Wednesday, July 17, 2013

156. Torpedo Mills: Sinking the Opposition


One of my other passions in life, besides baseball, drawing and my soon to be wife, is military history. I'm especially drawn towards the United States Navy in China due to watching Steve McQueen in "The Sand Pebbles" as a kid. It's a fascinating topic, so don't get me started. Anyway, while working on a series of illustrations depicting the various uniforms worn by our Navy in China, I picked up a rare 1933-34 Navy Sports Annual. It's a nicely done hardback yearbook that depicts all the Navy's sports teams from golf and swimming to football and baseball. While flipping through it, I found a reference to a sailor named Torpedo Mills who was "going on to make good in the majors..." I was intrigued and looked him up - sure enough he did make it to the majors. So, thanks to obscure military history, a rare book and countless hours in newspaper archives, I bring you Howard "Torpedo" Mills...

The ex-sailor was big - 6-1, 190lbs - so the St. Louis sports writers gathered around him listened: you can call him "Lefty" or even "Torpedo", but you'd better not call him "Popeye The Sailor Man". Sitting in the Browns dugout at Sportsman's Park that August afternoon in 1934, Howard "Torpedo" Mills had sure come a long way...

Growing up in Dedham, Massachusetts, Howard Mills missed all the best parts of being a kid. Always on the scrounge for money, he chose odd jobs and caddying for swells at a golf course over playing baseball or football with the boys. He liked mechanics and tinkering, but regular school work just didn't interest him - years later they said someone had to burn down the schoolhouse to get Mills out of the 5th grade. When the Great Depression loomed over his corner of Massachusetts, the big 17 year-old found himself with no education or trade to speak of. With an eye to the future, the only viable option was the service. At least there he'd get a bed, three squares and learn a trade. Army, Navy or Marines? Throw in a young man's thirst to see the world and the choice was obvious: Navy.

Mills got his father's signature on the enlistment papers and set off to see the world. With his interest in mechanics, Mills gravitated towards airplanes and he was sent to training at North Island Navy Base in San Diego. Much to his chagrin, there he remained ashore for over 2 years before finally being posted to the U.S.S. Lexington, the Navy's premier aircraft carrier.

Life aboard the Lady Lex wasn't bad, especially considering that all around the country men were out of work and scrounging just to get by. The Lexington was based out of San Pedro, just south of Los Angeles, where the weather was as near perfect as could be and the Navy provided everything he needed. Still, every day while on the flight deck repairing the Boeing F4B-2's and Martin BM-1's, Mills could see a bunch of gobs who had it even easier than him - the sailors who played for the Lexington Minutemen - the carrier's baseball team.

Between the wars, the Navy as well as the other services fielded extremely competitive athletic teams. Winning trophies was a feather in any commanding officer's cap and soldiers and sailors who were especially adapt at athletics could expect fast promotions and easy duties. If  you've ever read the book or seen the movie "From Here To Eternity", you can get the idea of how rampant the favoritism showered on athletes was in the interwar military. In the Navy, the ships in the different fleets competed against each other and the winners advanced to championship series. MVP's were chosen and trophies awarded, it was a big moral booster for the thousands of sailors who cheered on their ships, helping to forge a tight esprit de corps. Football, boxing, rowing, golf, swimming and baseball all had a year-end series with the winning ship awarded the title of All-Navy Champion.

So every afternoon, Aviation Machinist's Mate 2/c Mills, wiping the grease from his hands after a hard day of keeping Boeing F4B-2's running, couldn't help but envy the boys who got off duty just to throw a ball around. Win or lose, the ballplayers even got extra shore leave. One morning Mills told his Chief Petty Officer he wanted the day off to try out for the baseball team. The Chief looked him over and eventually acquiesced - if a sailor from his section panned out, it would look good on the Chief. In the Navy, the good as well as the bad, tended to trickle down like that. 

Mills, who had never played baseball before, went ashore and headed towards the base ball fields. 

