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'I was small, but I hit the ball pretty good'

Julian Wera--a member of arguably baseball’s greatest team, the 1927 Yankees--spent his post-baseball career raising his family in Rochester, working as the longtime butcher at the Piggly Wiggly, and setting the record straight about the reports of his “death” in 1948.

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Julian Wera, in his debut with the New York Yankees in 1927. Photos from Olmsted County History Center and Post Bulletin archives

Like most Mayo Clinic patients, Lou Gehrig had time on his hands between appointments in June 1939.

He took in a softball game at Soldiers Field, gave batting tips to local youngsters, and dined as the guest of Mayo physicians.

But the chance to see a familiar face came up one afternoon when a local reporter asked Gehrig if he’d like to get together with Julian “Julie” Wera.

“Julie?” Gehrig asked. “In town here? Where is he?”

Wera, one of Gehrig’s teammates on the 1927 New York Yankees team still regarded as the greatest of all time, was at his usual position: behind the meat counter at the Piggly Wiggly store at 204 Fourth St. S.W. in Rochester.

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“Gosh sakes,” Wera exclaimed when Gehrig arrived at the store. “How’s old man Gehrig?”

The truth is that Gehrig was not well. He was about to receive from Mayo doctors a diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, now widely known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which would immediately end his baseball career and within two years take his life.

But seeing an old pal from the Yankees put a smile on Gehrig’s face. After some good-natured joshing, Gehrig got behind the meat counter and posed for pictures with Wera.

When he left, Wera went back to work at the meat-cutting job he had held since retiring from a baseball career that began on the sandlots of Winona and went all the way to the major leagues.

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Wera in 1929 during a minor league stint. Photos from Olmsted County History Center and Post Bulletin archives

An intersection between baseball and America

In many ways, Wera occupied the intersection between baseball and America in the first half of the 20th century. He was born Feb. 9, 1902, in Winona. His parents were Kashubian immigrants, members of a minority Polish ethnic group that settled in large numbers in Winona’s East End. There, the newcomers found work in lumber mills and packing plants. They also found fellowship among other Poles, and comfort in the familiar rites of the Catholic Church.

At some point, Julian, like many sons of immigrants, dropped out of school to help add to the family income. He took a job as a butcher in a packing plant.

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On the side, Wera played baseball, a game popular with the children of immigrants, in part because it allowed them to leave the old country behind. The Major Leagues were filled with the sons of first- and second-generation newcomers. Gehrig, in fact, was the son of German immigrants and grew up speaking German at home.

Wera had started playing the game as a boy on the Gabrych Park diamond in his Winona neighborhood. It turned out he could play ball extremely well. He attracted the attention of scouts and made his professional debut in 1924 as a member of the St. Paul Saints. In 1926, his contract was purchased by the Yankees.

The Yankees were a talented bunch, so it was a surprise when Wera made the 1927 team out of spring training. “I was small, but I hit the ball pretty good,” Wera, who was five feet, seven inches tall and weighed all of 155 pounds, later told the Post-Bulletin. “It was my aggressiveness that got me into the majors.”

As a rookie, one of Wera’s jobs was to wake up Babe Ruth on Sunday mornings and get him to church. “He was a Catholic man, and so was I,” Wera said.

Wera, a third baseman, spent the 1927 season with the Yankees as a backup. On July 4, he hit his first (and only) major league home run in a game against Washington. But in a collision at home plate later that season, Wera suffered a severe knee injury.

He made it back to the Yankees in 1929, but appeared in only five games in what would be his final year in the majors. In two seasons with the Yankees, Wera appeared in 43 games, and had a .278 batting average, with one homer and 10 RBIs.

He had no complaints. “I was getting paid for something I loved,” he later said.

For the next few years, Wera prolonged his career by playing on minor league teams in Jersey City, San Francisco, Syracuse, Toronto and Crookston, Minn.

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Meanwhile, in 1931 he married the former Dorothy Fischer, a Winona school teacher, and the couple settled in Rochester, where they would raise their family. Son John was born just before Christmas 1932. Son Tom, in 1940, and daughter Mary Ann, in 1942.

When his playing days ended, Wera went to work at the Rochester Piggly Wiggly store.

“He really worked a lot of hours at the grocery store, six days a week, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. most days,” said Wera’s daughter, MaryAnn Remick, who, along with husband Jack, have long been well-respected philanthropists in Rochester. “He was very outgoing and friendly, very verbal and talkative with anybody,” Remick told the Society for American Baseball Research. “He would listen to ballgames quite a bit when he could. We lived about a block from a grassy park area. He would take kids down there and work with them on baseball. Dad would take us bowling. And he loved fishing. It was incredible to watch him fillet a fish.”

But baseball beckoned still. Wera often sat in the stands at local ballgames, a “bird dog” scout who would send tips on talented young players to his contacts in the big leagues.

