|Feature: Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Terwilliger Bunts One for the Books
The Cats’ manager has been in baseball for 57 years. What’s it to ya?
By DAN MCGRAW
Twig is out on the baseball field doing what he loves, doing what has been earning him paychecks for 57 years now — 75 years of playing ball if you want to count back to when he was a kid — hitting and fielding and playing catch before a baseball game. More than 5,000 times he’s done this as a player, coach, or manager in pro baseball.
It’s a couple hours before the first pitch at LaGrave Field, and Fort Worth Cats manager Wayne Terwilliger is hitting fungoes to his infielders while the team takes batting practice. He’s still wiry, the same 5’11” and 170 pounds he was when he broke into the majors in 1949. Wearing his shorts and baseball uniform shirt and spikes and bright blue socks, he seems to be enjoying himself.
On most teams, the manager might delegate this mundane task to some coach or ballplayer waiting to get in the batting cage, but Twig (his longtime nickname) is having none of that. He stands a few feet away from the batting cage, down the third-base line, popping the ball up out of his left hand, swinging clearly through it with his orange bat, deftly moving his right hand off the bat before extending his left arm, rocketing some one-hoppers to the first baseman and shortstop.
The infielders pick these precise liners off the ground, then throw soft tosses back to Twig. Some come in easy and he grabs them with his left hand. One goes to his right, and he quickly flicks the bat over and deflects it into his left hand seemingly without effort. One comes back at him a little too close to his feet, so he turns around and knocks it down with his ass. Picks it up and hits another.
As he does this over and over and over, precise shots that test the infielders on his independent minor-league team, it is impossible not to think about how old this guy is. Twig will turn 80 on June 27, and many in the baseball brotherhood will be turning their eyes to the Fort Worth Cats that night — at a road game in Mississippi — as the little guy from Michigan becomes the first man since legendary Connie Mack to manage a professional baseball team as an octogenarian.
Twig doesn’t see his birthday as much of a big deal, but he isn’t just doing the usual jock pretend-humility gag. “I get a chuckle out of all this attention,” he says after the game. “It really makes me laugh. Connie Mack was God Almighty, a true legend in baseball. I’m really proud of staying in the game, because it is what I do. It keeps me young. I never think about how long I’ve been doing this. I let other people do that.”
In talking to Twig, you quickly find that age doesn’t really define this guy. When he talks about his past — whether it’s about serving in World War II in the Pacific (he was at Iwo Jima), playing with Jackie Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers, coaching two Minnesota Twins teams in the World Series, being in the losing dugout when “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant,” hitting home runs off Baseball-Hall-of-Famers, coaching with Ted Williams — he does so matter-of-factly. It’s not that he doesn’t think all that stuff was important, it’s just that Twig thinks more about what he’s doing now and what he will do tomorrow.
So he goes about his business on the field. More fungoes and picking up baseballs, playing catch with his players, still with that little bounce in his step when he throws it back, making out the lineup card, and watching his starting pitcher in the bullpen. And while the rest of the people at LaGrave Field — the vendors, front office, grounds crew — ride around in golf carts, Twig jogs out onto the field.
“If Twig weren’t managing, he would probably act like an 80-year-old,” said former Brooklyn Dodgers great and former Cats player Maury Wills after conducting a base-running clinic for the young Cats players. “But staying in baseball does make him young. Baseball keeps him around age 50.”
So what does this soon-to-be-80-year-old want to do? Well, he doesn’t know how long he will manage, he’ll just keep doing it as long as he feels he can. In the past few years, he’s been learning acrylic painting, getting help from his artist-wife, Lin. He has his own web site (www.wayneterwilliger.com) and is working on a book about his life. And he’s thinking about getting his ear pierced. Not exactly putting in his order for a walker and a bowl of Cream of Wheat.
