At 88, Wayne Terwilliger forgets to act his age

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Growing with Twig

1925: Born June 27 in Clare, Mich., where he grows up to collect the autograph of his boyhood idol, Tigers Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer.

1942-45: Serves in the U.S. Marine Corps during WWII as a member of the 2nd Armored Amphibian Battalion, including assault waves on Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima.

1948: Signs as a $450-a-month second baseman in the Cubs’ organization. He plays five full seasons and parts of four others in the majors (Cubs, Dodgers, Senators, Giants and A’s).

1969-72: Ted Williams’ third base coach with the Senators and the (relocated) Rangers.

1986-94: Twins first base coach, including World Series title years of ’87 and ’91.

2003: Joins Fort Worth Cats to manage a team that hasn’t won a championship since 1948.

2005: Cats win Central Baseball League championship. Twig becomes only the second manager in organized baseball history to manage at age 80. The other was Connie Mack.

2006: Steps down as Cats manager but stays on as first base coach.

2010: Retires from baseball (although Twig “hates” that word) after eight seasons with the Cats and 62 years overall in professional baseball as a player, coach or manager.

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Wayne Terwilliger, who was considered old when he managed the Fort Worth Cats to a championship in 2005, has re-entered the workplace at age 88.

He’s now a bagger at the Willow Park Brookshire’s grocery store, a part-time job that fits Twig — as everyone calls him — to a T because of his social graces and eagerness to work.

“A lot of people are starting to know that I’m an ex-baseball guy,” Terwilliger said modestly. “I’m a little slow at times, but it’s going pretty good. I like it, I really do.”

He can be found working four or five days a week at Willow Park, sacking groceries or assisting customers with their carts to the parking lot. Twig is still competitive after all these years.

“There’s a little knack to getting the groceries in the right bags,” he said. “I’ve watched others do it, and they look ahead to what’s coming down the belt. They might bypass one item to grab another. It’s kind of fun to see how well you can do.”

For a long time now, he has been made to wear his age as a badge of honor or else as a butt of someone’s joke. When the Cats hired him in 2003, and before he brought the Central League championship to Fort Worth in 2005, it was written somewhere that games at LaGrave Field would now include a seventh-inning nap.

“Now, that’s funny. Not true, but funny,” he recalled in his 2005 book, Terwilliger Bunts One.

That same season, he became only the second 80-year-old active manager in the history of organized baseball. The other was Hall of Famer Connie Mack with the Philadelphia Athletics.

Terwilliger is quick to point out that he has never been motivated to be the “oldest-anything.” He simply feels good about whatever job he sets out to do.

Lin Terwilliger, his wife of 40 years next month (March 30), marvels at her husband’s spirit and willingness to land new employment two decades past the retirement age for most people.

“For him, it’s a matter of ‘if you have it, use it,’ and he feels he still has it,” explained Lin, whose only concern is that he watches his hours and doesn’t overextend himself at his new job.

Before returning to the workplace last week, he spent his days watching a lot of TV at his longtime Weatherford home.

Twig is proudly independent. He still drives and makes the eight-minute drive to Willow Park usually by himself. He keeps physically fit while at home, either shadowboxing in the family room or methodically twisting a pair of 11-pound dumbbells every which way he can.

He has stayed within 9 pounds of his “playing weight” after hanging up his cleats as a second baseman in the early ’60s.

He remains a colorful storyteller with a lot of voice inflection. He may forget a name but seldom misses a detail whenever describing a past event — baseball or military. He enlisted in the Marine Corps before his 18th birthday and fought with the 2nd Armored Amphibian Battalion in the Pacific theater during World War II.

He makes it a point to engage any stranger he sees wearing a military cap and say, “Thank you for your service. I was in World War II,” which usually brightens a day and often leads to trading war stories.

Baseball stories? Far too modest for that.

“They don’t know who the heck I am,” he said.

But if you can get Willard Wayne Terwilliger to open up about his itinerant baseball career, which culminated right here in Cowtown (2003-10 Cats) after 62 years as a player, coach or manager in the professional ranks, then you’re in for a storytelling treat because this baseball treasure can spin a yarn with the best of ’em.

After surviving a series of assault waves at Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima, Terwilliger was discharged shortly after V-J Day in 1945. He hitchhiked the last 200 miles home from Chicago to Charlotte, Mich., and was playing in the minor leagues for the Chicago Cubs less than three years later.

His baseball résumé was boosted by playing on the 2nd Marine Division championship team that went 28-0 while he was stationed in Saipan.

“So, I had plenty of experience when the Cubs signed me in 1948,” he said. “My first RBI in pro ball came at Des Moines when I got beaned with the bases loaded. I hit only .196 that year, but I already convinced them to give me a shot at playing Class AAA in 1949 because I was an older player [because of military commitment]. Four months later, I’m the starting second baseman for the Cubs.”

When the self-effacing Terwilliger recalls a memorable career highlight, he smiles and quietly raises both fists above his head, a la Rocky Balboa.

• Like when he collected his first major league hit on Aug. 7, 1949. It came at Wrigley Field against Bill Voiselle, who Twig likes to joke was one of those “pray-for-rain guys” in the Boston Braves’ rotation with Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain.

• Like shortly after being dealt to the Brooklyn Dodgers in an eight-player, midseason trade, he came off the bench July 21, 1951, to beat the St. Louis Cardinals with a bases-loaded pinch-single off Harry “The Cat” Brecheen at Ebbets Field.

