| The Detroit News
Willard Wayne “Twig” Terwilliger, a Michigan-raised three-sport athlete who went on to a half-century-plus playing and coaching career in professional baseball and won two World Series titles on staff with the Minnesota Twins, died Wednesday. He was 95.
Terwilliger died in Weatherford, Texas. He battled dementia and advanced bladder cancer.
Terwilliger was born in Clare, Michigan, and went to Charlotte High School. After a decorated military career, in which he participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, he went on to play baseball, football and basketball at Western Michigan, then known as Michigan College of Education.
“I had the privilege of speaking with Coach T a few years back,” said Western Michigan baseball coach Billy Gernon, who, early in his tenure, made it a priority to reach out to notable program alums. “He talked about his time in the military and how thankful and fond he was for his time as a Bronco.
“Coach Twig was timeless and ageless and a true gift to the game.”
Terwilliger played three years for the Western Michigan baseball team, starting in 1946. His first season, he batted .344. His second, he batted .338, leading the team with nine stolen bases and 15 walks. As a junior, he batted .305, and again led the team with 16 stolen bases and 24 walks.
Western Michigan’s athletic department didn’t have statistics available for his time on the football and basketball teams.
After college, Terwilliger, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound second baseman, signed with the Chicago Cubs, and debuted for them in 1949. He played nine seasons in the major leagues, including for the Brooklyn Dodgers (backing up Jackie Robinson), Washington Senators, New York Giants and Kansas City Athletics. He was a .240 hitter with 22 home runs and 162 RBIs, but was known more for his defense. By today’s metrics, he was a top-10 defensive player in the American League in 1953. He played second base, third base and shortstop. Terwilliger also spent the 1958 season at Triple A in the Tigers organization.
Following his playing days, Terwilliger embarked on a coaching career that would last more than five decades, and included stints in the major leagues with the Senators under manager Ted Williams, the Texas Rangers under Williams, Don Zimmer and Bobby Valentine, and the Minnesota Twins under Tom Kelly. As a first-base coach, Terwilliger won World Series championships with the Twins in 1987 and 1991.
“He was a beloved member of the Twins family,” the Twins said in a statement Wednesday. When he retired after the 1994 season, the Twins presented him a fishing boat.
Terwilliger kept coaching, in the minor leagues, long after he left the Twins. He managed 12 different minor-league teams, and coached with several more, including the St. Paul Saints. Terwilliger’s last year managing was 2005, when his Fort Worth Cats won the league championship. He stayed on staff after retiring, and still was working for the team well into his 80s. For his minor-league managing career, he was 1,224-1,089.
Despite more than 50 years in pro baseball, he was perhaps most proud of his time in the service.
After turning 18, he joined the United States Marine Corps, and fought in World War II. A corporal and machine gunner, he participated in several battles, including the famous Battle of Iwo Jima.
In another famous battle, on the island of Saipan, his tank was hit, and he escaped pursuit from the enemy.
“We were hit and the tank bogged down,” Terwilliger once told The Sporting News. “We had to abandon the tank. Everybody scattered into the nearest fox holes. But at just about that time a (Japanese) tank rolled up and began blasting away. I knew I had to get out of there, so I ran for the beach, zigzagging in and out with the tank chasing me. I’m sure I’d be lying out there somewhere now, if it hadn’t been for one of our own tanks, which luckily showed up while I was doing all that broken field running.”
Terwilliger is survived by wife Linda, children Marcie and Steve, and stepsons Mike and Kevin.