In some ways, Twig is the real Forrest Gump. In the 1990s movie, Tom Hanks’ character gets beyond his mental limitations to become a star football player, a war hero, a successful businessman, without ever losing his humility. Twig’s limitations were his wiry frame and “utility man” role, a guy who worked hard to do what needed doing, no matter what uniform he was wearing. In the process, this guy who couldn’t hit very well in the majors has become a rather odd icon of American history — taking part in historic battles and historic sports events, even earning a little quirky fame in literary circles. Twig’s a guy who, in a world where so many jocks act like celebrities, still thinks of himself as a workman. The usual 79-year-old might bask in all the attention about his age and longevity. Twig just thinks it’s all kind of funny.
We’re sitting in the stands at LaGrave Field before the new season starts, all by ourselves except for some ground crew guys trying to fix up the bare spots in the outfield. Twig is both affable and curmudgeonly. He gives a little wink and a smile to some questions about life, but he also pulls no punches..
“Whenever you reporters try to do these stories on me, you guys always ask the same questions,” he says. “Everyone wants to ask me what it’s like to be my age. I don’t know. I’m just who I am. But none of the reporters ever ask me anything different. It’s always about being in the dugout when the Giants beat us on Thomson’s home run, or about being an old guy.”
Well, that’s an easy floater right down the middle, so the reporter swings on cue. What do you want to talk about, Twig?
“I don’t like going out to eat with anyone,” Twig answers. “When you are on the road, you spend all of your time with these players and coaches. After games, someone always wants to go out to eat with you. My God, I’ve just spent all day with these people on the bus and all night in a dugout. I like my privacy, and if we lose, I don’t really like my food. Most of the time, I don’t enjoy my food anyway.”
Staying on the “bad” side of the ledger, what’s the worst thing about pro baseball?
“The travel has always been a pain in the ass,” he says. “Even when I played in the majors. It wasn’t like I was doing any sightseeing. We’d stay at a hotel and then go back and forth to the ballpark. I just wanted to play baseball, and we had to waste so much time traveling around.
He offers a tip for frugal and hungry travelers. “I learned one thing,” he says. “I’d get fried chicken, and eat it in my room. If I would go out some place for a few drinks, I would wrap the extra chicken in some moistened hotel towels, and then put it on top of the lamp. It would still be hot when I got back.”
Twig is on a roll. “This trip we take to Pensacola [Fla.] now is just a shit-hole ride,” Twig says. “It’s 12 hours on the bus, and every time I have to take a piss, I have to climb over all these players to get to the bathroom in the back of the bus. They are all sleeping stretched across the aisles, so I have to climb back there on the armrests. I wish those guys could just sleep in their chairs without laying all over the place.”
So why keep doing this, especially at this lower level of baseball?
“Goddammit, it’s because I like it,” Twig answers with a bit of a stare. “I’m a pain in the ass to be around when we lose, but I still love winning so much. I’m as competitive now as I ever was. And I can relate to young guys, but I don’t know why. I really like young people. When someone busts their ass for me, they become my favorites. It’s what makes this fun, and why I keep doing it.
“But one thing people should know about me,” he says. “If I thought I was still working in baseball because someone thought my age was a factor, you know, getting publicity, I would quit immediately. I know for a fact I am not cheating anyone out of a job right now.”
He wasn’t cheating anybody out of a job back in 1944, either. Why did he enlist in the Marines that year?
“I was a freshman at Western Michigan University and in the baseball program,” Twig says. “I was doing OK in my grades, but was flunking Foundations of Western Civilization. I went to my professor and tried to get the grade changed, but he would only go up to a D. So I was off the baseball team. If I couldn’t play baseball, I figured it was time to go into the service. I walked down to the Marine recruiting office and signed up. I knew eventually I would be in it, anyway.” The utility fielder’s philosophy, applied to war.
So there he was in June 1944, off the coast of Saipan, waiting for battle. Eighteen years old, son of a semi-pro baseball pitcher turned postman turned bar owner. Twig had been a baseball player and fan himself since he was a little boy in Clare, Mich., listening to Detroit Tiger games on the radio and collecting baseball cards. One card came from Cornelius MacGillicudy, a.k.a. Connie Mack, who managed and owned the Philadelphia A’s from 1901 until 1950.
