“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
George Robert Tebbetts was born in Burlington, Vermont on November 10, 1912. He was the third and final child of Charles and Elizabeth Ryan Tebbetts, and his round, freckled face and flaming red hair reflected his mother’s Irish heritage. George’s most distinguishing characteristic, though, was his unusually high-pitched voice. As a toddler he acquired the nickname “Birdie” after an aunt observed that his voice sounded like a bird chirping.
Birdie’s father, Charles Tebbetts, worked as a shipping clerk for Swift & Company, a wholesaler of meats and provisions located at the corner of Maple and Battery streets. That’s why the family was living in Vermont when Birdie was born, but Charles was originally from New Hampshire, having grown up on a farm near Dover. Within a couple months of Birdie’s birth, Swift promoted Charles to salesman and transferred him back to his native state. The family settled in Nashua, but tragedy struck one year later when Charles died, leaving Mary to raise three children on her own.
When Birdie was eight he had the fortune of meeting Francis Parnell Murphy, owner of Nashua’s biggest industry, the Thom McAn Shoe Company, and later governor of New Hampshire. Murphy sponsored the Nashua Millionaires, an independent baseball team composed of ex-professionals and collegiate All-Americans, and Birdie served as the team’s mascot.
That stint as mascot for the Millionaires was also responsible for Tebbetts becoming a catcher. His idol on the team was Clyde Sukeforth, best-known today as the man whom Branch Rickey assigned to scout Jackie Robinson for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sukey was also a pretty good backstop who went on to enjoy a ten-year career in the majors with Cincinnati and Brooklyn, and Birdie imitated his moves behind the plate. Tebbetts became so adept, in fact, that it became a standard pregame attraction for the youngster to warm up Nashua’s starting pitcher.
Birdie grew up to be a star athlete at Nashua High School, playing football, basketball, and especially baseball. By his senior year of 1930 he’d received scholarship offers from numerous colleges (one was a six-year scholarship from UVM that included medical school) and professional bids from major league clubs. The man who signed Lou Gehrig, in fact told Birdie’s mother that the Yankees considered her son the best amateur prospect in the country. Imagine the money he could command if he were in that position today!
Tebbetts eventually chose to sign with the Detroit Tigers after being scouted by Jean Dubuc and approved by the team’s manager, future Hall of Famer Bucky Harris. Each summer, following the end of the college baseball season, Birdie played for East Douglas in the Blackstone Valley League, a high-level semipro circuit consisting mostly of teams from New England mill towns. Though supposedly amateur, teams spared no expense in attracting the best talent available. It wasn’t uncommon for major leaguers who had off-days in Boston to sign on for important games. That’s how Tebbetts in the span of one week found himself catching future Hall of Famers Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell, both in the prime of their careers.
Birdie Tebbetts graduated from Providence College with a degree in philosophy in 1934, the year Detroit purchased future Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane from the Philadelphia A’s. With the veteran backstop installed as player-manager, the Tigers ran away with their first American League pennant since 1909. With Cochrane a fixture behind the plate, clearly there was no need for Tebbetts in Detroit.
Birdie spent three seasons in the minors before receiving a call-up to the Tigers in September 1936. In 1937 he made the team out of spring training, but the season was in its infancy when he and three others received notice that they were being sent to Toledo following an afternoon game with the Yankees. The others watched the game from the grandstand, but Tebbetts elected to remain in uniform in case he was needed. In the fourteenth inning Birdie was pressed into duty as a pinch hitter. He delivered a game-winning double into the right-field corner, and after that he didn’t leave the majors for another 16 years.
On May 25, 1937, an opening in Detroit’s starting lineup suddenly appeared when Cochrane’s skull was fractured by a pitch from Bump Hadley of the Yankees. Rookie Rudy York was thrown into the catching breach and responded with 68 home runs and 230 RBIs over the next two seasons, but his defense was awful. By 1939 Cochrane’s replacement as manager, Del Baker, had seen enough. He installed Tebbetts as Detroit’s regular catcher and Birdie batted a respectable .261 in 106 games.
In 1940, Baker shifted Hank Greenberg to left field to open up a regular spot for York at first base. After batting .294 for the regular season, Tebbetts went hitless in 11 World Series at-bats.