The Lex had a pretty good baseball team. The bigger ships of the fleet - the carriers, battleships and cruisers - tended to have the best teams due to their larger compliment of sailors. Plus, the larger ships could afford to carry a few extra ringers aboard who just played ball. The smaller ships didn't have that luxury. While the Minutemen had a decent team, since 1926 the U.S.S. Wright held the All-Navy Championship title. Try as they might, for seven long years the aircraft tender beat off all challengers to their trophy. That afternoon on the ball field at San Pedro, no one on the team figured the key to the All-Navy Championship was the tall, sturdy aircraft mechanic who asked for a tryout.

By all reports, Mills was terrible at first. Remember, he'd never played the game before. Still, visions of all the extra time ashore in San Pedro danced in his head and Mills set his mind to making the club. After a few days practice, it became evident that the newcomer could throw pretty fast from the port side. The coach, an old Chief Gunner's Mate by the name of Fenton, took the eager gob aside and taught him some pitches. Chief Fenton had coached Navy ball clubs for 32 years and knew a thing or two about pitching. Mills couldn't have asked for a better teacher and the Chief couldn't have asked for a better pupil. His fastball had something natural to it - someone said it "hops like two frogs going somewhere". And once the season started, it was soon clear that Mills' fastball wasn't the only thing going somewhere...

The 1933 Pacific Fleet Baseball League was made up of the Navy's most imposing ships, the battleships Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee, Nevada, Pennsylvania and the Lexington's sister carrier Saratoga. One by one, Mills, now nicknamed "Torpedo" by his fellow gobs on the Lexington, mowed them down. 

It was obvious by the third game of the season that Mills was something special. Against the U.S.S. Maryland, the lefty beat the powerful battleship 8-1, his own throwing error being the only thing that kept him from tossing a shutout. On June 7, the Minutemen faced the California Bears, defending Pacific Fleet Champs. In front of two thousand bluejackets, Mills pitched a three hitter and struck-out 15 to beat the mighty battleship 4-2.

Meanwhile, the perk of being a ball playing bluejacket began to pay off. All that extra shore leave gave Mills the time to court Dana Rhodes, a local L.A. girl who would eventually become his wife.

Easily taking the Pacific Fleet title, the Lexington now faced the U.S.S. Wright, undefeated for seven years in the Battle Force Championship. In the whole history of the series, no Pacific Fleet ship had won. The Lexington aimed to change that. The best of three series was held at Trona Field in San Pedro. Over 8,000 sailors and civilians packed the ballpark for the first game. In every port that had a U.S. Navy ship in it, money changed hands over the big game. The odds were pretty even, the Wright was the seasoned veterans, but the Lexington had Torpedo Mills, undefeated all year. From Shanghai to Newport News, navy men crowded around their ships radio shack for the play-by-play transmitted over the wire. 

From the start, Mills and the Minutemen were in control. After setting down the Wrights 1-2-3 in the top of the first, the Minutemen got a hit, followed by a sacrifice and a homer and by the time Mills took the mound to start the 2nd, he had a for run lead. The Wrights scored a run thanks to a single and two errors by the second baseman in the fifth but came back with three more runs to wrap up the game 7-1. Mills struck out 15 and went 2 for 1 at the plate, a double.

A few days later Mills took the mound again for the Lexington. As 8,000 sailors watched from the stands and countless others followed around the world, Lefty Mills no-hit the Wrights as the Minutemen scored 14 runs to sweep the Battle Force Championship. 

Among the ecstatic bluejackets in the crowd was Willis Butler, west coast scout for the St. Louis Browns. Within weeks he had Mills' signature on a Browns contract. Problem was, to the Browns he may be Torpedo Mills - pitching prospect, but to the U.S. Navy he was still Aviation Machinist's Mate 2/c Mills. The Browns, perennial losers in the American League, were desperate for anyone who could put a spark in their line up. To the front office in St. Louis, Mills looked like that shining star every struggling ball club hopes for, except for one thing: his Navy contract. 

Mills had reenlisted for a two-year hitch the year before he picked up a baseball and was due to be discharged in the summer of 1934. The Browns wanted him asap and went so far as to enlist the help of congressman John J. Cochran to lobby the Navy for Mills' emancipation. The Navy refused to budge. Besides the fact that trained aircraft mechanics were highly prized, there was still another series to be played.

