Call it an axiom, or call it a cliché, but it goes something like this: “On any given day, anybody can beat anybody.” If we twist that cliché just a bit, it can fit the experience of working at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum: “On any given day, anybody can show up in Cooperstown.” And like most clichés, it is very true.
Let’s consider a recent example. Over Hall of Fame Weekend, noted comedian Jeff Foxworthy showed up on the guest list. Foxworthy has no direct connection to baseball, other than a strong friendship that he has developed with new inductee and Detroit native John Smoltz. The two became so close that Smoltz decided to invite Foxworthy to Cooperstown as part of his contingent for Hall of Fame Weekend. By all accounts, Foxworthy made plenty of new friends in the village, signing autographs for anyone who would ask and taking part in a multimedia interview with Hall of Fame staff.
Just before Hall of Fame weekend, someone else of note paid a visit to Cooperstown. Though not as well-known as Foxworthy, he is more than slightly popular throughout the state of Michigan. On the Tuesday before induction, Don Wert showed up at the Museum, unannounced and without fanfare. (And also without the yipping noises that earned him the nickname “Coyote” from teammate Don Demeter.)
In fact, the soft-spoken Wert and his family almost made it through the Museum unrecognized. Looking lean and not carrying much weight beyond the 160 pounds he carried as a player, Wert blended in seamlessly with the Cooperstown crowd. Then, one of our visitor services staff happened to be talking to Wert, who casually mentioned that he had once played in the major leagues. The staffer then told Wert that he needed to inform our public relations department, which came out to greet Wert, offering him a gift and a brief tour of the Museum. Much like Foxworthy, Wert made a good impression on staff members. He seemed thrilled that the Hall would take the time to greet him and his family.
For Wert, this was not his first time to Cooperstown. No, that would have been on July 22, 1968, when Wert and the Detroit Tigers paid a visit to central New York to participate in the annual Hall of Fame Game. The Tigers played the Pittsburgh Pirates that day, and in contrast to later Hall of Fame exhibitions, many of the Tigers’ familiar veterans played the majority of the game. That contingent included Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Gates Brown, Mickey Stanley, and Wert himself. In fact, Wert clobbered a home run ball over the center field wall at Doubleday Field. Coming in the first inning, the three-run home run ignited a double-digit outburst and a 10-1 decision over the Pirates. To add to the drama, Wert victimized Jim Bunning, the onetime Tigers ace who was nearing the end of his career with the Pirates (followed by a later stint with the Philadelphia Phillies).
There were other memorable scenes at Doubleday Field that afternoon, including Roberto Clemente taking photographs from field level. (Yes, even in the days before cell phones, players took photographs during games, or at least exhibition games.) There was also a memorable meeting behind home plate, where Denny McLain, with his powerful arms folded, carried on a conversation with Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Grove, and Zach Wheat.
No one could have known at the time that McLain, Wert, and Tigers were in the midst of a world championship season. On the day of the Hall of Fame Game, the Tigers held first place in the American League, but by only five and a half games over Baltimore and Cleveland. Even Boston, at nine games off the pace, remained within reach of Detroit.
Still, the Tigers knew they had a quality club that was capable of winning it all. Like a number of the Tigers, Wert felt the team should have done more than finish second the previous season. “We should have won in ’67, too,” Wert told the Hall of Fame during his visit. But the Tigers split a season-ending doubleheader to the California Angels while the Boston Red Sox swept a pair from the Minnesota Twins, leaving the Tigers one game back in the final standings.
The Tigers stepped up a notch in 1968, building up a decent lead during the summer before pulling away in September. One of the differences between the two teams, the one in ’67 and the one in ’68, was the latter’s ability to come from behind. As Wert told the Hall of Fame: “Our motto was never give up.” It was an appropriate motto for a team that won 28 games in its final at-bat. In mid-September against the New York Yankees, Wert capped off the Tigers’ 29th comeback win of the season with a ninth-inning RBI single, scoring Al Kaline and clinching the American League pennant for the Tigers.
In a way, Wert’s game-winner was the last hurrah in a season of personal triumph. His home run in the Hall of Fame Game had come only two weeks after his appearance in the All-Star Game. Wert didn’t start the game at the Houston Astrodome, but entered as a reserve and delivered a double against Tom Seaver, which was no small achievement for a right-handed hitter of modest ability. For Wert, it was the only All-Star Game appearance—and selection—of his career.
In something of a cruel irony, Wert’s career had already begun a downward path by the time that he appeared in the All-Star Game. The beginning of the downfall could be traced to the events of June 24, when Wert and the Tigers played at Cleveland. Stepping into the batter’s box against sidearming right-hander Hal “Bud” Kurtz, Wert sustained a frightening beanball. The Kurtz delivery struck him just above the left ear.
The incident resulted in some bleeding in Wert’s outer ear and some numbness above the ear. Remarkably, the injury sidelined him for only a week, but its impact was far more lasting. When Wert returned to the lineup, he sported a batting helmet with a flap, which offered physical protection but didn’t help his psyche. Concerned that he might be hit again with another pitched ball, Wert batted only .179 over the final three months of the season.
Wert continued to struggle in 1970. He batted only .218 and saw his power production fall in half. At season’s end, the Tigers moved in a different direction, acquiring Aurelio Rodriguez to play third. As part of the deal, the Tigers sent Wert to the Washington Senators.
Wert lasted only 20 games with the Senators. After managing only two hits in 40 at-bats, the Senators released him. Wert was only 32 years old, but his career was over.
In reminiscing about his playing days, Wert showed no bitterness over his shortened career, no regrets over what might have been. If anything, he seems satisfied about his playing days and his chance to contribute to a world championship team. He and his family were thrilled to discover a photo of him from the 1968 World Series, displayed in the Museum’s Autumn Glory exhibit. “There’s me [nearly] 50 years ago,” Wert said to Hall of Fame staff while laughing.
All these years later, Don Wert still looks good. And he’s still a world champion.