Julian Wera's imposter
Early in the morning of September 13, 1948, an Oroville, California, telephone operator told police the phone was off the hook in the Myers Street apartment that was the home of the Oroville Red Sox’ business manager Julian Wera, the former New York Yankees third baseman. Wera’s wife, Ruth, and her nine-year-old daughter, Jerry, had left the apartment ten days earlier to return to San Francisco, as the Weras’ marriage of just over a year was apparently coming to an end. The Red Sox’ season had ended the previous night with an 11-7 loss at Klamath Falls, Oregon in the semifinals of the Class D Far West League playoffs.
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, [sic] 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.”1
But the dead man was not Julian Wera, who was found where he had been since retiring from baseball in 1937, running the meat department at a grocery store in Rochester, Minnesota. In a front page story in the Mercury-Register on September 14, the day after the suicide, Far West League president Jerry Donovan 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.”2
A United Press story in the September 14 Mercury-Register 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.” But in an Associated Press story on September 15, Julian Wera said he had no cousins named William and no relatives on the west coast.3 And in a Rochester Post-Bulletin story on September 15, the uncredited author wrote, “There was another Wera family in Winona where [Julian] grew up but he doesn’t recall any son named William in that family.”4
“I don’t believe he was a cousin,” Julian Wera’s daughter, Mary Ann Remick, said in an interview in 2010. “To my knowledge they [Julian Wera and the impostor] were not related. We had never met any other family.”5
A front-page headline in the Oroville newspaper on September 15 read, “Wera Kept Wife In Dark About Identity, She Says.” Ruth Werriwa's quoted as saying, “I knew him as the former Yankee third baseman…I was as much surprised as anyone else.”6 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.”7
The dead man’s identity was confirmed a week later, even if his relationship to Julian Wera was not. 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.”8 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).9
Julian Wera was older than William to begin with, and with William apparently trying to pass himself off as even younger than he was, the timeline of Julian’s career didn’t match up in any believable way with William’s supposed age. But the Mercury-Register seemed to swallow the impostor’s claim whole, as evidenced in the September 13 story about his death:
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….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.10
Babe Ruth had passed away less than a month earlier, on August 16. The next morning’s Mercury-Register had a story about Ruth’s death, and next to it was a story featuring Wera’s “memories” of the Babe:
I was just a kid when I came to the Yankees in 1927, and the Babe was my self-appointed guardian. He even used to bring me milk and hamburgers. Babe Ruth was always fond of kids. I remember making several trips with him to children’s hospitals and on each trip Babe gave away autographed baseballs and baseball caps by the dozens.11
The real Julian Wera gave many interviews to his hometown newspaper in Winona, Minnesota, both during the 1927 season and in later years, but he never once mentioned accompanying Ruth to a children’s hospital.
The bogus Julian Wera lied about more than just his age and his relationship with Babe Ruth, as seen in this passage in the story about his death: “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…”12 The “fact” that Wera started his Yankee career at 16 with a home run off Hall of Famer Walter Johnson was included in many of the abbreviated wire service news stories that were published about his death, including the one in the New York Times.13 The real Julian Wera’s only major league home run was hit off Bobby Burke and came months after his major league debut; he never even faced Johnson, at least not in a regular season game; and, far from being “firmly implanted” in the Yankees’ lineup, he started just 10 games in his major league career.
But the pretend Julian Wera told his tallest tales about his purported military service. The story about his death in the Oroville paper included this:
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.] 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.14
A September 15 United Press story showed this tale to be a complete fabrication: “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.”15 A story in The Sporting News, published after the death of the real Julian Wera, said Julian was 4-F and did not perform military service.16 At any rate, the real Julian Wera was 39 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, drawing the U.S. into the war, and the bogus Julian Wera was 34, if the age on his death certificate is accurate.
His supposed “war injuries” made it possible for William Wera to convince not one but two former teammates of the real Julian Wera that he was the man they had played ball with. Far West League president Jerry Donovan, who recommended Wera to the Red Sox, was a teammate of Julian Wera’s in 1931 and 1932 with the San Francisco Seals. The man who signed off on hiring Wera for Oroville was George “Specs” Toporcer, a former major league player who in 1948 was the farm director of the Boston Red Sox. Toporcer and Wera had been teammates in 1935 at Syracuse.
So how were these men bamboozled? Here’s how Donovan told the story in a September 15 San Francisco Chronicle article:
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.17
According to the unidentified author of this story, Donovan said the impostor “talked baseball pretty well and talked like he had played it.”18
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.”19
As for Toporcer, who hired Wera, a September 14 AP story described how he was fooled:
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.20
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:
Donovan said that several months ago old friends of Wera raised “some doubt” whether the Oroville manager [sic] was the former New York Yankee who played with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on the 1927-30 [sic] teams.“But finally we just decided to let it go,” Donovan declared.“He was doing a good job, and that’s all that mattered.”21
However, William Wera may not have been the one doing the job. “Those close to the scene know that a great deal of the work relegated to the club business manager was done by Mrs. Wera,” the Mercury-Register reported on September 15.22
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 (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 unidentified 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.”23
The story about the suicide that appeared in the September 13 Mercury-Register indicated the impostor had said shortly before his death 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.”24 However, “Julian Wera” never had a scouting job with the Red Sox before his Oroville appointment.
The real Julian Wera lived until 1975, and his family remains mystified about the man who prematurely put his obituary in newspapers across the country 27 years earlier.
1 All information about Wera’s death in the preceding paragraphs from “Julian Wera Is Found Dead Here,” Oroville (Calif.) Mercury-Register, September 13, 1948.
2 “‘Julian’ Wera Found Not to Be Ex-Yankee,” Oroville Mercury-Register, September 14, 1948.
3 “Suicide Wasn’t Wera of Yanks, "Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, September 15, 1948.
4 “Julie Wera—the REAL Julie Wera—Slightly Bewildered, Definitely Alive,” Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin, September 15, 1948.
5 Mary Ann Remick, interview, August 29, 2010.
6 “Wera Kept Wife In Dark About Identity, She Says,” Oroville Mercury-Register, September 15, 1948.
7 “Suicide Unmasks Relative Who Posed as Former Yank," Pittsburgh Press, September 15, 1948.
8 “Prints Prove Wera Identity,” Oroville Mercury-Register, September 24, 1948.
9 Death certificate accessed through Ancestry.com.
10 “Julian Wera Is Found Dead Here,” Oroville Mercury-Register, September 13, 1948.
11 “Wera Tells About Teammates; Ruth Was His Guardian,” Oroville Mercury-Register, August 17, 1948.
13 “Ex-Yankee Kills Himself,” New York Times, September 14, 1948.
14 “Julian Wera Is Found Dead Here,” Oroville Mercury-Register, September 13, 1948.
15 “Suicide Unmasks Relative Who Posed as Former Yank," Pittsburgh Press, September 15, 1948.
16 “It Wasn’t Really Wera,” The Sporting News, March 13, 1976.
17 “Wera Suicide Case Reveals Victim a Baseball Imposter,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 15, 1948
19 “Mystery Surrounds Identity Of Impostor Known as Wera,” Rochester Post-Bulletin, September 16, 1948.
20 “Wera Mystified Over Suicide,” Portland (Maine) Press Herald, September 14, 1948.
21 “Real Wera, Former Yankee, Is Alive; Dead Wera Impostor,” Washington Post, September 15, 1948.
22 “Wera Kept Wife In Dark About Identity, She Says,” Oroville Mercury-Register, September 15, 1948.
24 “Julian Wera Is Found Dead Here,” Oroville Mercury-Register, September 13, 1948.