August 1, 2010
When Julian Wera committed suicide, much to the surprise of Julian Wera
The business manager for the Oroville Red Sox during the Far West League‘s first season, 1948, was Julian Wera, a former professional infielder and a member of the famed 1927 New York Yankees. At least that’s what he had led everyone to believe, until he took his own life at the end of the season and news of the suicide reached the real Julian Wera at his home in Rochester, Minnesota.
On Sunday night, September 12, 1948, Oroville lost at Klamath Falls, 11-7, to end the Red Sox’ season. Oroville had won the regular season pennant with a 67-51 record but were eliminated by the third-place Gems, three games to one, in a best-of-five playoff series. Klamath Falls would go on to lose the President’s Cup series to Santa Rosa, four games to three; thus the Pirates were the first playoff champions of the FWL after finishing in fourth place during the regular season.
Early the next morning, September 13, an Oroville telephone operator told police the phone was off the hook in the Myers Street apartment where the Red Sox’ business manager, Julian Wera, lived. Wera’s wife, Ruth, and her 9-year-old daughter, Jerry, had left the apartment ten days earlier to return to San Francisco, as the Weras’ brief marriage was apparently coming to an end.
Oroville 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. In the bedroom investigators found one-third of a bottle of sleeping pills that had been purchased the day before, and Butte County sheriff Herb Forward said, “Indications point to an overdose of sleeping pills” as the cause of Wera’s death.
Investigators also found a note, typed on Oroville Red Sox letterhead and addressed to Ruth Wera, the contents of which were published in the Mercury-Register:
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.
I love you more than anything in the world. I wanted to live, Honey, if I had you, but that’s water under the bridge. Honey, my year and a half with you, I enjoyed and I was very proud of you.
The newspaper reported Julian Wera “had been in low spirits since he and his wife, Ruth, were reported to have separated Sept. 3.”
(A United Press story about the suicide that went out that same day quoted the note as saying, “I hope you can forgive me,” rather than “I hope God forgives me.” Perhaps an editor somewhere along the line was uncomfortable with using God’s name in print. I have seen Associated Press stories that refer to “farewell notes,” plural, so perhaps the “hope you can forgive me” construction was in a different note.)
It’s not clear how the real Julian Wera learned he was reported to be dead. While the story about the suicide was printed in quite a number of newspapers, including the New York Times on September 14, as seen on the right, I have found no evidence it appeared in the newspaper in Rochester, where he had lived since his baseball career ended in 1938, or in his hometown of Winona, Minnesota, about 50 miles east. (The Winona newspaper had often written about Wera during his playing career, with considerable pride, so I find it odd that no editor noticed his name on wire copy and either went with the story or contacted relatives.)
I don’t know if Wera heard the news in a phone call from a reporter or from someone else in baseball, but my guess it was the latter. In a front page story in the Mercury-Register on September 14, the day after the suicide, Far West League president Jerry Donovan (who, as we will see, was instrumental in the impostor getting the Oroville job) was quoted as saying, “The man who died in Oroville was William Wera.” The uncredited author of the story wrote, “Donovan said information of the correct identity reached his San Francisco office from Joe Cronin, high ranking official of the Boston Red Sox.”
A United Press story in that same newspaper included this information:
At Winona, Minn., Bernard Wera, a brother of Julian, said he had been informed that the Oroville victim probably was a William J. Wera, cousin of Julian and Bernard.
He said Louis Wera, Winona, a brother of William J. Wera, had been informed by Oroville police of William’s death.
Julian’s first recorded response is in an Associated Press story on September 14:
ROCHESTER, Minn. — The man known here as Julian V. Wera, 45, former big league baseball player, was mystified Tuesday over the similar identity given a man whom police said committed suicide in Oroville, Calif.
The Rochester man said someone might have assumed his name “in order to gain my reputation as a ball player.”
In another AP story on September 15, said he had no cousins named William and no relatives on the west coast. And I actually haven’t seen any news story, even after that date, in which Julian acknowledged the dead man was his cousin.
The first mention of “Julian Wera”‘s death in the Rochester newspaper, the Post-Bulletin, came on September 15:
Wera was pictured in his work clothes, as manager of the meat market at the local Piggly Wiggly store. Even though his brother has already been quoted by this time as saying they had a cousin named William Wera, Julie is quoted in is story as saying, “I have no cousin named William.” The uncredited author wrote, “There was another Wera family in Winona where he grew up but he doesn’t recall any son named William in that family.”
