There aren't many players who put up the offensive numbers that Vic Wertz did. Only 116 players in MLB history have at least 266 home runs and 1178 RBI -- Wertz's career totals -- to their name. Prior to 1990, there were only 54 players in this exclusive category. If we add in Wertz's .277 career batting average, the all-time total shrinks to 81 names. Wertz was an excellent hitter who enjoyed a long career. Ironically, the former Tigers great is best known for a long flyout, one that resulted in "The Catch."
*Played for the St. Louis Browns from August 1952 to 1953.
**Played for the Baltimore Orioles from April 1954 to June 1954.
***Played for the Cleveland Indians from June 1954 to 1958.
****Played for the Boston Red Sox from 1959 to September 1961.
*****Played for the Minnesota Twins from June 1963 to September 1963.
Victor Woodrow Wertz was born on February 9th, 1925 in York, Pennsylvania. He and his family moved to nearby Reading when he was a child. He was a pitcher during his childhood, but moved to the outfield before he signed with the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1942. He started out in the minor leagues, playing for the Winston-Salem Twins in the Piedmont League. Wertz hit just .239 in 222 at-bats, but moved up to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League in 1943.
Wertz's 1943 season would be cut short after 18 games. He was drafted into the U.S. military and missed two full seasons of action while serving in the South Pacific. Upon his return in 1946, Wertz hit 301/.367/.515 with 19 home runs and 91 RBI in 530 plate appearances with the Bisons. The following season, the Tigers called him up to the major leagues. Wertz only played in 102 games in 1947, but he accumulated 1.7 WAR while hitting .288/.376/.432 with 32 extra base hits. He also spent 1948 in a part-time role, but hit just .249 with a .731 OPS in 449 plate appearances.
Wertz came into his own in 1949. Finally given a full-time role, Wertz hit .304/.385/.465 with 20 home runs and 133 RBI as the team's clean-up hitter. He made the American League All-Star team and finished 10th in the MVP voting. The Tigers finished 20 games above .500, but were 10 games behind the New York Yankees in the AL standings.
Wertz would put up some of the best numbers of his career with the Tigers. From 1949 to 1952 (including 37 games with the St. Louis Browns), Wertz hit .295/.390/.503 with 97 home runs and 420 RBI. He topped the 20 home run plateau every season, and drove in 90 runs on three occasions. Wertz made three All-Star teams during that stretch and had back-to-back top-10 MVP finishes in 1949 and 1950. However, the team was struggling. After winning 95 games in 1950, the Tigers' record fell to 73-81 in 1951. They got off to an awful 9-23 start in 1952, and were 37-76 by the time they traded Wertz to the St. Louis Browns in August. The Tigers would finish the season 50-104, their worst record in franchise history at the time.
The 1953 season would be Wertz's last as a full-time outfielder. He hit .268/.376/.466 with 19 home runs and 70 RBI for the Browns, good enough for 2.4 WAR. He started the 1954 season with the Baltimore Orioles, but was traded to the Cleveland Indians on June 1st. Wertz hit .275/.344/.478 for the Tribe, who steamrolled their way to a 111-43 record and the AL pennant. Their opponent? The New York Giants, led by star center fielder Willie Mays.
It was here where Wertz became infamous. He collected three hits and a pair of RBI in his first three at-bats in Game 1. With the score tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth, Wertz came up to the plate with two on and no outs. Giants manager Leo Durocher went to his bullpen for left-hander Don Liddle, and the lefty-on-lefty matchup worked... sort of. Wertz hit a blast into deep center field. The drive would have been an easy home run in most parks, but center field at New York's Polo Grounds was estimated at 480 feet. Mays ran the ball down, and the game remained tied. While a simple F8 in the box score, "The Catch" would quickly become one of the most iconic plays in MLB history.
The Giants swept the World Series, but Wertz was a major thorn in their side, hitting .500 with a home run and three RBI in the four games.
The next couple years would bring a different challenge for Wertz. Sidelined for most of 1955 with a non-paralytic form of polio, Wertz rebounded to hit .264/.364/.509 with a career-high 32 home runs and 106 RBI in 1956. He was voted AL Comeback Player of the Year. A 32-year-old Wertz made his final All-Star team in 1957, hitting .282/.371/.485 with 28 home runs and 105 RBI for the Indians. He finished sixth in the MVP voting that season, the highest finish of his career.
Wertz would return to the Tigers a few years later, though in his late 30s he was no longer the feared slugger that hit cleanup for the Tigers over a decade earlier. He hit .324/.357/.486 in 112 plate appearances in 1962, but was the team's backup first baseman behind new star Norm Cash. Wertz retired in 1963 after 35 games with the Minnesota Twins.
While he played in several cities throughout his career, Wertz called Michigan home after his retirement. He owned a beer distribution business in Mt. Clemens, where he lived with his wife, Lucille, and their family. Wertz also created Wertz Warriors, a charitable organization that hosts a snowmobile endurance ride every year to raise money for the Special Olympics. Mr. Wertz passed away after complications during heart surgery on July 7th, 1983.