York Native Vic Wertz Has Legacy That Keeps Growing

Cleveland Indians first baseman Vic Wertz, who had just been voted American League Comeback-Of-The-Year player for 1956 by the Baseball Writers Association of America, receives news of the award in his office in Detroit on Nov. 5, 1956. He was also working as a distributor for a local brewery at the time.The late Wertz, a York County native, is being honored in April by having a field named after him at a Berks County youth sports facility. (Associated Press -- Alvan Quinn)

By Jim Seip
Daily Record/Sunday News

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Reprinted with permission of Jim Seip and YDR.com

York, PA -

Frank Frisk spent his Saturday mornings in the early 1980s in a near-empty beer distribution warehouse. A single father, he sometimes brought his young son with him to work on the weekend, hoping the boy would stay out of trouble long enough for him to catch up on paperwork.

So when he heard the unmistakable sound of metal scratching against cement, he imagined the worst.

Frisk rushed out of his office to see his boss, Vic Wertz, tooling around on the warehouse forklift with Frisk's son sitting on his lap. The old man and young boy spent the morning laughing together, moving inventory.

"After that, I think both of them looked forward to Saturday mornings at the warehouse," Frisk said.

This was York native Vic Wertz.

He was a salesman.

He was a polio survivor who wanted no special recognition.

He was a man who dreamed up an event to raise money for children who outlived him -- an event that remains a money-maker to this day.

"To me, he was God's gift to the human race, a man who loved people and wasn't ashamed to show it, and who was deeply involved in assisting those less fortunate," UPI sports editor Milton Richman wrote on the day of Wertz's death in 1983. "His loss isn't limited only to the sports world but the entire world, and if you knew him at all, then you'd appreciate the complete truth of that."

To most people, though, Wertz was and remains the old baseball player, a faded image on a piece of cardboard or the branded signature in the palm of an old baseball mitt.

Wertz was the Cleveland Indians slugger who hit the ball that Willie Mays ran down with an over-the-shoulder catch about 460 feet from home plate in the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series. Fans and writers called it The Catch.

For the rest of his life, Wertz would be known as the man who hit the ball Mays ran down.

Many don't remember that Wertz had a sensational World Series. The Catch prevented him from going 5-for-5 in Game 1 and he batted .500 (8-for-16) overall in a losing cause.

He didn't shy away from being known for making an out.

"He loved it, absolutely loved it," Frisk said, "because he could talk baseball with anybody."

After he retired from playing, Wertz kept a photo of The Catch in his office at his beer distribution company and explained he had no negative feelings about being remembered for hitting a deep fly out.

"I'm very proud that I'm associated with it," Wertz told UPI 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."

Wertz was born in York in 1925. He moved to Reading when he was 11, according to "Baseball in Reading," a book by Charles Jesse Adams.

It was in Berks County where he played on a state championship team for Gregg Post American Legion and switched from pitcher to outfielder before he signed with the Detroit Tigers.

He played in 220 minor-league games and missed two entire seasons for military service in the South Pacific before making his major league debut at age 22 in 1947.

Freddy Cherner, 10, left, and Larry Gilbert, 12, right, Little League baseball players, chat with Cleveland Indians first baseman Vic Wertz before a game at Yankee Stadium on June 8, 1956. The trio had two things in common at the time -- they played baseball and they were all polio survivors. The late Wertz, a York County native, is being honored in April by having a field named after him at a Berks County youth sports facility. (File)

The Berks County Youth and Recreation Facility will name one of four fields after him in a re-dedication service scheduled for 5 p.m. on April 19 in Leesport.

Each of the four fields will be named after ballplayers -- "Broadway" Charlie Wagner, Rocky Colavito and Whitey Kurowski are the others -- who had ties to Reading.

Members of Wertz's family from the York area plan on attending.

"If you don't know baseball, you might not recognize the name," said Wertz's granddaughter, Rachel Wertz, an Eastern York High School graduate who was born after Wertz died. "If you know baseball, and you know Willie Mays, you'll probably know the name."

Rachel and older sister Jessica Wertz-Godfrey -- an art teacher in the Red Lion Area School District -- have been able to learn more about their grandfather through one of Wertz's former employees, Frisk. The Frisk family knew Wertz for decades.

Frisk remembers the first time he met Wertz.

He couldn't have been older than 5 or 6 in the early 1950s, sitting at Clyde's Barbershop, which was located on the corner of Harper Avenue and Crocker Boulevard in Mount Clemens, Mich. His father pointed out Wertz.

"Don't you play for the Tigers?" Frisk remembers asking Wertz.

Wertz admitted he was a ballplayer. Then he asked the little boy if he had come to Clyde's to "get his ears lowered."

Frisk said yes, causing all the men in the shop to laugh.

"That meant I was getting my hair cut and you could see the top of my ears again," Frisk said.

Wertz, as well as the majority of major league All-Stars from the 1950s and 1960s, earned a modest salary.

A Reading Eagle story from 1983 estimated his annual salary during his playing days to be $35,000. So it's understandable that Wertz worked in the offseason as a national spokesman for National Brewing Co.

Detroit Tigers outfielder Vic Wertz swings during batting practice at the Tigers' spring training camp in Lakeland, Fla., on March 4, 1948. The late Wertz, a York County native, is being honored in April by having a field named after him at a Berks County youth sports facility. (Associated Press -- Preston Stroup)

He later bought a beer distribution company that began as a small operation. It had only two delivery trucks and Wertz worked in sales in the offseason, going bar to bar.

From 1955 until his death in 1983, the Vic Wertz Distributorship blossomed into a multimillion dollar operation, according to The Reading Eagle and UPI.

Wertz had become a distributor for Miller beer by 1979, and the success of Miller Lite was a boon for business. His company had a 79,000-square foot warehouse and 45 delivery trucks.

"Vic couldn't build a new warehouse fast enough," Frisk said. "I knew what was going in and out of that warehouse, so I know (that) what some small distributorships sold in one year we went through every month."

By the late 1970s, Wertz offered Frisk a job after hearing the young father had been laid off once again by Ford Motor Co.

"I had a 3-year-old son at the time," Frisk said. "I think he did it just out of the kindness of his heart."

Frisk went from being a photographer at golf outings that Wertz organized to benefit the Boys Club to being the logistics manager for Vic Wertz Distributorship.

Sitting at a bar in Michigan, the two hashed out the details of an endurance snowmobile ride across the state that would raise money for Special Olympics. Uncertain if they needed special clearances to ride across the state in a snowmobile, they called a local sheriff who first wanted to know if they were sober.

When the sheriff learned Wertz was indeed sober and serious, he joined them at the bar.

The endurance ride -- known as Wertz Warriors -- began in 1982 and its Facebook page estimates the annual event has raised a total of $8.8 million for Michigan athletes involved in Special Olympics.

Not long after the start of Wertz Warriors, Wertz was admitted to the hospital after suffering a heart attack on June 23, 1983. He died during heart surgery in the early-morning hours of July 7.

When he died, his survivors included his wife, Lucille, and two children from his first marriage to Dallastown native Bernice Wineka.

"I still get a gleam in my eye when they show Willie Mays making The Catch," Frisk said. "Whenever I see it at a bar or lounge, I end up asking people if they know who hit that ball. ... I usually end up buying a round of drinks afterward."

@jimseip; 771-2025