Another denial of a blood relationship with the dead man came in a September 15 story in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Julian Wera, at Rochester, said the Oroville person might have been a former player with a Hollywood club with whom he had a scrap a few years ago.” Wera played most of the 1928 season with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League and returned to the PCL from 1931-33 with San Francisco and Oakland.
The Oroville newspaper on September 15 had the front page headine, “Wera Kept Wife In Dark About Identity, She Says.” Ruth Wera, who had married the man about a year earlier, was quoted as saying, “I knew him as the former Yankee third baseman…I was as much surprised as anyone else.”
According to a United Press story on September 15, Mrs. Wera said her husband “had kept her in the dark about details of his past life,” but added “she was confident after talking to Eastern relatives of Julian Wera that the dead man actually was a cousin, William J. Wera.”
I’ve not found any reference to what Mrs. Wera was doing either before or after her marriage to Julian/William, but apparently while they were married she was involved with the ballclub. “Those close to the scene know that a great deal of the work relegated to the club business manager was done by Mrs. Wera,” according to the unbylined September 15 article in the Mercury-Register.
According to that same story, on September 13, after learning of her husband’s death, Mrs. Wera returned to Oroville accompanied by Bob Freitas, business manager of the San Jose Red Sox of the Class C California League (it appears both the San Jose and Oroville teams were owned outright by the Boston Red Sox). That night they prepared the Oroville team’s final reports and made final payments to the players. The Mercury-Register reporter indicated the impostor’s suicide was not related to any financial shenanigans with the team: “club records are clear, and no funds are missing.” (A September 30 story in the newspaper said the team still owed the city $45 for grounds fees in the city-owned ballpark for the last nine home games of the season, at $5 per game.)
The matter of the dead man’s identity was put to rest a week later. A September 24 article on the front page of the Mercury-Register said the dead man’s fingerprints “corresponded with those of William J. Wera, who on July 23, 1947, applied for a job as a shill in the Bank Club, a Reno gambling establishment.” At that time he said he was born in Winona and was 37 years old; that would correspond to the report that he was 38 when he died. But according to his death certificate, William Wera was actually 41 the day he took his life, and he was born in Wisconsin (Winona is across the Mississippi River from Wisconsin).
Right now I don’t subscribe to anything that would allow me to see his birth or death certificates; if that changes I will update this.
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The story of “Julian” Wera’s death in the September 13 Mercury-Register has information that makes you wonder how William was able to pass himself off as his cousin. In fact, William would have been better off not shaving the four years off his age, at least as far as his baseball story was concerned…Julian Wera was born five years before William Wera and eight years before William Wera claimed to be born, which makes the following passage, published in the Mercury-Register, look ridiculous:
Wera first donned a Yankee uniform at the age of 16, after he had entered professional baseball at the age of 13 in the Three I League.
His first time at bat for New York, he clouted one of Walter Johnson’s pitches for a home run. This firmly implanted him in the shoes formerly occupied by Joe Dugan at third base….
It was only at the recent death of the Bambino [Babe Ruth] that Wera recalled how the Sultan of Swat had been his self-appointed guardian, bringing him a glass of milk every night after he had been sent to bed early by Manager Miller Huggins.
The ages given in this account make the real Julian Wera’s career line up with the age the fake Julian Wera claimed to be, but they make the story line look unbelievable. A professional baseball player at age 13? Playing for the mighty Yankees at 16? And it’s a good thing the impostor waited until Babe Ruth was dead to tell that bedtime-glass-of-milk whopper. (Although Ruth apparently did give Wera the nickname “Flop Ears.”)
Oh, then there’s the started-his-career-with-a-home-run-off-Walter-Johnson tall tale. While I have not done an exhaustive search of the Yankees’ spring training games, I’ve found no evidence that Wera homered in his unofficial Yankee debut. He certainly didn’t start his regular season that way and in fact never faced Johnson in a regular season game. His one home run came in the second game of a July 4 doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, in front of what was at that time an all-time record crowd of more than 74,000 (72,261 paid, according to the New York Times). The Times’ game story mentions the home run without offering details, but we know it came in the seventh inning off relief pitcher Bobby Burke. The “fact” that Wera started his Yankee career at 16 with a home run off Walter Johnson was included in many of the abbreviated wire service news stories that were published, including the one in the New York Times.
(The record crowd had a lot to be excited about in that July 4 doubleheader. The Yankees won the first game, 12-1, then took the nightcap in which Wera homered, 21-1. Walter Johnson pitched four innings of relief in the opener. Lou Gehrig homered in each game and to that point in the season had 28 homers in 75 games, with a .396 batting average.)