“Julie Wera ... Slightly Bewildered, Definitely Alive”

In 1948, Wera was in the news again. The front page of the Oroville (California) Mercury-Register on Sept. 13, 1948, announced “the death of Julian Wera, a member of the fabled 1927 New York Yankees.”

Wera, though, was very much alive.

“Julie Wera—the REAL Julie Wera—Slightly Bewildered, Definitely Alive,” read the Post-Bulletin story on Sept. 15, 1948.

In early 1948, an impostor—a man claiming to be Julian Wera—used Wera’s baseball history to land a job as the manager of the Oroville Red Sox, a minor league club in Oroville, Calif. [See sidebar.]

“As a young man of 25, this is where he was”

After Wera—the real Julian Wera—retired from 25 years of full-time work at Piggly Wiggly, he took a job as a part-time meat-cutter at the new Barlow Foods store in Rochester. In 1972, he became a member of the Rochester Planning and Zoning Commission.

During an interview with the Post Bulletin, MaryAnn Remick fondly recalled taking a trip to Yankee stadium in 1973 with her family, nieces and nephews to watch a game in the stadium’s final year.

“Obviously (the stadium) had changed a great deal from 1927, but still, just to be there in that space and realize that as a young man of 25, this is where he was,” she said. “It was pretty awesome.”

When Julian Wera died at home of a heart attack on Dec. 12, 1975, a photograph in the Post-Bulletin showed Wera holding a picture of the 1927 Yankees. There he was, alongside Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on the hard-hitting team known as Murderers’ Row.

Following a funeral Mass at St. Pius X Church in Rochester, Wera was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Winona, not far from the park where he first learned to play the game he loved.

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Lou Gehrig, right, stops at the Piggly Wiggly to see old teammate Julian Wera during Gehrig’s 1939 Mayo Clinic visit. Photos from Olmsted County History Center and Post Bulletin archives

The impostor. The suicide. The shocking revelation.
By J.G. Preston (from the Post-Bulletin archives)

The news came as a shock to the people of Oroville, Calif.: The business manager of the local minor league baseball team, former New York Yankees infielder Julian Wera, had taken his own life by an overdose of sleeping pills the morning after his Oroville Red Sox were eliminated from the 1948 Far West League playoffs.

The news also came as a shock to former New York Yankees infielder Julian Wera, who was alive and well in Rochester. The first Winonan to play in the major leagues, Wera moved to Rochester after his playing career was over, and he lived with his wife and three children.

But if the real Wera was working as the meat manager at the Piggly Wiggly grocery, then who was the man found dead in California? And how had he convinced two former teammates of the real Julian Wera to hire him?

A dark and unusual story was about to unravel.

Investigators found cryptic note

Early on Sept. 13, 1948, an Oroville telephone operator told police the phone was off the hook in the apartment where the man known as Julian Wera lived. Wera’s wife, Ruth, and her 9-year-old daughter had left for San Francisco 10 days earlier, and the Weras’ brief marriage was apparently coming to an end.

Police patrolman Clifton Knox arrived at the apartment at 5:50 a.m. to find Julian Wera “slumped over the telephone,” according to that afternoon’s Oroville Mercury-Register. Investigators found one-third of a bottle of sleeping pills that had been purchased the day before, and Butte County Sheriff Herb Forward said that “indications point to an overdose of sleeping pills” as the cause of Wera’s death.

According to news accounts, investigators also found a note, typed on Oroville Red Sox letterhead and addressed to Ruth Wera: “I am sorry the way you feel about me. I wanted you to come back to me, you would not believe that I would do this. I hope God forgives me.”

Wera’s death was reported in newspapers across the country. But it quickly became apparent that the dead man was not who he had claimed to be. Authorities soon realized the man who died was William Wera and apparently unrelated to Julian Wera. Fingerprints confirmed it.

Ruth had apparently had married him the year before believing he was the former Yankees third baseman.

William J. Wera was 41 when he died, although he had been claiming to be three years younger. He also claimed to be eight years younger than the real Julian Wera, who was 46 in 1948.

The impostor Wera got the job with the help of a former teammate of the real Wera at the San Francisco Seals, Jerry Donovan, who was president of the Far West League in all four years of its existence (1948-51).

When Donovan remarked how different Wera looked, the impostor told Donovan that an explosion during his service in World War II blew off the left side of his face and his nose, which doctors reconstructed. Plastic surgery, he claimed, had changed his appearance.

“To be honest, I didn’t recognize him at all, but I didn’t want to say anything after he explained his war wounds,” Donovan told the Sporting News later.

In a Sept. 14, 1948, United Press story, Donovan said some “old friends” had raised doubts several months earlier about whether the man was the real Julian Wera.

“Finally, we just decided to let it go,” Donovan said. “He was doing a good job, and that’s all that really mattered. But this suicide changed things—embarrassingly.”

Related Topics: HISTORYROCHESTERBASEBALL
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.
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