All across the globe, Navy and Marine Corps ball clubs competed in their divisions, vying to get to the All-Navy Championship, the best of three series held in September. The U.S.S. Dobbin, a destroyer tender, emerged the winner. The San Diego-based Dobbin was a dark horse - back then the Navy's fleet was based in San Pedro and no one knew much about the Dobbin. With a dearth of Navy ships to play against, the Dobbin's men honed their skills playing against strong San Diego semi-pro teams - the same baseball hotbed that gave birth to Ted Williams. First winning the Destroyer Squadron title, then the Scouting Force Championship, the Dobbins weighted anchor and headed to San Pedro to face the Lexington. 

The first game was a slug fest. Mills gave up 10 runs on 10 hits but still the Minutemen prevailed, scoring 16 runs. It wasn't pretty but it was a win. With the next game in 2 days, Mills' season was through. Anderson took the mound for the Minutemen and held fast as the Lex won 13-6. The U.S.S. Lexington were the Champions of Navy baseball.

In 14 games Mills was undefeated and with the exception of a 17-10 win over the Texas, he'd kept the opposition to under 3 runs a game and averaged 16 strike-outs every time he took the mound. At the end of the year a service-wide pole conducted by Navy Magazine voted him "The Navy's No. 1 Athlete". Better yet, a trophy and new Ford Coupe came with the title. It was a hell of a season for a guy who never played the game before and with a big league contract waiting for him when he got out of the service, the future looked bright indeed.

As most baseball fans know, the St. Louis Browns were one of the lowliest franchises in the history of the game. Once more popular than the Cardinals who shared their ballpark, the Browns began a quick decline in the 1920's that soon made then the worst team in the American League. While other teams embraced the farm system, the Browns tried to trade their way to the first division resulting in even more humiliating losing seasons. Time after time decent pitchers were sent to the Browns only to become run-down and discouraged by the lack of defense and run support. It was into this maelstrom that the newly civilianized Torpedo Mills stepped in 1934.

First he was sent to the San Antonio Missions of the Texas League. The newly civilianized Mills went 3-3 in 15 games and the Browns called him up to St. Louis in August. He got into his first game in Cleveland on August 10th when manager Rogers Hornsby threw the newcomer in to relieve Dick Coffman in the 8th inning. Down 4-1, Mills gave up 4 hits and two runs before he was able to get out of the inning. It wasn't an ideal start, but it was the major leagues.

The rest of the summer Mills pitched batting practice and rode the pines as Hornsby used the former bluejacket sparingly in 3 more games. He worked 7 .2 innings and gave up 6 hits  and 2 runs, but walked an unacceptable 11 batters. The old wildness was a continual hindrance in the majors against patient and seasoned batters. The Browns sent him back down, this time to the St. Paul Saints. Used as a starter, Mills turned in a 7-8 record for a miserable team. His control seemed to improve though, and in 146 inning he gave up 84 walks.

In the off season Mills returned to Southern California and married his girlfriend Dana, a by-product of his bonus baseball shore leave from the Lexington. Making their home in Manhattan Beach, Mills used his spare time to coach his younger brother, also called "Lefty" and making a name for himself in Navy baseball as a first baseman. When spring came, Mills headed to San Antonio for the 1936 season.

Things started to come together now as he got a little more control of his fastball and finished the season 12-6, followed by 14-12 the next year. The Browns brought him up at the end of the 1937 season to give him a look. Mills started 2 games and split the decisions. In 12 innings he struck out 10 but walked the same number and relinquished 16 hits. It was a mixture of promise and catastrophe, but on the Browns, who managed to win only 46 games that year, it was a fresh arm.

