Detroit Tiger fans remember him as the slugging outfielder and first baseman with the bald head and the winning personality.
As the left-handed batter who put up some big offensive numbers in the Motor City in the late 1940s and early ‘50s.
But to the rest of the world, he is better known for the role he played in the fabulous catch by Willie Mays in Game One of the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds.
Many consider it the greatest catch ever.
But who was the unlucky player who hit that long clout, one which surely would have been a home run in any other ballpark, but instead landed into the waiting hands of the Say Hey Kid?
It was, of course, Vic Wertz, then a member of the Cleveland Indians, and a former three-time All-Star with Detroit.
“I’m very proud that I’m associated with (the catch),” he told the United Press International in 1979. “I look at it this way: If that ball Willie caught had been a home run or a triple, how many people would’ve remembered me? Not many. This way, everybody who meets me for the first time always identifies me with Willie’s catch, and that makes me feel good.”
He was born Victor Woodrow Wertz on February 9, 1925 in York, Pennsylvania. He played on the local American Legion team growing up. In fact, he was a pitcher, but switched to the outfield before the Detroit Tigers signed him in 1942.
Pro ball was a struggle for Wertz early on. In his first two minor-league seasons, he hit a combined .238 with no home runs. He missed the entire 1944 and 1945 wartime campaigns when he served in the military in the South Pacific.
Returning to civilian life, Wertz had a strong season with the Tigers’ Triple-A Buffalo Bisons in 1946. In 139 games, he banged out 19 home runs, drove in 91, and hit .301.
It earned him a spot on the Tigers in 1947.
In his first two years with Detroit, Wertz showed flashes of power, even hitting for the cycle in his rookie season. But he struck out frequently, and his average trended downward. Unable to crack the everyday lineup, he instead shuffled in and out of the outfield with former “bonus baby” Dick Wakefield.
Despite the sluggish beginning to his major league career, Tiger General Manager Billy Evans called Wertz into his office just before the end of the 1948 season. Evans handed Wertz a check for $2,500. The bonus was team owner Walter Briggs’s idea. “That’s our vote of confidence in you,” Evans told the young outfielder.
Wertz always believed the show of support changed his outlook, making him a better player.
The next year, 1949, he established himself as a star. He cut down on his strikeouts, becoming a more patient hitter capable of drawing walks. He began driving the ball with authority more consistently, raisinghis average over .300. From 1949-51, he averaged 25 home runs and 117 RBIs per year.
His biggest moment as a Tiger was hitting a home run in the 1951 All-Star Game at Briggs Stadium. Tiger teammate George Kell also homered in the contest.
Wertz got off to a slow start in 1952. His power was still there, but by mid-August his batting average had sunk to .246. On August 15, the Tigers traded him to the St. Louis Browns in a seven-player transaction.
He eventually packed his bags along with the rest of the Browns following the 1953 season when the team moved east to become the Baltimore Orioles. He was traded to Cleveland midway through the 1954 season, joining an Indians team with a powerful lineup and star-studded pitching staff that won 111 regular season games. They were favorites in the Series against Mays’s Giants. But New York wound up sweeping the Tribe in four games. Wertz, however, had a very good Series, batting .500 (8-16) with two doubles, a triple, a home run, and three RBIs.
The following year was a difficult one for Wertz, as a bout of polio cut his season short. He was forced to spend 20 days in the hospital that summer. But he was ready to go by spring training, 1956.
“I’m over it and I want to forget it,” he told the press. “I don’t want any favors or special privileges because I had it.”
In 1956, at age 31, Wertz made an amazing comeback, leading to a career renaissance. He hit a personal-high of 32 home runs that year, driving in 106 runs. He made the All-Star team with Cleveland in 1957, again topping 100 RBIs.
Traded to the Boston Red Sox, Wertz had some solid seasons in Beantown, including another 100 RBI showing in 1960.
Things came full circle for Wertz on September 8, 1961, when he was claimed off waivers by the Tigers. Detroit, which had battled the New York Yankees for first place all summer long, was in the middle of a September swoon, while at the same time the Yankees had caught fire. The Tigers finished a distant second, despite winning 101 games that year.
By 1962, Wertz was 37 years old, and his days as an everyday player were behind him. But he put together a great year off the bench for Detroit. He hit .321 as a pinch-hitter (17-53), including three home runs.
The Tigers released Wertz on May 5, 1963, after he’d started the season with no hits in five at-bats. He latched on with the Minnesota Twins, where he played his final season in 1963.
Wertz was well-positioned financially heading into retirement. He’d spent several off-seasons as a spokesman for the old National Brewing Company in Baltimore (brewers of National Bohemian Beer and Colt .45). In 1955, he had purchased a small beer delivery route, and through expansion the Vic Wertz Distributorship eventually blossomed into a multi-million dollar operation.
By 1979, he’d become a distributor for Miller Beer, and the success of Miller Lite was a financial boon for Wertz. By the early ‘80’s, his company had a 79,000 square foot warehouse with 45 delivery trucks.
Wertz also gave back to the community later in life. He formed the “Wertz Warriors,” a group of athletes who raised millions for the Special Olympics Winter Games. He also contributed to the Easter Seals, the March of Dimes, and the Boys and Girls Clubs.
“You know, some people think I do this for the publicity,” he once said. “Sure, it helps my beer business but this isn’t why I try to help these kids. I try to help them because so much has been given me in my life. I want to give something back and this is the only way I know how to do it.”
Wertz died during heart surgery at Harper Hospital in Detroit on July 7, 1983. He’d suffered a heart attack the previous day. He was 58 years old.