Obituary: Wayne Terwilliger (1925-2021)

RIP to Wayne Terwilliger, one of the longest-tenured baseball lifers in the history of the game. Between his career as a player, coach and manager, he spent more than 60 years as an on-field part of professional baseball. He died on February 3 in Weatherford, Texas, at the age of 95. He had been in hospice care for bladder cancer and dementia. Terwilliger played as a second baseman for the Chicago Cubs (1949-1951), Brooklyn Dodgers (1951), Washington Senators (1953-54), New York Giants (1955-56) and Kansas City Athletics (1959-60). That’s just a small part of his life, as he was active in baseball into his 80s.

Willard Wayne “Twig” Terwilliger was born in Clare, Mich., on June 27, 1925. He went to Charlotte High School, and at whatever sport he played, he typically found himself in the middle of the scoring. He could pass, run or kick on the football team, and he was a regular high scorer in basketball. Then there was baseball. The Charlotte Eagles team won the Capitol Circuit League title in 1942, with Terwilliger as the starting shortstop. In the classroom, he was the class president of his sophomore, junior and senior years.

Terwilliger graduated and went to Western Michigan College (now Western Michigan University). He had planned to play baseball there, but he flunked his freshman Western Civilizations course, which made him ineligible for athletics in the spring. When he couldn’t talk his professor into giving him a D, he stormed down to the Marines recruiting office and registered on the spot.

If it was a decade later, Terwilliger might have spent his service time playing ball for some military team at an American base. Because this was right in the middle of World War II, he was send to the Pacific campaign and saw some fierce fighting. He took part in the invasions of the Japanese islands of Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. It was during the Saipan invasion that his tank got stuck in a hole left by a U.S. naval shell, and his crew had to hide from an incoming Japanese tank. It got close enough that they could see the Rising Sun flag on the tank.

He and his team fled for their lives, and Terwilliger ran down a path that fortunately led him toward the rest of the invading force. “So I’m running down this little path, and I see the beach, and I see our guys signaling to me,” he related in a 1994 interview. “I didn’t know it at the time, but a Japanese tank was behind me, heading for the beach. Then one of our tanks hit that tank and knocked it over, and it burst into flames.”

That was Terwilliger’s first day of active combat, too.

When the fighting had ceased and Tinian and Saipan had been secured by the U.S. forces, members of Terwilliger’s 2nd Armored Amphibian Battalion formed a baseball team. The team went 28-0 and won a league championship, per Terwilliger’s website. The ballfield was located next to the 2nd Marine Division’s cemetery, and play halted for the playing of “Taps” as well as air raid sirens.

Source: Chicago Tribune, June 25, 1950.

Terwilliger served until November of 1945 and went back to Western Michigan. Though technically a freshman in 1946, the 20-year-old Terwilliger was able to win a job as the starting shortstop on the baseball team. He hit .344 to lead the Broncos in hitting, and he played outstanding defense at shortstop as well. When the school year ended, Terwilliger joined the Benton Harbor Legionnaires, a semi-pro team that played on the House of David field. Not only did the team play local clubs, but they played teams like the Chicago Brown Bombers, a Negro Leagues team managed by Elwood “Bingo” DeMoss.

Terwilliger soon began attracting notice by major-league ballclubs, as the St. Louis Browns had scout Jack Fournier watching him as early as the summer of 1946. The Browns offered him $2,000 to sign with the team, but he remained an amateur for a couple more years. He eventually became the second baseman for the House of David and other semi-pro teams, even as he continued to attend Western Michigan during the school year.

It was the Chicago Cubs who finally secured the services of Terwilliger in July of 1948, signing him away from the Benton Harbor Buds for a $4,000 bonus. He played a handful of games for the Des Moines Bruins of the Western League and failed to break the .200 mark. The Cubs moved him all the way up to the AAA Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League in 1949, and the 24-year-old Terwilliger dazzled fans there. He hit near .400 in the early part of the season before settling into the .280s, and he was a solid second baseman. The Angel coaches tweaked his batting stance to provide some more pop, and he homered 8 times. After about a year’s worth of pro baseball, Terwilliger was brought to the major leagues in August of 1949.

“They’re pushing me pretty fast,” Terwilliger told the Lansing State Journal, which reported on Michigan’s latest major-leaguer, “and maybe it’s only an experiment, but I’ll give it a big try.”

