and I'm a .288 lifetime average hitter. You can imagine who won that hitting clinic debate."

Williams argued the best swing was a 12-degree uppercut, to meet the ball perpendicularly as it came down from the pitcher's mound.

Doerr countered he liked his hands a little above the ball, not chopping down, but enough to impart topspin that helped a drive carry farther. He noted that he shared that advice in 1967 with Carl Yastrzemski, who hit 44 home runs that season while winning the Triple Crown.

Before the debate, the other dozen or so guys on the fishing trip agreed that the vote, taken while Doerr and Williams had their backs turned, would come out a tie.

"Ted said, 'A tie?"' said Doerr. "He couldn't believe he hadn't won the debate. Ted gets all excited. You never beat Ted Williams in anything you do.

"He had a bad temperament, but he had a tremendous amount of pressure on him all the time. Once in a while he let off steam. But in about four or five minutes he'd be fine."

Steve Brown, a Daytona Beach, Fla., art dealer who is putting together a fishing museum honoring Red Sox teammates Doerr, Williams, DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky, said Doerr and Williams' enduring friendship came from being opposites.

"Ted Williams saw in Bobby the things he didn't have — the balance, the family life, the ability not to be overwhelmed with things, the whole package," said Brown. "And Bobby was so quick to share."

Williams, who died three years ago, is still in Doerr's thoughts when he fishes the Rogue.

"Ted Williams used to say for every day you fished, it added a day to your life," said Doerr. "And I kind of think maybe it could be that."