The stories that stick with us: Baseball player leaves a lasting impression

  • Don Bollweg was supported in his last years by the Baseball Assistance Team, a group one of his old teammates, Joe Garagiola, helped establish. By this time Garagiola was a popular baseball broadcaster and sports TV show host.

    Don Bollweg was supported in his last years by the Baseball Assistance Team, a group one of his old teammates, Joe Garagiola, helped establish. By this time Garagiola was a popular baseball broadcaster and sports TV show host.

  • Mike Burke

    Mike Burke

 
By Mike Burke
mburke@dailyherald.com
Updated 10/4/2021 8:23 AM

One of the most unforgettable people I've written about through the years was a down-on-his-luck ballplayer I never met.

When Don Bollweg of Wheaton died in the DuPage Convalescent Center 25 years ago, no one paid much attention. A buddy of his called me (I covered Wheaton at the time) to say Don had played in a World Series for the New York Yankees, but World War II had robbed him of his most productive baseball years.

 

The former first baseman suffered a debilitating stroke in 1993 and his medical care robbed him of his finances, too. An organization founded to help old ballplayers, the Baseball Assistance Team, helped support Bollweg, who was 75 when he died.

When Bollweg was 20 years old, he heard the St. Louis Cardinals were holding a tryout, so he traveled down to Missouri and earned himself a minor league contract in 1942. Then came the war, and he spent the next three years in the Army.

After returning from service, Bollweg toiled in the minor leagues. St. Louis was a powerhouse team in the 1940s, and he was eventually traded to the Yankees, just as that team was in the midst of winning the World Series six times in eight years.

But in 1953, Bollweg was called up to the bigs as a 31-year-old rookie. He played 70 games that season, as well as in the World Series in October with Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and those other Yankee greats. He pinch hit twice against the Brooklyn Dodgers, striking out both times.

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The Yankees had a powerful first baseman, Bill "Moose" Skowron, ready to take over in 1954, so Bollweg was traded to the A's. He finished his career with the Athletics, first in Philadelphia in 1954, then in Kansas City in 1955 and '56 where the team had moved.

Bollweg returned to Wheaton when his baseball career was over and worked in real estate, helping developer Jay Stream sell houses north of town in a community that eventually became Carol Stream.

Prior to suffering his stroke, he worked for the DuPage County Board of Elections.

When Bollweg's friend, Bob Norris, called me in 1996 to talk about Don, I wrote a story about his life and playing days. I met his widow, Blanche, and she shared his story as we walked through their home looking at faded baseball photos that hung from the wall. She even let me hold Don's 1953 World Series ring.

Don spent his later years signing autographs for fans who wrote him, sending him baseballs and baseball cards to sign. She had a stack of a few photos Don had signed for those requests, and she gave one to me.

After my story ran, I got the most heartfelt thank you note from Norris, Don's friend, which I have to this day.

• Senior Copy Editor Mike Burke has worked at the Daily Herald since 1990.

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