Twig and his Marine unit were waiting to make an amphibious tank landing on an island nobody was much looking forward to. According to one account, a medical officer had warned the troops of the hazards in landing on Saipan: “In the surf, beware of sharks, barracuda, sea snakes, anemones, razor-sharp coral, polluted water, poison fish, and great clams. Ashore, there is leprosy, typhus, filariasis, yaws, typhoid, dengue fever, dysentery, saber grass, insects, snakes, and giant lizards. Eat nothing growing on the island, don’t drink the water, and don’t approach the inhabitants!”
One private then reportedly asked the medical officer, “Sir, why don’t we just let the Japs keep the island?”
The reason was the 22,700 Japanese soldiers and about 7,000 Japanese Imperial Marines stationed on Saipan. The island was the capital of the Mariana Islands, but it was also headquarters for the Japanese Central Pacific Fleet. Taking over this Japanese stronghold would give the American forces an airfield and naval base about 1,500 miles from Tokyo.
While the later battle for Iwo Jima has received much due publicity over the years because of the famed flag-raising by the Marines, the battle for Saipan was probably the most important battle in the Pacific theater. It was much like the Normandy invasion on D-Day: The Japanese held the cliffs and higher ground and pounded the American soldiers coming in. About the same number of Americans (around 3,600) died on Saipan as did on the Normandy beaches. Some 19,000 Japanese troops perished.
Twig and his comrades in Company D of the 2nd Armored Amphibian Battalion were among the lead assault troops: “To be truthful it was more excitement than anything else,” he recalled. “We had trained for this, and we were the first assault wave. We were part of a long line outside the coral reef, and everyone was pumped up, kind of like an athletic contest. All that changed when we hit the beach, when the live fire started coming your way.”
His tank fought its way up the beach and into the Japanese lines, then got stuck in a shell hole, with a Japanese tank coming at them. Terwilliger and his mates battled the enemy tank with grenades, blowing it up. “We were by our tank for what seemed like forever, just waiting for what might happen. We were behind the lines in Japanese territory, and after we blew up that tank, we got back to our lines. I remember my helmet getting blown off.
“I wasn’t a hero or anything like that,” Twig said. “I didn’t really get wounded. One of my best friends got killed, and you couldn’t help but see a lot of dead people. But I was just doing my job. You aren’t some hero for just doing your job.”
By the beginning of July, Saipan was taken, and the victory began the Americans’ march through Tinian and Iwo Jima. Twig fought in both those battles. But before they moved off Saipan, the American troops did what Americans did back then. They played baseball.
“Once we had [Saipan] secure, somebody suggested forming baseball teams,” Twig remembered. “They laid out the field on a part of the island with no grass. It was really hard ground; sliding into bases was kind of painful. Occasionally, a Japanese plane would fly over and strafe the area. Sirens would go off, and we would stop the game and run for cover and jump into foxholes. When the plane was out of there, we’d get the game going back where we had stopped it.” Twig’s team went undefeated on Saipan, 28-0.
After Iwo Jima, where he was part of the secondary landing force, his unit was moved back to Hawaii to train for an invasion of Japan. But the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended it all. Twig was coming back home.
In the Great Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, the authors kind of make a little fun of Terwilliger’s baseball career:
“Everybody remembers Wayne Terwilliger. But nobody can remember why. Wayne was the perfect utility man. He couldn’t hit his hat size, but he could field every position. He wouldn’t help you out very much, but he wouldn’t embarrass you either. He had a good disposition, was always sober, and liked to pitch batting practice — in other words, a manager’s dream. He also looked like a utility man — he had a utility man’s face, a utility man’s build, and a utility man’s outlook on life. And certainly no one could argue the fact that he had a utility man’s name. He always looked like the sort of guy you might send for to unplug a drain in a large apartment house. Of course, what made it even better was that he played with some of the worst Washington Senators teams of the early ’50s, teams consisting of entire rosters of utility men.”
