“He catches everything he gets his hands on,” manager Charlie Dressen said of Don Wert.
That was the reputation Wert earned as the Tigers third baseman in the 1960s, culminating with the team’s World Championship in 1968.
Though he was never a star, Wert was a well respected member of the Detroit club in those days. It was no coincidence that some of the young Tiger hurlers started to have better success after Wert was stationed on the left side of the infield. Left-handers Mickey Lolich and Hank Aguirre both credited Wert’s brilliant defense at the hot corner with helping them as they faced several right-handed batters who tried to pull the ball off their slants.
At the plate, Wert was an average offensive player, displaying meager power. He was sort of like Tom Brookens, the pixie who played third for the Tigs in the 1980s (incidentally, both were born in rural Pennsylvania). Wert never hit higher than .268 and never had more than 36 extra-base hits in a season. Eddie Mathews he was not, but he drew comparisons to another Hall of Famer at the hot corner.
“He makes all the plays that Brooks Robinson and Clete Boyer can make,” Dressen gloated in 1965.
At 5’10 and 162 pounds (about the spittin’ image of Brookens), Wert was a small target down at third, but the baseball seemed to land in his leather more often than not. In the seven seasons he played at least 100 games at third, Wert posted good defensive numbers, only making as many as 15 errors twice. In 1967 he committed just nine miscues at third base. But with Robinson in the league, Wert never won a Gold Glove Award.
What he lacked for in size, Wert made up for in quickness and moxie. He was known for having good range to his left into the shortstop hole, and his arm was accurate. Though the Tigers had tried to make Wert a shortstop when they signed him, Don resisted and insisted that the hot corner was his best spot. His play in Detroit proved him to be correct.
It was in 1964 that manager Dressen asked Wert to become more of a vocal leader in the infield. When the normally quiet Wert started to chirp more while playing the field, his high-pitched voice earned him the nickname “Coyote” from his teammates.
More strident on the field, Wert was gaining attention outside of his own team for his defensive skills. After a series against Minnesota at Tiger Stadium in which Wert robbed several batters of hits with his play at third, manager Twins’ Sam Mele was impressed.
“I’d like to take him with us,” Mele said. “Maybe he doesn’t hit often, but he comes through when it counts.”
Ironically, for a player known for his glove, Wert enjoyed the greatest moment of his career as a hitter. On September 17, 1968, at Tiger Stadium against the Yankees, Wert lined a single to right field to score Al Kaline with the run that won the game and clinched the American League pennant.
“I’ll never forget this feeling,” Wert blurted in the clubhouse with Kaline and other teammates draped around him in celebration.
After the magical ’68 campaign, Wert played just two more seasons for the Tigers before going to the Senators in the trade that GM Jim Campbell orchestrated to relieve him of the headache known as Denny McLain. Don played three injury-riddled months for Ted Williams in Washington D.C. before being released. His big league career was over at the age of 32. He still lives in Pennsylvania where he is retired and nearing his 75th birthday.