The 1949 Cubs were stuck in last place and were looking to start a youth movement. They had installed rookie Roy Smalley at shortstop and brought Terwilliger to serve as his double-play partner for the balance of the season. His major-league debut came on August 6, 1949 — he struck out against Boston Braves’ Johnny Antonelli after pinch-hitting for Gene Mauch. The very next day, he again relieved Mauch in mid-game and singled off Bill Voiselle. Terwilliger got off to a hot start with a batting average over .300, and he hit his first MLB home run — a 3-run shot — off Dave Koslo of the New York Giants on August 23. He cooled off to a .223 average after 36 games, with 2 homers and 10 RBIs. He also had a .978 fielding percentage at second base and took part in 11 double plays.

For one of the few times in his career, Terwilliger was a starter in 1950. He reached double-digits in home runs for the only time in a season with 10 long balls, and he also stole a career-high 13 bases. At late as June, he was hitting in the .280s, but his average tailed off considerably after that. A late rally raised his average to .242 by the end of the year. He got off to a slow start in 1951 and was benched by Frisch when his batting fell to just over .200.

Terwilliger forces Detroit’s Johnny Groth in the first out of a double play. Source: The Kansas City Times, June 30, 1959.

The Cubs and Dodgers pulled off a big trade on June 15, 1951, that sent Terwilliger to Brooklyn, along with Andy Pafko, Johnny Schmitz and Rube Walker. Chicago got back Bruce Edwards, Joe Hatten, Gene Hermanski and Eddie Miskis. Clearly, Pafko was the biggest name in the trade, but he was hampered by a bad leg and didn’t hit well at first. Terwilliger, on the other hand, was an immediate success. He played well while spelling Jackie Robinson at second base and had some clutch pinch hits, too. In 30 games, he slashed .280/.390/.300 as a very pleasant surprise for the Dodgers.

Terwilliger started 1952 with the Dodgers, but never made an appearance in a regular-season game. He was optioned to the minors in May and spent the rest of the season with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. He hit .312 and was purchased by the Washington Senators at the end of the season. Washington saw him as a starting second basemen, and he appeared in a career-high 134 games in 1953. He also had career highs in hits (117), doubles (24), triples (4) and RBIs (46). His batting average of .252 was one of the best marks of his career, too. He had just 4 home runs, and one of them was a grand slam that helped beat the White Sox 8-4 on June 5. Terwilliger also picked up a game-winning single off Satchel Paige, and he justifiably bragged about that moment for the rest of his life.

Washington was a .500 team, and Senators manager Bucky Harris credited unlikely heroes like Terwilliger, Ed FitzGerald and Clyde Vollmer for keeping the team afloat.

“Terwilliger is not the best hitter in the world, but he’s a great little hustler,” Harris said. “And as long as he keeps playing the way he has been he’ll stay in our lineup every day.”

Terwilliger slumped in 1954, batting a meager .208. He was still the regular second baseman but lost considerable time at second base to veteran Johnny Pesky and Pete Runnels, who moved over from shortstop. He saved the Senators from the indignity of a no-hitter on April 20 by singling off lefty Alex Kellner of the Philadelphia Athletics in the eighth inning, leaving Kellner with a 1-hitter instead. Still, he was no longer the team’s solution at second base, and he was sold to the New York Giants organization in February of 1955.

Terwilliger, as the Rangers third base coach, congratulates Billy Sample after a home run. Source: The Spokesman Review, September 30, 1981.

Terwilliger started the season with the Minneapolis Millers and was hitting .297 by late June. Millers manager Bill Rigney called him the best second baseman in the American Association at the time. The Giants, facing a dilemma at second base with Davey Williams injured, brought Terwilliger back to the majors. For the remainder of the ’55 season, he played pretty well, with a .257/.348/.339 slash line. He struggled when he first joined the team, but a 12-game hitting streak at the end of August helped boost his productivity.

Oddly, his season turned around after he was hit on the head with a pitched ball. On August 5, he was beaned by Cincinnati’s Johnny Klippstein, and the impact of the fastball split his plastic cap liner. He was hitting .205 at the time and missed several games. When he came back, he had hits in 17 of his next 19 games, ending August with a .270 average.