Terwilliger didn’t start out as a utility man. After the war, he went back to Western Michigan University to play ball and get a degree in social sciences. Summers, he played some semi-pro ball, where the owners paid the players $15 a day to play ball at night and trim trees during the day. He was hitting .400. A Chicago Cubs scout saw Twig playing in Michigan in 1948 and signed him to a minor-league deal. The wiry second baseman made his major league debut for the Cubs on Aug. 6, 1949. He struck out in his first at bat, but got four hits the next day.
He bounced around in the majors, playing for five major-league teams from 1949 to 1960, getting sent to the minors about every other year. Twig was a great fielder but couldn’t hit very well. His career average was .240. “I never hit what I should have,” he said. “Tried everything. Had a bunch of bats made in Louisville. Worked on my swing. Never quite worked out.”
Still, Twig had his moments. Hit home runs off great pitchers Jim Bunning, Whitey Ford, and Don Newcombe. Got a game-winning bloop single off Negro League pitching star and Hall-of-Famer Satchel Paige. Twig was on the bench for the Brooklyn Dodgers when New York Giant Bobby Thomson hit the “shot heard round the world” in the 1951 World Series. “We were on the bench figuring out how much money we were going to win,” Twig said with a laugh. “Thought it was going to be caught. Then it’s over the fence.”
He retired from playing in 1960. “I was 35, and back then, 35 was considered kind of old,” he said. He took a job managing a minor-league team in Greensboro, N.C., in the Yankee organization in 1961. In 1969, Ted Williams asked him to help him coach the Washington Senators. He stayed in the majors with Williams until 1972, when the Senators moved to Arlington to become the Texas Rangers. He went back to the minors for a few years, then came back to the majors — from 1981 to 1985 with the Rangers and 1986 to 1994 with the Minnesota Twins, where he helped coach two World Series winners. But after the 1994 season, a new manager wanted his own coaches, and the Twins let Twig go.
From 1995 to 2002, he helped coach the St. Paul Saints, one of the first independent league (no affiliation with a major-league team) success stories. Twig enjoyed his 16 years in Minnesota with the Twins and the Saints and figured he’d stay there. But when former Saints president Marty Scott — who was now running the new Fort Worth Cats — needed a manager, he called on Terwilliger. Twig’s wife Lin was born and raised in Fort Worth and wanted to get home, and Twig wanted to get back to managing, which he liked much more than coaching.
Between 1948 and 2005, Twig was out of professional baseball for only one year. In 1974, he decided to go back to Michigan to help run his father’s old bar. “One year in running that bar, and I was pooped,” Twig said. “I noticed the bartender was free pouring so I started bartending myself to control things. But I didn’t know anyone [at the bar] anymore.” One day, “I got a call and was told a manager was needed at Lynchburg [Virginia]. I told them I’d take it. Then I told everyone at the bar, and they cheered. At first I thought they were happy for me. But then I learned they were cheering because I was leaving. Everyone said I was getting grumpy.”
Terwilliger was always pretty good at bunting. The second baseman had 43 sacrifice hits during his major-league career, ranking in the top 10 three times. But bunting also brought Twig some rather odd fame off the field. In 1987, noted author Annie Dillard published a well-received memoir called An American Childhood, about growing up in Pittsburgh. One of the chapters is titled “Terwilliger Bunts One.”
The story revolves around Dillard’s father listening to a Pirates-Giants game on the radio, and her rather bizarre mother wandering through as the play-by-play man shouts, “Terwilliger bunts one.” The mother stops and remarks that that is the strangest combination of words she has ever heard, even questioning whether the words are really English. As the story continues, Dillard’s mother becomes obsessed with “Terwilliger bunts one,” using the words to test out a typewriter or a microphone. “Whenever someone used a French phrase or a Latin one, she answered solemnly, ‘Terwilliger bunts one,’” Dillard writes.
The “Terwilliger Bunts One” chapter has been included in the Norton Anthology college textbooks over the years, including the 2003 Norton Anthology of Expository Prose. Now when college students read works from James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman, they also find out a little about a major-league utility man who could bunt.
Monty Clegg, senior vice president and general manager for the Cats, said the team gets occasional e-mails from people around the country wondering if the Cats manager is the same one who bunts in books. Clegg said one woman even wrote that she named her dog “Terwilliger Bunts One.”
