CHARLOTTE, N.C. Bill Werber steered his motorized wheelchair to the end of the table. The waitress pointed to the lunch menu, but the oldest living ex-major leaguer had no use for it.
Days shy of his 100th birthday, Werber knew what he wanted: a hot dog with onions and a little ketchup. After his first bite, the link to baseball's golden era began his storytelling.
"Babe Ruth hit a home run and I wanted to show them how fast I could run," Werber said of being driven in by Ruth after drawing a walk in his first major league plate appearance in 1930 with the New York Yankees. "So I get into the dugout, and finally Babe got into the dugout. He patted me on the head and said, 'Son, you don't have to run like that when the Babe hits one.'"
Werber chuckled. Ruth's old teammate may occasionally forget dates and appointments these days, but he remembers vivid details of playing ball when games routinely lasted less than two hours, starting pitchers were rarely taken out, and fielders left their gloves on the field when it was their turn to bat.
Werber, a career .271 hitter who led the American League in stolen bases three times, is the last of his generation. Just don't ask him about his impending 100th birthday on Friday.
"It's an annoyance," said Werber before taking another bite of his hot dog.
According to the Society for American Baseball Research, the next oldest ex-player is 98-year-old Tony Malinosky, who played 35 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937. It's believed the oldest living former professional player is 102-year-old Millito Navarro, the first Puerto Rican to play in the Negro Leagues.
Werber played at a time when baseball was segregated and had no equal on the American sports landscape.
As a collegian, he traveled briefly with the storied 1927 New York Yankees. He was teammates with Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove. He hit .370 in the 1940 World Series as the third baseman for the champion Cincinnati Reds, despite playing most of his career in pain after breaking his toe in 1934 by kicking a water cooler in anger.
He played for Hall of Fame managers Casey Stengel, Joe McCarthy, Joe Cronin and Bucky Harris, and had a contract dispute with Connie Mack. Werber was also the leadoff hitter in the first televised game in 1939.
"I was vociferous and cocky, and if they wanted to fight that was all right for me," Werber said of his career. "I was ready to go anytime. I've mellowed somewhat and I'm crippled."
Werber, who became a millionaire after baseball by selling life insurance for a company started by his father, has a prosthetic below his left knee following a diabetes-related infection six years ago.
"The surgeon gave me a choice: I could cut off my leg or I could cut off my head," Werber said in his deep, booming voice.
Soon Werber spotted an old friend across the dining room of the swank Carriage Club, an assisted-living facility he moved into to be closer to Patricia, one of his three children. She comes over each morning to fix his breakfast.
Werber yelled over to Jack Fitch, a college teammate of former Washington Redskins great Charlie "Choo-Choo" Justice at North Carolina.
"The reason he's in the lousy shape he's in is because he was doing all the blocking for Choo-Choo Justice," Werber barked for all to hear.
"Feed him something, will you?" responded Fitch, in an effort to get Werber to stop talking.
"I played bridge with Babe on all the train rides," Werber began to tell another fascinating tale of his life as a 5-foot-10 infielder in the 1930s. "He had as his partner Lou Gehrig. I had as my partner Bill Dickey. Now actually, Bill Dickey and I were a lot smarter than Ruth or Gehrig and we always beat them for $3.50. Not a lot of money."
Werber, whose wife, Kathryn, died in 2000, remains independent. He wheels himself around the facility, reads the newspaper daily and occasionally pens letters to baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Werber has told Selig he doesn't think women should sing the national anthem, that games today take too long and that he's disgusted with the long hair on modern players.
"I stopped watching baseball games when Boston won the pennant and they had Johnny Damon in center field and (Manny) Ramirez in left field." Werber said of the 2004 season. "I thought Johnny Damon, his beard. ... I stopped watching baseball. They're not role models for young men.
"Mr. Selig always responds and always writes me a nice letter but he never says anything."
Soon Werber shifted back to his era and his pleasant demeanor returned.
A rarity for a ballplayer of his time, Werber graduated from college. The Berwyn, Md., native signed with the Yankees after his freshman year at Duke. The contract wouldn't begin until Werber left school, but scout Paul Krichell thought Werber could learn by spending the summer of '27 sitting in the dugout and practicing with perhaps the best team in baseball history.