The Giants had a competition for the second base role in the 1956 training camp, with Terwilliger vying against Darryl Spencer, Foster Castleman and Billy Gardner. The job was eventually shared by Spencer and mid-season acquisition Red Schoendienst, and Terwilliger’s role on the team was reduced to a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner and defensive replacement. After 4 hits in 18 at-bats through mid-June, he was sent back to the minor leagues. That looked like it could have been the end of his major-league career. He played for the Millers through the 1957 season and was traded to the Detroit Tigers. He spent all of 1958 in Detroit’s AAA affiliate in Charleston, W.V. He won the American Association’s MVP award that year, despite hitting just .269. He did lead the AA in runs (103) and stolen bases (24), and he set a league record with a 47-game errorless streak as a second baseman. The newspaper writers who voted on the MVP award also recognized his leadership skills, as Charleston won the AA pennant.

The Kansas City Athletics granted Terwilliger a new lease on life by picking him in the Rule V draft in December of 1958. Considering the draft typically has been used to pick up young prospects with potential, it was an odd choice for the A’s to select a 33-year-old second baseman who had already played on four MLB teams. But the A’s needed infield help badly, and their scouts rated him as the best second baseman in the minors.

The Athletics split the playing time at second base between Terwilliger and Jerry Lumpe in 1959, once the latter joined the team through a trade with the Yankees. As the right-handed part of the platoon, Terwilliger hit .267, which was the best mark of his career. He got off to another weak start at the plate, but he started hitting once injuries to Lumpe and Joe Demaestri pressed him into service. “I guess I’m shooting a little over my head at bat; but I might as well enjoy it,” he said in the midst of a hot streak.

The Athletics committed to Lumpe as their second baseman in 1960, leaving no room for Terwilliger. An ailing back limited him to 2 games for the A’s, going hitless in his only at-bat, before he was sent to the Richmond Virginians, the Yankees AAA farm team. He batted .206 in 93 games for Richmond in what was his final season as a full-time player. As a minor-league manager, he put himself into a few games over the rest of the 1960s, even pitching 3 innings of 1-hit ball for Geneva in 1964.

Terwilliger played in parts of 9 seasons in the majors and appeared in 666 games. He had a .240/.323/.325 slash line, with 501 hits that included 93 doubles, 10 triples and 22 home runs. He stole 31 bases and scored 271 times, while driving in 162 runs. Including his occasional games to come as a player/manager, Terwilliger’s lifetime batting average in 12 seasons in the minors was .263.

Source: St. Paul Saints

The Yankees named Terwilliger as the manager of their Class-B Greensboro club for the 1961 season. The team had with a 70-68 record and finished in third place in both halves of the Carolina League’s season. He was let go after the one season but found a landing spot in the Washington Senators organization. Starting with the 1962 Pensacola Senators of the Alabama-Florida League, Terwilliger managed through the Senators’ minor leagues through 1968.

The Senators added Terwilliger to Ted Williams’ staff in 1969 as a third base coach. He held the position through the 1972 season, making him part of the inaugural Texas Rangers team as well. He and Nellie Fox were among the coaches that rookie manager Williams turned to, along with bench coach Joe Camacho. The 1969 Senators finished with an 86-76 record, but they played progressively worse until becoming 100-game losers as the Rangers in 1972. Williams resigned after the new season, and new manager Whitey Herzog didn’t retain any of the coaches.

Terwilliger said that he was interviewed for the Rangers’ manager job but told owner Bob Short that he would rather coach under Williams than be the manager himself. The legendary hitter was occasionally criticized for his managing ability, but Terwilliger defended Williams and adopted some of his strategies for his own. “I make changes in the lineup sometimes for no reason at all. A player can’t be happy sitting on the bench for two weeks. I learned that from coaching under Ted Williams,” he said.

Twig’s loyalty to Williams was easy to understand. In 1941, Williams played in the All-Star Game at Briggs Stadium in Detroit and smashed an upper deck home run. Terwilliger, then 16 years old, was at the game and never forgot that moment.

Terwilliger had spent enough time in baseball that he was pretty well known around the game for his fiery and confident personality. He admitted that the confidence didn’t come naturally. “There were times when I prayed the ball would not be hit in my direction,” he admitted. He saw it as his job to keep his young players happy and let them gain that confidence as well.

Terwilliger returned to the minors, managing the Columbus Astros in 1973. He took 1974 off to work full-time at a bar he owned in Michigan, and that was the only year in about 6 decades that he wasn’t associated with baseball. The Rangers brought back to manage in their minor-league system from 1975 to 1980. He spent four seasons with the Class-A Asheville Tourists. During that time, he managed up-and-comers like Pat Putnam, Danny Darwin, Dave Righetti and George Wright. He was brought back to the Rangers for a second term as coach, under new manager Don Zimmer, in 1981. Terwilliger stayed on the job until 1985, and he outlasted Zimmer, Darrell Johnson and Doug Rader, all of whom came and went as a Rangers skipper during that time.

