Wayne Terwilliger had a baseball career most would envy. He shared dugouts with Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, hit a game-winner off Satchel Paige and won two World Series championships as a coach with the Minnesota Twins. Despite these tremendous accolades from his 62 years in the game, it was his military service he regarded above anything that happened in between the lines.
“I’m more proud of my Marine service than of anything else I’ve done before or since,” Terwilliger said in his 2006 autobiography, Terwilliger Bunts One.
The World War II veteran and baseball lifer died February 3, 2021, in Weatherford, Texas, from complications due to dementia and bladder cancer. He was 95.
Terwilliger was immortalized in a nationally published photo from the Battle of Saipan, where he later encountered enemy fire after his tank was stuck in a foxhole. He managed to run for cover, barely escaping when one of the United States tanks took out the oncoming Japanese forces.
He later saw action in Iwo Jima and returned home in 1945 to enroll at Western Michigan. He became a three-sport athlete, excelling in baseball, basketball and football. Terwilliger ultimately set his focus on baseball and signed with the Chicago Cubs in 1948.
His rise to the majors was swift. He pressed management to offer him a chance to play with their Pacific Coast League team in Los Angeles, and despite hitting only .196 his first season with Des Moines, he made the veteran laden Los Angeles Angels.
“I signed with the Cubs, but I said I wanted a chance to play Triple-A ball,” Terwilliger said during a 2008 phone interview. “They agreed, and the next year I went to spring training and made the club.”
After Cubs second baseman Emil Verban was injured halfway through the 1949 season, the Cubs took a chance on Terwilliger. He was now a major leaguer even though he did not have a full minor league season under his belt.
This started a nine-year major league career that saw Terwilliger make stops with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Washington Senators, New York Giants and Kansas City Athletics. Ironically, Terwilliger outlasted all the aforementioned franchises, as they relocated during the course of his playing and coaching career.
He remained active as a player through 1960, concluding his MLB career with the Athletics. He subsequently entered the coaching ranks in 1961 when the New York Yankees hired him to manage their Greensboro, North Carolina minor league team. This started an almost five-decade run as a coach and manager.
Terwilliger is best remembered from his coaching days as the first-base coach for the Minnesota Twins during their two World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. He stayed on their staff through 1994, later managing independent teams in St. Paul and Forth Worth.
He made history with the latter in 2005 when he joined Hall of Famer Connie Mack as only the second manager over 80 in professional baseball. (Jack McKeon became the third in 2011 with the Miami Marlins.) Despite the age gap, Terwilliger said his players had the utmost respect for his experience and knowledge.
“The kids treat me good,” he said. “They know my history. I get a big bang out of working with them.”
While working with a younger crowd certainly invigorated Terwilliger into his 80s, he was outspoken about the changes he saw from the stoic days during his playing career.
“One of the biggest differences from when I played and now, is that these guys give high fives for everything they do out there,” he said. “A guy hits a ground ball, advances a runner and everyone gives high fives when he comes into the dugout. I can’t believe that.
“When I was coaching the Twins, and [Dan] Gladden hit a home run during the World Series, it was a big home run at the time. When he came by, I saw the ball go over the fence. I threw my hands up and said, ‘Yes!’ Gladden slapped my hand as he came by. He told me I gave him the first high five of my career. He wouldn’t have it any other way!”