Only Werber wasn't welcome around Murderers' Row, and left a month later to play in a summer league in North Carolina.
"They never let me in the batting cage," Werber said. "The '27 Yankees were one of the greatest ballclubs of all time and they didn't have time to fool around with a college kid."
Werber, who was also Duke's first All-American basketball player under Eddie Cameron for which Cameron Indoor Stadium is named returned to New York after graduating in 1930. He quickly became friendly with the strapping Ruth.
Werber was adamant that while Ruth always carried a bottle of whiskey, he never saw his performance suffer from booze.
"Whatever he drank he absorbed well," Werber said. "And he was a kindly man. He didn't shove these little kids along. They crawled all over his white shoes and his tan pants. He'd go to hospitals, but he'd never take a newspaper man with him and he'd never take a photographer with him."
Werber also was drawn to Ruth's love of practical jokes. With great detail, Werber recalled how Ruth suckered pitcher Ed Wells into going on a double date with him after a game in Detroit.
"When they knocked on the door of the lady's house, a big, ferocious guy opened the door with a gun and said, 'So you're the guy who's been chasing my wife,"' Werber said. "So Babe said, 'Run, Ed. Run for your life!' So Ed runs out the door and the gun went off, 'Bang, bang.' Babe fell down on the porch. Ed ran into a fence, then turned the other way and made it back to the hotel.
"The players were sitting around this was all staged, too and they said, 'Babe is upstairs. He's asking for you, but he's dying.' So he went up there and they had Babe with talcum powder all over his face and ketchup on his shirt. He thought Babe was dying.
"They pulled this stuff on a lot of ballplayers."
After a stint in the minors in Toledo where he didn't get along with Stengel, whom he called the worst manager he played for, he returned to the Yankees in 1933. Later that season he was sold to the Red Sox.
Werber played under Cronin in Boston and was teammates with Grove and Foxx. Werber marveled at Foxx's talent, yet would get annoyed when the slugger would stop at first after hitting balls off what Werber called the "Iron Monster" at Fenway Park.
Werber expressed sadness for how Foxx's free-spending ways forced him to play longer than he should have.
Werber remembered seeing Foxx, then catching for the Chicago Cubs, not react to a pitch. The ball bounced off the bill of his cap.
"Next time at bat I said, 'Jimmie, why don't you get the hell out of here?"' Werber said. "He said, 'Hee, hee, hee. Man got to eat, hadn't he?' Man was catching for the Cubs, but he can't see the ball.
"Nice fellow. Everybody loved Jimmie Foxx."
Boston eventually traded Werber to the Philadelphia Athletics, where he played under the legendary Mack, who also owned the team.
At that time, players had to negotiate one-year contracts each season, but could only play for the team that held their rights. After rejecting Mack's offer in 1939, Werber sat out spring training before he was sold to the Reds.
Later that season, Werber led off in baseball's first televised game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, with Red Barber at the mike. Werber claims he didn't realize the fascination until 40 years later when a boy reading a trivia book came up to him near his retirement home in Naples, Fla.
"He said, 'Hey Mr. Werber, you're famous. You're the first player to appear on television in organized ball,"' Werber said. "And I said, 'Big deal.' I don't understand all this fuss."
The conversation had shifted to Werber's apartment, absent of old baseball pictures or memorabilia. Having moved himself from the wheelchair to his living room chair, Werber pointed with pride to a letter he received a day earlier from an 80-year-old Reds fan. The man raved about Werber's heroics in the 1940 World Series. In a season marred by the suicide of Cincinnati backup catcher Willard Hershberger, the Reds beat the Tigers in seven games.
Werber's career ended two years later with the New York Giants. After not making more than $13,500 in any season of his 11-year career, he earned an astonishing $100,000 selling life insurance in his first year out of baseball.
"I was wasting my time playing baseball," Werber declared.
Werber was silent for a moment, then corrected himself. "No, I enjoyed playing baseball," he said.
Now Werber's nearly 100-year-old body was getting weary. The storytelling was over for the day. Baseball's connection to its magical era was ready for his afternoon nap.