Tebbetts caught for the American League in the 1941 and 1942 All-Star Games, but military service during World War II took him out of baseball for the next three seasons. Birdie batted only .243 on his return in 1946 and continued to struggle in 1947, batting .094 as of May 20. On that date the Tigers traded him to the Red Sox for Hal Wagner, a catcher nearing the end of a 12-year career. The swap proved a bargain for Boston. Tebbetts batted .299 for the remainder of 1947, lifting his average for the year to .267. Reminiscent of the vengeance he inflicted on Holy Cross, Birdie managed to hit nearly .400 against Detroit.
He was Boston’s regular catcher again in 1948 and made the American League All-Star Team. After 154 games that season, the Red Sox and Cleveland ended up tied at 96-58, necessitating a one-game play-off On October 4, 1948, the Indians beat Denny Galehouse at Fenway Park, preventing the Red Sox from joining the Braves in an all-Boston World Series.
Following the 1948 season Birdie Tebbetts barnstormed throughout New England with a team of his own composition. The Birdie Tebbetts Major League All-Stars featured Snuffy Stirnweiss and Spec Shea of the Yankees, Vic Wertz of the Tigers, Eddie Pellagrini” of the Browns, Carl Sheib and Joe Coleman of the Athletics, Vern Stephens and Jimmy Piersall of the Red Sox, and Chicago White Sox first baseman Tony Lupien, a Massachusetts native who made his home in Springfield, Vermont.
A 37-year-old Tebbetts batted .310 with a career-high eight home runs for the Red Sox in 1950, but despite the increased production he caught just 74 games, only one more than his back-up, 28-year-old Matt Batts. During a postseason banquet, Birdie told reporters that the reason he’d played so little was that one or two “juvenile delinquents and moronic malcontents” on the Boston pitching staff didn’t want him catching them. The Red Sox didn’t appreciate Birdie’s candor. Though weak behind the plate, they sold Tebbetts to Cleveland. Over the next two seasons he spelled perennial all-star Jim Hegan, a superb defensive catcher.
Tebbetts knew he was nearing the end of his playing days, but he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. Earlier in his career he’d considered farming, even taking post-graduate courses in agriculture at the University of New Hampshire in 1941. The war halted his studies, however, and he switched to selling insurance as an off-season activity, working as an associate for the Paul Sadler Agency in Nashua. But following the 1952 season. he decided to accept an offer from the Indians to manage their Triple-A farm team in Indianapolis. Sports writers predicted that before long he’d be managing in the majors.
Those predictions came true one year later when a strange set of circumstances led to his hiring by the Cincinnati Reds. Frustrated by Cincinnati’s fourth consecutive sixth-place finish in 1953, Paul decided to fire manager Rogers Hornsby. On September 28, 1953, Birdie Tebbetts became Cincinnati’s fifth manager in seven years.
The Redlegs experienced slight improvement in their first two seasons under Tebbetts, finishing in fifth place both years. Then in 1956 the Redlegs stayed in the race until the last day of the season, ending up with a 91-63 record, two games behind Brooklyn and one behind Milwaukee. It was the first time Cincinnati had finished in the first division in 11 years. Tebbetts was voted National League Manager of the Year.
Cincinnati finally appeared to be on the verge of a pennant, but the Redlegs finished a disappointing fourth in both of the next two seasons. Paul and Tebbetts fell under heavy criticism. Finally Birdie decided to quit, as Paul confirmed years later.
Birdie landed an executive position with the Milwaukee Braves, but he missed the excitement of being in the dugout. When the team fired Chuck Dressen in September 1961, Tebbetts returned to managing for the last month of the season. During the 1962 World Series Birdie accepted an offer to manage the Indians from Gabe Paul, who’d moved on from Cincinnati to become general manager at Cleveland. In his return to the A.L., Birdie guided a young Cleveland team to a fifth-place tie in 1963.
By that point he’d been smoking three packs a day for the last 25 years, and his weight had ballooned to 238 pounds. In Tucson on April 1, 1964, just as spring training was ending, Tebbetts suffered a heart attack. The 52-year-old underwent bypass surgery at the Mayo Clinic, and it was reported that he was probably out for the season. Miraculously, he returned to the Indians on July 4, remaining with the team until he was fired on August 19, 1966. In 10 seasons as a manager, he’d compiled a record of 748-705 (.515).
Though he never again managed in the majors, Tebbetts worked in professional baseball as a scout and minor league manager for the New York Mets, New York Yankees, and Baltimore Orioles until his retirement in 1992. Birdie Tebbetts died on March 25, 1999.