• Like when he hit one of his 22 career home runs off Hall of Famer Whitey Ford at Yankee Stadium on May 28, 1953.

• Like when he delivered a two-out, game-winning single in the 10th inning at old Busch Stadium off the legendary Satchel Paige, then with the St. Louis Browns, on June 3, 1953.

What was that pitch you hit off Satchel?

“If I hit it, it was a fastball,” replied Terwilliger, noting that Paige was just shy of his 47th birthday at the time.

As for the pinch-single off Brecheen two years earlier, he pointed to a neatly framed, black-and-white photo hanging on the wall near his favorite chair. Two of his Dodgers teammates, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, can be seen rushing onto the field, with Jackie and Twig leaning into a celebratory handshake.

Twig was such an unlikely hero that day. His manager, Charlie Dressen, basically ignored him after he joined the ’51 Dodgers. This resulted in only 50 at-bats over the remaining 3 1/2 months of the season.

“Worst manager ever: Charlie Dressen,” Terwilliger said with a laugh. “First time I can remember him talking to me was in the dugout late in that game. He asked me if I could hit [Brecheen]. What am I going to say? I go up there with the bases loaded, nobody out, Ebbets Field, left-handed pitcher, and I hit one of those soft liners to center field ... game over.”

The photo of Jackie Robinson reaching out to grab his hand remains a treasure in the Terwilliger household.

How did you feel at that moment?

“I was almost in shock,” he said.

At 88, Twig’s self-deprecating humor is alive and well. He admits to his foibles, such as winning that game for the ’51 Dodgers and quickly wondering, “Is this the first game of a doubleheader?” He wasn’t sure.

“I went inside the clubhouse and walked around, taking my time, trying to see what everybody else was going to do,” he recalled. “When everybody started to get in the shower, I figured, ‘Well, it’s not a doubleheader.’ 

It was his only season with the Dodgers, who won 97 games in 1951 but blew a 13 1/2-game lead in the final seven weeks to lose out to the New York Giants for the National League pennant. Twig was in the losing dugout for Bobby Thomson’s historic home run off Ralph Branca in the ninth inning of a playoff game at the Polo Grounds, aka “The Shot Heard ’Round the World.”

Twig was playing second base for the ’53 Senators on the day that Mickey Mantle launched a 565-foot home run out of Griffith Stadium, and later was a teammate of Willie Mays with the ’55 Giants and a future home run king named Roger Maris with the ’59 Kansas City A’s.

Forrest Gump had nothing on Wayne Terwilliger.

Twig doesn’t think there is a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame for “Steroid Era” players such as Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro. He does believe Gil Hodges should have been enshrined in Cooperstown.

“First of all, I thought Gil Hodges was in the Hall of Fame,” said Terwilliger, who can attest to Hodges’ greatness — and sportsmanship. “One time, I was playing with the Cubs against the Dodgers and I took a late throw with Hodges running off first base. He came at me like a Mack truck. I would’ve really gotten hurt if he hit me square, but he didn’t. I gained even more respect for him after that.”

Favorite ballpark? Griffith Stadium. “The infield was an infielder’s dream. The dirt was very dark and a little on the soft side, so you could easily read the hops.”

Worst ballpark? Old Yankee Stadium. “I don’t know how anybody played on that thing! You couldn’t pick your hop. [Ex-Yankee] Moose Skowron once hit a hard shot in my direction, and I didn’t know how to even go about fielding the damn thing.”

Terwilliger still has a soft spot in his heart for the Polo Grounds, which was torn down in 1964. In ’55 while playing half a season for the Giants, he and Red Schoendienst of the Cardinals finished tied for the best fielding percentage (.985) among National League second basemen.

Twig once had three hits in one game off baseball’s all-time winningest left-hander Warren Spahn (and later reminded Spahn of that feat) and later struck up a close working relationship with baseball’s greatest hitter, Ted Williams.

“Well, as close as anyone ever got to Ted Williams,” said Terwilliger, who was important enough to be Teddy Ballgame’s third-base coach with the 1969-71 Senators and ’72 Rangers after the franchise relocated to Arlington. “That move actually brought me to North Texas.”

Terwilliger, Spahn and Williams were just three of 527 major leaguers who served in WWII. This was a fraternity like no other, Twig said.

Life magazine published in 1950 a “Picture History of WWII,” in which one photo shows Terwilliger in lock-step with other Marines, under sniper fire, during an amphibious assault on Saipan in June 1944. He is the only Marine in the picture looking straight into the camera.

He laughs now. What camera?

“I’m thinking now, whoever was taking that picture should be given a Congressional Medal of Honor,” Twig said only half-jokingly. “Most of us there were 18- or 19-year-old kids. We weren’t the ‘poster’ Marines, by any means.”

He nearly lost his life on Day 1 of the assault on Saipan when his amphibious tank bogged down in a mortar-shell hole to force evacuation under fire. Twig literally had to outrun a Japanese tank in heavy pursuit — zigzagging to safety — before a U.S. tank took it out.

“We had guys killed, of course,” he recalled of his WWII experience. “I look back now, and I was lucky, so lucky.”

Terwilliger was beaned three times during his baseball career but was never wounded during combat.

“I was the only guy who carried two canteens — I couldn’t get enough water — and so I came home with gray teeth,” he said. “It went away, but I looked pretty bad for a while.”

Yes, he was lucky. Real lucky.

And so are we who get to hear Twig tell his stories.

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