In an e-mail to Fort Worth Weekly, Dillard said she was surprised that the strange phrase has had such staying power. “Wow, I had no idea that anyone would remember that — or any other — phrase. (I do remember Updike liked it and promptly named a character Terwilliger.) Once, a former student got Wayne Terwilliger to sign a baseball card for me — it was a cool card from the Negro leagues — it’s on my study door. I sure hope nothing from me has harmed him in any way. He’s a great man, so far as I know.”
Terwilliger got his apparently memorable last name from some Dutch ancestor. It means “near the willow trees” and seems to be more common in books and scripts than it is on the census rolls. In John Updike’s short story, “Brother Grasshopper,” as Annie Dillard pointed out, the author gives the names Betsy and Germaine Terwilliger to the sisters he follows through courtship and divorce. In his 1953 live action movie titled 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, Theodore Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) follows the evil piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliger. In 1977, Geisel read a new poem at a college commencement address titled “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers” (“As you partake of the world’s bill of fare, that’s darned good advice to follow/Do a lot of spitting out the hot air. And be careful what you swallow.”)
Want more? In the 1960s cartoon show The Flintstones, Wilma’s old high school flame was “Wilbur Terwilligerrock.” In The Simpsons, Sideshow Bob’s real name is Robert Underdunk Terwilliger (plus brother Cecil Terwilliger). In Garrison Keillor’s 2001 book, Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, the “steady” Wayne Terwilliger makes another appearance on a baseball play-by-play radio broadcast and is called out on strikes. “Un-believable! Un-believable, folks!” the announcer yells. “That pitch to Twig was in the dirt, ladies and gentlemen! How can a man be expected to hit a pitch like that? In the dirt! And the fans here are letting home-plate umpire Larry Cahoon know they’re upset about that call!”
The Twig himself, once again, is amused by all the pop culture references. “I saw the book [by Annie Dillard], but I don’t know about those other things,” he said. “But she got one thing right. I could bunt one. And as a manager, I’m never afraid to ask my players to bunt one.”
Bryon Smith played baseball at Texas Tech University, where he was named to the All-Big 12 First Team in 2002. He’s a good player, but not good enough for the majors. Most of the players on the Fort Worth Cats and in the Central Baseball League are that way, guys with a few tools but nothing near the five-tool level expected of major-league players.
When Smith was drafted by the Cats in 2003 after a tryout camp, he went to meet his new employers. “They told me the Cats management were over in the corner, and I saw a few guys standing there, including one old guy,” Smith said. “So I went over there to talk to them. Twig starts cutting up with me right away. Like he had known me forever.
“When I was getting ready to leave, I asked them if I could get a Fort Worth Cats hat. I told them I’d pay for one, I just wanted to bring one home with me. So Twig takes off his hat and says, ‘You want a hat? I got a hat. Use this one.’ It wasn’t that he was trying to impress me or anything. He just figured he had a hat, and I needed one, so just take mine.”
Smith said the desire to play for Twig is the reason he’s in his third season with the Cats. “In this league, you have guys who can play pretty well, but in order to win, you need to do the little things,” the second baseman continued. “That’s what he is about. Age is never a factor. He’s out throwing batting practice and hitting infield. He can be nice when it is needed, but he has some hard-ass in him.
“What he does best is that he keeps everyone even,” Smith said. “When a guy gets too high, Twig knocks him down a few pegs. When a guy is down and feeling bad about his game, Twig picks him up. Sometimes he tells some old stories, but not that much. Doesn’t seem that important to him.”
Ever eat dinner with him? “Not really. On the last road trip, someone asked if there was a good restaurant nearby. Twig answered that he found an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. We asked him where it was. He said it was three miles down the road. We asked him how he got there. Told us he walked.”
The phone rings, and Twig is on the line. He wants to clarify something. Asked in a previous interview about his off-season hobbies, he had said that he and his wife like to watch tv. “My wife overheard that and thought it sounded kind of stupid,” Twig says in a deadpan voice. “I guess I forgot to say that I’m learning how to do acrylic painting.”
