Larry Watkins always had a dozen brand new Rawlings baseballs with him at all times. Just in case.
“Bobby would show up, he would stop by in the store just to visit, and I would give him a dozen balls that he could have signed and then give them away,” said Watkins.
Bobby Doerr, the Boston Red Sox legend who died last week at the age of 99, lived in Junction City during the offseason and permanently in the later years of his life. It's where he met Watkins struck up a friendship.
In 1986, the year Doerr was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, Watkins, the owner of a sports memorabilia store in Eugene, invited him to do a signing at Valley River Center.
“A friend of mine basically says, ‘I think I can get a hold of Bobby Doerr to come and sign autographs,’” said the retired Watkins who is 68 and lives in a home just outside of Cottage Grove that is full of signed memorabilia. “So instead of calling him I wrote him a letter and shoot, he wrote me a letter right back with his phone number. So I called him, asked him if he would be interested in doing that and he said sure.”
Doerr, who always made sure his signature was not just a scribble but legible, spent his entire Saturday at Valley River Center (“He was the first to show up,” Watkins remembers) signing bats, balls and cards for all the excited fans that gathered around. He struck up conversations about baseball and took a genuine interest in each individual.
“When those guys do those signings they get paid a lot of money for it. And so I went to pay him for it and he said, ‘No, I don’t want any money.’ He says, ‘I enjoyed doing it and I want to do it for the fans.’ And that’s the way he was,” said Watkins.
Watkins and Doerr became friends. They would talk frequently and began regularly visiting each other. Watkins then worked at Guaranty RV in Junction City and decided to call up his new friend to see if he could stop by for lunch. Doerr was happy to welcome him into his home.
“We would just sit there and talk about baseball because I had been a fan forever,” said Watkins. “And he was a teacher and a fan himself and we just talked baseball.”
Watkins invited Doerr to Guaranty for a sales meeting where he talked about what it takes to be great. The always-humble Doerr instead of talking about himself, a nine-time All-Star, talked about the success of his Hall of Fame teammate, and friend, Ted Williams.
“[Doerr] said, Ted one time – Bobby was the hitting instructor at the time for the Red Sox, this was after he retired – and Ted had hired a bunch of kids to come out and he hit probably 400 baseballs that day and the kids would shag them. And Bobby came up to him and said, ‘Boy you’re not going to be good for today’s game,’ but Ted said, ‘Yeah but I will be for a long time after it.’”
In the mid 90s, Watkins even got the chance to meet Williams when Doerr brought him out for a fishing trip on the Rogue River. Williams signed a bat, ball and picture for Watkins. Watkins noted that today a signed Williams bat sells for at least $3,000.
Back at Guaranty, Doerr struck up a friendship with Guaranty’s Shannon Nill and then started holding his birthday party there every year where family, friends and adoring fans would file in to see their hero.
While it was success on the field that brought Doerr and Watkins together, it was Doerr’s attitude and appreciation of life that kept the pair together.
“He was such a gracious person, humble. The grace he had was amazing,” said Watkins.
“Probably the best human being I’ve ever known. He was always treating people with respect.
“He’s just a super human being. I wish we had a lot more like that.”