Hi all. Here’s how I see baseball on this Wednesday, February 3. You won’t know this man’s name, so you may well ask why I write his obituary in a forum where I have said farewell to Berra, Kaline, Aaron and other Hall of Famers. This time, I’m saying good-bye to a friend from my baseball years.
His given name was Willard Wayne Terwilliger, though everybody called him Twig. He hailed from Michigan and was a teenage Detroit Tiger fan when he sent a fan letter. Did he send it to their manager, Mickey Cochrane? One of their starting pitchers like Elden Auker, Schoolboy Rowe or Tommy Bridges? Their second baseman perhaps, Charlie Gehringer? Possibly mighty Hank Greenberg? None of the above, not Twig. He sent a fan letter to a guy who played third base and shortstop during 1938, and was traded to the St. Louis Browns the following year. He sent a fan letter to Mark Christman. Well, time went by and he forgot the fan letter he had sent. In late December, he got a blank post card which he thought said “Merry Christmas.” Giving it a harder look, Twig discovered it was the signature of Mark Christman in answer to his fan letter. Twig told me that story 60 years after the fact when I broadcast for St. Paul, where he was coaching then.
After high school, he joined the Marines, as did Hall of Fame broadcasters Ernie Harwell and Bob Murphy, and the Red Sox broadcasting icon Ned Martin who should be in the Hall of Fame. Twig was one of the truly fortunate Marines to survive the vicious fighting on Iwo Jima. His closest call would be at Saipan when his tank was disabled and the surviving crew had to abandon it and hope for rescue. Later, he would say that his 2 years in the military was more important to him than anything he did in 62, count ‘em, 62 years in baseball.
Twig made it to the bigs with the Cubs, who traded him to the Brooklyn Dodgers. He told me he was a backup to Jackie Robinson, since both were second basemen. Back then, the best of the best played almost every game, leaving Twig to spend most of his time on the bench. He and Roy Campanella, who was injured, were among the Dodgers on the bench on October 3, 1951 when Bobby Thompson hit “The Shot Heard Round the World,” winning the pennant for the Giants in the third game of their playoff series. Twig would play for the Senators and Giants before ending his career with 2 games in Kansas City in 1960. He became a minor league manager, then a coach at the big league level. He coached under Ted Williams during all 4 seasons when Williams was a manager—3 in DC, one in Texas. Twig returned to the Texas Rangers and coached from 1980—85, staying on as a coach while manager after manager fell. This was unusual, since most outgoing managers either take their coaches with them or have no choice but to do so. He was the first base coach with the Twins from 1986 through 1994, and picked up 2 World Series rings during that stretch.
With the strike ruining the 1994 season, Twig turned to the new concept of independent baseball. The St. Paul Saints had begun play in 1993 in the Northern League, the first of the new group of independent leagues. Twig joined them as manager during 1995-96, then as coach from 1997 through 2002. His last stop was 3 years as manager and 5 as coach of the Fort Worth Cats in the independent Central Baseball League, then the American Association. His last year in the game was in 2010.
At 80, in 2005, when Twig managed the Cats, he was only the second man 80 years of age or more to be a manager. You know the other—Connie Mack. Jack McKeon became the third member of this exclusive club in 2011 when he managed the Marlins at the end of the season.
I was one of the broadcast duo with the St. Paul Saints from 1997–99, while Twig was coaching there.
Since I’m blind, some people went easy on me, not pointing out my obvious weaknesses or, worse yet, telling my broadcast partner instead of me, putting him in an awkward position. Twig wasn’t that sort of man. He pulled no punches. The first time I interviewed him, I didn’t pick a good spot for the interview. There was a lot of needless noise. Twig said, once the tape wasn’t rolling, “You picked a horse-bleep place for an interview.” (only he didn’t say bleep.) I agreed of course, and we had a good laugh. I also was more careful where_ I held any future interviews with him.
I can only remember seeing him really mad once. The time he flipped his cork in my presence, I was with him 100%. We were going from St. Paul to Duluth, a 2 hour drive. Most of us were on the bus, including Twig. He had to get off the bus for a minute, and assumed we wouldn’t dare leave without him. Well, the rest of the team got on the bus, and sure enough, we left without him. The manager was driving up separately, and Twig hitched a ride with him, but when we showed up in Duluth, he reamed out all the guys for letting the bus go without him.
You couldn’t imagine a more giving man, willing to share what he knew, not only as a coach but with his words. In 1998, every broadcast we did had a short feature, “50 Years of the Twig,” as we celebrated his 50 years in baseball. Each night, he’d say something about a particular year, starting with 1948, when he played minor league ball under the old Cubs’ third baseman, Stan Hack. Night after night, you never knew what you’d hear during that feature.
He lost his life early today, in hospice care outside of Fort Worth. In his final years, advanced dementia and cancer had ravaged this kind, friendly man. He could tell a story if anybody could. Heaven has one more good story teller now. R I P, Twig.2