Billy Werber, who turned 100 Friday, had no idea he was baseball's first television star.
Werber, the oldest living major leaguer and the last surviving teammate of Babe Ruth, was the first batter when his Cincinnati Reds played the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in the first televised game, May 1, 1939.
"The funny thing is I didn't know about it until (long after) I retired," he said. "In 1973, I'm walking by the bag room at Quail Creek Country Club (in Naples, Fla.) and one of the boys is reading a book of trivia. He looks up and says, "Mr. Werber, did you know you're in this book?' It was the first I'd heard about it."
That's just one of several little-known facts about a man well-connected to baseball's rich past.
Werber now lives in Charlotte. Though his left leg was amputated in 1991, he gets around his assisted living center quite nicely by electric cart and wheelchair.
Werber, Duke's first All-America basketball player (he played under Eddie Cameron, for whom the school's arena is named), was always pretty fast. One of the game's most aggressive baserunners, he led the American League in steals three times.
Twice, he even stole second moments after drawing a walk. One came in a memorable game as Detroit Tigers pitcher Schoolboy Rowe was seeking a record 16th consecutive win in a 1934 game against the Boston Red Sox.
"Ray Hayworth was the catcher, and he had his back to the infield," Werber recalled. "About 15 feet before I hit first base I threw it into second gear. Hayworth heard the roar of the crowd and threw the ball into center field. I went to third and scored on a sacrifice fly. I'd like to say we won the game, but it went 13 innings and Schoolboy Rowe got his 16th win."
Werber was at the top of his game that year, batting .321, collecting 200 hits (62 for extra bases) and stealing 40 bases for Boston.
Although he collected 100 or more hits and ranked among league stolen-base leaders in nine consecutive seasons, Werber regrets the day "foolishness and loss of temper" got the better of him. He drop-kicked a water bucket at the end of the 1934 season, breaking the big toe on his right foot.
"I played in pain the next seven years," he says.
Even so, Werber led the National League with 115 runs in 1939 and batted .370 in the 1940 World Series, helping the Reds beat the Tigers in seven games.
Werber began his pro career with the New York Yankees. He toured with them in the summer of 1927 and got into four games with the team as a 22-year-old rookie in 1930.
"In my first game, I got on base ahead of Babe Ruth," Werber recalled. "He hit a home run and I ran around the bases, full speed, because I wanted to show those Yankees how fast I could run. When (Ruth) came in he patted me on the head and said, "You don't have to run like that when The Babe hits one.' "
Werber's tenure with the Yankees was brief. He was sold to the Red Sox early in 1931. But he was with the team long enough to become bridge partners with Bill Dickey. The two often took pocket change from Ruth and Lou Gehrig on train rides. "We always won because we were smarter and better card players," Werber said.
Werber preferred the company of Ruth to Gehrig.
"Ruth was friendly," he said. "He loved practical jokes and was always playing them on people. He'd go to hospitals and never take a newspaperman or photographer with him. You'll never see a photo of Ruth in a hospital with a kid. He was just a nice fella at heart. He would take forever to sign things going out of the stadium. Kids would walk all over his white shoes and tan pants, and he wouldn't mind.
"Gehrig didn't want any part of that. He'd leave the stadium and knock kids out of the way. But he was a tremendous player, and you'd better hustle or he'd get on your ass - they both would. They were great competitors, (although) they didn't like each other."
Werber isn't much on today's ballplayers who wear their hair long or in braids. He soured on watching baseball in 2004, unable to stand Johnny Damon's "caveman" look or the long braids of Manny Ramirez.
Werber, who played most of his 11 seasons as a third baseman, said the greatest hitter he saw was Detroit's Charlie Gehringer, the 1937 AL MVP.
The toughest pitcher he faced? "Herb Pennock. He threw the ball slow, slower and slowest. I couldn't wait for the ball to get up there. On days he pitched, I'd hit three bouncing balls to the third baseman."
Werber enjoyed instant success in his second career, running the insurance business founded by his father.
He says he was also blessed with a terrific wife for 71 years. Werber was in high school when he met Kathryn, whom everyone knew as "Tat."
"Opening day, my junior year in high school, she comes out of a classroom and I was going in," he recalled. "I said, "I'm going to marry that girl.' "
The couple had three children (including Bill, 77, an All-American at Duke who advanced to Class AAA with the Reds), eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Family and friends will be on hand for his 100th birthday celebration this weekend. The 80 or so expected guests had better get their cake quickly. At 100, Billy Werber is still quick enough to beat them to it.