His wife Lin is an artist who paints acrylics of landscapes and animals, and Twig is now working at doing his own. Not really what dugout managers do. Not really what most guys who are about to turn 80 do.
Twig puts his wife on the line to explain: “He has always liked drawing, doodling he calls it. I started noticing when he was talking on the phone there would be times he would draw some sports characters — a ball player or boxer — and they were all very good. So in the last few years, he’s been learning a bit more. He’s getting pretty good. The problem is the baseball season. When it starts, everything in your life kind of stops.”
Lin and Twig met in the early 1970s when he was coaching for the Rangers. “We met on a blind date,” Lin says. “I was working at the Arlington Daily News as a reporter, and the postman we shared asked some of us women if we wanted to meet some ball players. I said no, that I was really into older men. So the guy said he knew this older guy. So he fixed me up with him, and we had a picnic at Lake Grapevine.”
Twig had married his first wife, Mary Jane, in 1946, and they had two kids. He eventually got divorced and married Lin, 17 years his junior, in 1974. They live on a ranch near Weatherford, both doing their painting, and with Twig running off every summer to hit fungoes and call the squeeze play.
But in pro baseball, there are no guarantees, and it can be a tough life in some ways. “When you work in baseball, wives have to have blinders on and not get too settled in one spot,” Lin says. “Players and coaches are always saying not to buy a house, because that is the kiss of death, and you’ll get fired or waived after that. The situation in losing his job with the Minnesota Twins was hurtful. It was like a family to us, but different managers want different coaches. And there are always some young coaches in the minors being groomed to take over.”
When told her husband might want to get his ear pierced, Lin Terwilliger laughs. “I think he would look great,” she says. “He should grow his hair long too. He has this nice kinky, tight Afro when he grows it out. If he wore it long in a ponytail he would look great. Wouldn’t that be fun, having an 80-year-old baseball manager with a pierced ear and long hair who paints?”
Twig figures everyone should wait a bit. “I have to look a certain way for my job, so I cut my hair short every year,” he says with a wink at LaGrave Field. “Maybe I’ll get my ear pierced after I retire.”
People who know Twig all seem to say the same things about him: He’s an honest, unassuming guy who likes what he does and doesn’t dwell too much on his past. Former Ranger Toby Harrah, who came up when Twig coached for the Washington Senators and then worked for Twig as a third-base coach for the Cats, agrees.
“Twig was one of my very first infield coaches when I came up in 1969,” Harrah said. “He treated me like a man and worked hard to make me better. He hasn’t aged since then. He’s still fiery as ever. I had the most fun I had in the last 10 years when I coached with him. He is just a class guy. His honesty is one of his strong points. But he’s still around because he’s a baseball man. The players trust him, and they know what he says works.”
Back on the field before a game, his team in first place, Twig is signing autographs for some Little League kids who are like he was 70 years ago. He is having some fun, patting the kids on the head and spending a few minutes talking to the team. Twig could let other Cats people take the lead with these kids, but that’s not him. It’s part of his job, plus he likes doing it.
He’s kind of like that fun grandpa we all wish we had, a guy who will praise you when you need it, but has no problem telling you you are full of shit when you need that. And leaves you alone when that is good for you and good for him.
And maybe that’s what Fort Worth should know about this guy. “Twig Turning 80” will be plastered all over the sports media next month. What they will probably miss is who this guy really is. He isn’t just some old guy hanging around. He is a man who can be nice and a hard-ass at times, but most of all, he is just who he is and doesn’t pretend to be anyone else. It’s what we used to think sports and war heroes actually were, a concept that seems to have gone out the door with soft-drink endorsement contracts and multi-million-dollar player salaries.
But don’t tell Twig that. He’ll just look at you kind of funny and think you’re making too big a deal about him. Hell, he’s been doing this for 57 years. Why is this year so different? Being 80 makes no difference, and Twig will be the first guy to tell you that — with a hard stare, maybe, or a wink.
Dan McGraw is a Fort Worth author and freelance writer.
Email this Article...