Wayne Terwilliger’s memoir, Terwilliger Bunts One, is available for sale online.

The Minnesota Twins hired Terwilliger as an infield/third base coach for 1986, and he stayed there for nine seasons. Twins manager Ray Miller specifically picked him out to help the Twins with their defense — they had been last in the league in turning double plays the previous year. He remained on the coaching staff of Tom Kelly and was a part of two World Series-winning teams, with the 1987 and 1991 Twins.

While he was at the ’87 World Series, he was approached by Buddy Martin, a columnist at The Denver Post. Martin related a story of how he got to attend a Washington Senators spring training game one day in the 1950s, when Terwilliger was a player. Before the game, Terwilliger chased down a stray ball and flipped it into the stands, where Martin caught it. Thirty-something years later, Martin had the chance to thank him for the kindness. “I did that?” the coach said. “That surprises me, because I was a bit of an ass in those days.”

Terwilliger almost missed the 1987 World Series, because he was recovering from a bout with pneumonia. He refused to pass up on his first chance to be a part of the October Classic. Prior to that year, his closest chance came in 1951, when the Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit his “Shot Heard ‘Round” the World” home run that ended the Dodgers season.

“A lot of people have never gotten here,” he said. “I’ve gotten here. I’m very happy, very excited.” When the World Series was over and the Twins were champs, Terwilliger was spotted in a corner in the locker room, sipping on a beer and crying tears of joy.

Having reached the peak of his profession, Terwilliger never thought about retiring. “How many guys get a chance to do this for as long as I have?” he asked in 1988. “I love being active. It really does keep you young.”

Terwilliger departed from the Twins in 1994, when he was 69 years old. The strike ended the season early, but before it happened, the Twins players presented Terwilliger with a new fishing boat for his retirement.

He did make use of the boat, fishing on Lake Minnetonka with his wife, Lin. But he didn’t actually retire. He became a first base coach for the independent St. Paul Saints team and remained there until 2002. The team gave away a bobblehead in his likeness during that last season, and the public address announced introduced him as “the legendary Wayne Terwilliger” every night.

Not that he was done with baseball, though. The Terwilligers moved to Texas, the he became the manager of the Fort Worth Cats of the independent Central League. In doing so, he became one of just three people to manage into his 80s — Connie Mack and Jack McKeon are the others. When the Cats beat the San Angelo Colts to become the 2005 Central League Champions, Terwilliger retired… as manager. He remained the team’s first base coach until 2010, when he finally realized it was time to step away.

“I didn’t move quite as fast and you need to when you’re coaching first base and a line drive comes at you,” he said. “I said something to my wife and doctor, and they were like, ‘It’s about time.’ So I said, ‘The heck with it, this is it.'”

In 1993, an article about baseball veterans included Terwilliger’s six rules for a long life:

  1. Associate with young people.
  2. Get up early.
  3. Move with some bounce in your step (even if you have to force it).
  4. Diet: Plenty of distilled water, veggies, chicken.
  5. Find some time each day to be by yourself.
  6. Ignore the aches and pains and varicose veins.

For more information: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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5 thoughts on “Obituary: Wayne Terwilliger (1925-2021)

  1. Hi Sam!
    It was 1991 and I was in Bradenton at McKechnie Field where the Twins we’re playing the Pirates.
    The highlight was meeting and talking with “the Twig!”
    He was hitting fungoes, hitting infield, pitching bp and showing everyone how to turn the dp from the second base position, diving parallel to the turf.
    When the team headed to the clubhouse, guess who carried two full bat bags?
    He told me he was the luckiest man in the world, to be able to do the thing he loved most, for so many years.
    He invited me to the clubhouse but I respectfully declined, just wanting to savor my experience with him.
    God rest his soul!
    He’s a hero to me!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. His wife, Lin was a client at the animal hospital I worked. Mr. Terwilliger came in a couple times and being a Mn Twins fan, I had seen him om TV. But in person he was more youthful and Exceptionally kind! Made a lasting good impression on me. It was an honor to meet him! AND an honor to meet his wife Lin and her dog Kat!


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