March 26, 1999
Birdie Tebbetts, 86, Plain Speaker With 53-Year Baseball Career
George "Birdie" Tebbetts, a bright, pragmatic baseball man whose major league career encompassed 14 years as a catcher, 11 as a manager and 28 as a scout, died March 24 in Sunrise Rehabilitation Center in Bradenton, Fla. He was 86.
Tebbetts played for the Detroit Tigers (1936-47, minus three years in the Army), the Boston Red Sox (1947-50) and the Cleveland Indians (1951-52). In 1,162 games, Tebbetts, a right-handed batter, hit .270 and made four All-Star teams.
He wasn't afraid to speak his mind. During the 1950 season, Tebbetts said that some of his Red Sox teammates were "moronic malcontents" and "juvenile delinquents." After that season, he was traded.
He scouted for the Cincinnati Reds and filed such no-nonsense reports as this on a promising pitcher: "Major league stuff and a great arm. Screwy in the head. Eliminate head and I recommend him. Get good surgeon."
Reds general manager Gabe Paul liked Tebbetts' directness so much that he made him the manager. As manager of the Reds (1954-58), the Milwaukee Braves (1961-62) and the Cleveland Indians (1963-66), Tebbetts compiled a 749-705 record. A heart attack in 1965 hastened the end of his managing career, and from 1968 to 1994 he scouted for several major league teams.
He regarded himself as an ordinary player and manager who worked hard.
"There ought to be a second-string or Junior Hall of Fame for guys like me," he once said. "I had a lifetime average of .270 and I'm proud of it. I poured my life's blood into it. I clawed and scrambled and fought and hustled to get it."
"My whole world is wrapped up in baseball," he said,
"and that means I must live the loneliest of lives. I can't
discuss my problems with my friends or the newspapermen or the
players or the coaches or my wife." His wife, the former Mary
Hartnett, understood. One winter night during his days as a manager,
the usually talkative Tebbetts was silent as he stared into the
glowing fireplace of his home in Nashua, N.H. "What inning are you playing now, dear?" his wife said.
In the early 1960s, the Tebbetts family moved to Anna Maria, Fla., near Bradenton.
Tebbetts is survived by three daughters, Susan Mitchell of Jacksonville, Fla.; Betty Deluca of Peachtree City, Ga., and Patricia Kirton of Port Orange, Fla.; a son, George Jr. of Bradenton, Fla.; five grandchildren and a sister, Kathryn Tebbetts, of Nashua, N.H. His wife died in 1997.
George Robert Tebbetts was born Nov. 10, 1912, in Burlington, Vt. He was raised in Nashua, N.H., and he acquired his nickname as a boy when an aunt said of his high-pitched voice, "He chirps like a bird." He graduated from Providence College in 1934 with a degree in philosophy, an unusual start for one of baseball's most abrasive bench hecklers.
Years later, he dismissed
the theory that catching was difficult. "I don't think
the physical part of catching is what it's
cracked up to be," he said. "I think it's an easy job. The only thing about it is you sweat more than anybody else. Most catchers catch because they can't play anyplace else. They don't have much to complain about. They've got to be happy. There are too many catchers who are not good catchers who are showboating too much so that they can keep their job."
He also offered his
version of what makes a baseball manager successful. "If my
players like me," he said, "it's an accident of personality. I happen to like my players and I treat them like men. If a manager doesn't have confidence in his ballplayers, even when they're going badly, they're not going to have confidence in themselves. And when a ballplayer's confidence is gone, you haven't got a ballplayer. If you want to be a good manager, get good ballplayers."