Friday, January 22, 2010

#20 Wally Berger

Wally Berger was born the son of a Chicago saloon owner in 1905. In 1910, the family moved to San Francisco, where Berger and his brother Fred took to the game of baseball at an early age.
Berger toiled around the Bay Area semi-pro circuit for five years, working as a carpenter's assistant, before signing with the San Francisco Seals in 1925. After a back injury almost derailed his career, he stayed with the Seals until early 1927, when he headed off to a job in the copper mining industry in Butte, Montana. However, his journey was derailed as he visited with friends in Pocatello, Idaho. He signed with the local team instead of a "normal" job, and became the regular centerfielder for the club. He tore up the Utah-Idaho League, and by August, his contract was sold and he wound up back in the PCL, this time with Los Angeles. He hovered in the Cubs system for two years, and prior to the 1930 season, Berger was sold to the Boston Braves.
As the Braves leftfielder, Berger made his impact immediately. He hit 38 home runs that season, a National League record for a rookie that still stands today. (It was the major league mark until Mark McGwire's rookie total of 49 home runs in 1987.) He also knocked in 119 runs that year, which was a rookie record that lastest until Albert Pujols rookie season in 2001.
Berger was the sole bright spot of the Boston Braves of the 1930's. He played in four All-Star games (1933-36) and lead the NL in home runs and RBI in 1935. His 34 home runs in 1935 was by far the team's best; Babe Ruth, in his final season, hit 6 homers in 28 games, good for second on Boston.
In 1937, Berger was sent to the Giants, where he hit .291 in 59 games. Shortly into the 1938 season the Giants shipped him the Reds, By 1940, the 34-year old Berger found himself playing out the string in Philadelphia with the Philles. By July, his major league career was over.
Berger signed with Indianapolis in the American Association, but hurt his hand and returned home to California. He signed with Los Angeles in the PCL in 1941, but really had no interest in playing below the Major League level. Upon World War 2, Berger joined the Navy. After the war, he scouted for a few years before leaving baseball for good. He worked at the Northrop Institute of Technology until retirement.
Berger died in 1988 after suffering a stroke. He was 83 years old.

I felt sad when Berger lost his RBI record to Pujols. No disrespect to Pujols, but Berger's rookie records were the only thing keeping this fine player from vanishing to the dustbins of history. He really was an exemplary player, and if the Braves were still in Boston, they would think of him as fondly as the Tigers do Greenberg and the Phillies do Klein.

I used to get Berger confused with Wally Moses. I guess it's just the name Wally. You don't see many people named Wally anymore. In fact, there has not been a Wally in the Major Leagues since 2001 (Wally Joyner, for those of you keeping score). But hope springs eternal every year, and maybe 2010 will be the season we see the major league debut of Wally Backman Jr.

The Autograph: Berger always signed for me through the mail, and this card is no exception. An easy to find autograph, starting around 10 dollars.

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