As far as supplanting Joe Dugan at third base…Wera was with the Yankees for the entire 1927 season but started just seven games. Most of his appearances, 15, came as a pinch-runner; he scored five runs in that capacity.
It turns out baseball wasn’t the only topic about which the pretend Julian Wera told whoppers…the story about his death in the Oroville paper included this detailed account of his purported military service.
Wera distinguished himself brilliantly in World War II, receiving four Purple Hearts for wounds and the Silver Star. During the siege of Monte Cassino in the Italian campaign, it was Wera who volunteered to swim the river Po, carrying a bundle of sticks of dynamite. He made a one-man invasion of the German encampment, where he placed the charge so that it blew up the German ammunition dump and communications system simultaneously.
He received a critical wound in the explosion that blew off the left side of his face and his nose. [This "fact" would become critical in establishing his assumed identity, as we will see.] Wera was captured by the Germans and, despite his condition, was tied to a post and beaten with clubs when his captors attempted to gain information concerning U.S. and British troop positions.
Unable to obtain information his captors threw his body into a ditch and left him to die. The British Sixth army, advancing after the explosion, found Wera and gave him medical treatment. He was returned to the United States, where doctors performed operations that restored his face and made it impossible to tell whether he had ever been wounded.
All you need to know about this tale comes in one sentence from a September 15 United Press story: “The widow said that Sheriff-Coroner W.H. Forward told her today that Wera’s claims of a brilliant war record were proved false through a check of military records.” A story in the March 13, 1976, issue of The Sporting News, published after the death of the real Julian Wera, said Julian was 4-F and did not perform military service; at any rate he was 39 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
What makes a man feel the need to make up such stories about himself? Alas everything I know about William Wera appears in this post, and it doesn’t come close to answering that question.
While it’s likely Wera’s war record wasn’t easily checkable by those to whom he told the tale, his “baseball career” should have been a warning sign to any knowledgeable baseball person. Yet William Wera talked not one but two previous teammates of Julian Wera into believing he was the man they had played ball with.
Jerry Donovan, a longtime minor league player who was later business manager for the San Francisco Giants, was president of the Far West League in all four years of its existence and was instrumental in getting the fake Julian Wera the job with Oroville. Donovan and Wera had been teammates with the San Francisco Seals in 1931, 1932 and part of 1933. The man who signed off on hiring Wera was George Toporcer, a former major league player who was in 1948 the farm director of the Boston Red Sox. Toporcer and Wera had been teammates in 1935 with Syracuse of the International League.
So how were these men bamboozled? Here’s how Donovan told the tale in a September 15 San Francisco Chronicle story:
I played outfield when Julian Wera played third base for the Seals in 1931. This fellow came out here about a year ago and said a mine had been blown up in his face during the war and he had a lot of plastic surgery done on it.
I wouldn’t have recognized him…His face sure looked different, but he talked as if he were the real Julian Wera. It’s hard to believe.
According to the unnamed author of this story, Donovan said the impostor “talked baseball pretty well and talked like he had played it.”
Here’s the way the story was told in the September 16 Rochester Post-Bulletin:
The impostor was considerably disfigured but he explained that with a story of a war record in Italy. Upon arriving back in the states he called up Charley Graham, owner of the San Francisco Seals, and asked for a job.
Graham owned the club when the real Wera was in the lineup and although he didn’t have an opening at the time he suggested Julie get in touch with Donovan, a former teammate of Wera’s and now president of the Far West League.
The impostor played his role well, Donovan says, “when we met.”
“Hi Jerry,” he said. “Have you still got that baby buggy we gave you in 1931 on Jerry Donovan day at Frisco right after the birth of your first child?”
Here in Rochester Julie says, “I remember that incident well. He pushed the buggy around the bases.”
If that account is accurate, one wonders if William Wera spent time at a San Francisco library going through old newspapers to look for details he could use in helping to pass himself off as his cousin.
The Sporting News had a brief account of the Wera affair in its issue of March 13, 1976, three months after Julie’s death. Here’s the way that item explains how William Wera got away with his charade:
A man who said he was [Julie] Wera showed up in the office of Charley Graham, president of the Seals, looking for a job in baseball. There was one little hitch, however. This Wera didn’t look anything like the Wera who had once been toast of the coast.
But he had a ready explanation. He said that he had stepped on a landmine during the invasion of Italy in World War II and was horribly disfigured. Plastic surgery caused the remarkable change in his appearance.
Jerry Donovan, now the assistant to the president of the Giants and a former Wera teammate with the Seals, recalls the crazy caper.
“I was called to the Seals’ office by Graham,” said Donovan, who was president of the Far West League. “When I walked into the room, this fake Wera came over and said, ‘Hello, Jerry,’ and asked me about my family, calling them by name. He seemed to know all about me.
“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 said “Wera” knew all about the Coast League, particularly the Seals, and could easily discuss old players.
“When he talked about some presents the team had given me after the birth of my son in 1931, I started to become convinced this was Wera,” Donovan related.
As for Toporcer, who hired Wera, he explains how it happened in a September 14 AP story:
All arrangements were carried on by a west coast representative of the Sox and Toporcer didn’t see the candidate.
“I knew Julian. We played together with Syracuse. But when I said I didn’t recognize the picture it was explained to me that Wera had a terrific war record and his face was all cracked up in the war,” Toporcer explained.
But at the time of his death, William Wera may well have been aware that he faced possible exposure. This is from a September 14 United Press story:
Jerry Donovan…said many men who knew Wera during his playing days–including himself–had been fooled by the impostor for more than a year. But “some doubt” was raised by old friends several months ago whether the Oroville manager was the Wera who played with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
“Finally, we just decided to let it go,” Donovan revealed. “He was doing a good job, and that’s all that really mattered. But this suicide changed things–embarrassingly.”
The story about the suicide that appeared in the September 13 Mercury-Register indicated the impostor had said shortly before that he didn’t think he would be returning to his Oroville job in 1949 but would “return to his scouting job for the Red Sox.” However, I haven’t found any evidence “Julian Wera” had a scouting job with the Red Sox before his Oroville appointment.
The real Julian Wera spent the rest of his life in Rochester, where he served as the Piggly Wiggly meat manager for 25 years, then worked part-time as a meat cutter at Barlow Foods. He was 70 when he became a member of the city planning and zoning commission, a post he held until his death from a heart attack on December 12, 1975.
Wera had a brief obituary in The Sporting News. Half of it was taken up with a recounting of the suicide of the man calling himself Julian Wera. The suicide incident wasn’t mentioned in the Rochester obituary.
I can’t leave the topic of Julian Wera without this photo from the Post-Bulletin on June 15, 1939…Julie had a visitor at the meat market, his former teammate Lou Gehrig, who was in town to visit the Mayo Clinic to try to find out what was wrong with him…
I’m working on a full bio of Julie Wera for the Society for American Baseball Research’s Baseball Biography Project…I’ll post a notice here when it’s up.
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Julian Wera wasn’t the only former major leaguer to be impersonated. In the case of lefthanded pitcher Bill Henry, like Wera, the deception wasn’t discovered until the death of the impostor, although in that case the fraud had gone on for at least 20 years. The real Bill Henry’s reaction? “I hope they don’t stop my Social Security.” Henry said he bore no grudges toward the counterfeit Bill and said he felt sorry for the family.
In 1983 a man was arrested in Honolulu and accused of running up nearly $30,000 in debts posing as then-Phillies shortstop Ivan deJesus. The impostor, whose last name was also deJesus (but was not related), bore a physical resemblance to the player. This comes from an Associated Press story in the Los Angeles Times on October 5, 1983:
Oscar A. DeJesus “had a lot of stories” to explain why he remained in Hawaii for two years while the Phillies went through their regular season on the mainland, [Honolulu Police detective Michael] Orian said.
“One of them was that it was part of his contract that another player would fill in for him under his name and use his uniform,” the detective said.
“He even took a girl and her father to a game in San Francisco between the Phillies and the San Francisco Giants and made them sit high in the bleachers while he supposedly went to play,” Orian said. “The real DeJesus was hurt in the chest during the game and afterwards, he told them his chest was sore.”
If anyone wants to dig into this story, by all means let me know what you find out.
(Many thanks to Greg Sauve of the Rochester Public Library for finding the Post-Bulletin stories on microfilm and sending me scans; to Matt Christensen, city editor of the Winona Daily News, for directing me to the online digital archive of Winona newspapers; and to Bill Francis of the Baseball Hall of Fame library, who sent me copies of items in Julian Wera’s file and also sent me the story about the Ivan deJesus impostor when I asked him if he was aware of anyone else passing himself off as a major league player other than Wera and Henry. If you have any further information about Julian Wera you’d be willing to share, please let me know.)