When the 1938 season opened Lefty Mills was a Browns regular and the most promising thing on the team. Early on, the sports writers who covered the Browns seized on the former sailor's story. It was a feel-good tale, tailor-made for a country still stuck in the doldrums of the Great Depression. Mills was open with the writers who covered the Browns but cautioned them: calling him "Torpedo" or "Lefty" was fine, but "Popeye The Sailor Man" was out of the question. At 6-1, 190lbs, none of the writers argued the point. Once the season started, compared to anything else wearing a Browns uniform, Lefty Mills was the team's star.

In his first start Mills beat the Washington Senators 4-3 in a 13 inning stand-off, scattering 10 hits before the Brownies could eek out the winning run. He then pitched 5 innings of shut-out ball against the A's before the game was called by rain, followed by a heady 1-0 blanking of the Yankees, out-dueling their ace Lefty Gomez. Unfortunately, the Browns were still a terrible team and Mills' 10 wins were accompanied by 12 losses. He was still wild, as the August 31st game in Boston showed. Allowing only seven hits, Mills put 5 Red Sox on base, 4 of whom scored as the Browns lost 6-3. But, wild or not, he was the second best hurler the Browns had, next to Bobo Newsom who somehow managed 20 wins that year. 

When spring came, Mills' refused to sign with St. Louis unless he received a raise. After he and Newsom held out, the Browns relented and bumped their ace lefty from $2400 to a staggering $6000. Not a bad increase from the $1000 a year he was banking as an Aviation Machinist's Mate 2/c.

1939 just didn't turn out the way Torpedo Mills expected. On May 18th he got pounded off the mound at Yankee Stadium, unable to get out of the third and giving up 6 runs on 4 hits, 3 walks and a wild pitch. He continued to pitch erratically throughout the summer, the wildness compounding the inept backing he received from his teammates. On July 2nd a little of the old magic came back as Mills tossed a 5 hitter against a strong Cleveland team, but lost his next 7 starts.

September 17th he pitched a complete game win over Lefty Gomez, winning 3-1. He spread 6 hits over 9 innings, the only Yankee run coming off a Babe Dahlgren solo homer in the 5th. It brought his record to 4-11 and was the last game he'd ever win in the majors. The Browns finished dead last again, managing only 43 wins, a staggering 64.5 games behind the first place Yankees.

By the beginning of the 1940 season it was obvious that Mills' career in the big leagues was nearing its end. In first game of the season Cleveland roughed him up for 5 runs in the first  and sent him to the showers without retiring a batter. He was relegated to the bullpen, the lowliest spot on the lousiest ball club in the majors. In 59 innings he walked 52 and gave up 55 runs. During the winter St. Louis sold him to Brooklyn, who added the condition that the Browns would buy him back if he failed to make the Dodgers.

Spring, 1941 found the Brooklyn ball club getting into shape in hospitable Havana, Cuba. Torpedo Mills was in camp, vying with a dozen other left handers to make Leo Durocher's rotation. With a pitching staff that included Whit Wyatt, Kirbe Higbe, Kurt Davis, Freddie Fitzsimmons and Hugh Casey, Brooklyn had no use for Mills and he was returned to the Browns in April. St. Louis in turn sent him to their Toledo club, but there's no evidence that he ever pitched for the Mud Hens. In fact, there's no evidence of anything else from Torpedo Mills.

Not to leave you hanging, but as so often happens when researching obscure ballplayers, Mills just disappears from the record. He and his wife Dana are in the 1940 census, living together in Manhattan Beach, California. I tracked down his date of death as September 23, 1982 in nearby Riverside. Online, there's even a photo floating around of his headstone, but oddly enough, while there's room for a spouse, Dana's name is not on it. Perhaps she's still around or their marriage just didn't go the distance, I can't say. 

Most of the big battleships whose baseball teams Mills defeated in 1933 were at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. The Arizona and Oklahoma were destroyed but the others went on to have admirable war records. The Dobbin, who the Lady Lex defeated for the All-Navy Championship, was also at Pearl Harbor that fateful morning. Her crew heroically manned their small boats and under fire rescued countless wounded sailors adrift in the harbor set aflame by burning oil. His old ship, the U.S.S. Lexington went down fighting in the Battle of Coral Sea in May, 1942.

Regardless what happened to Torpedo Mills, his was a fun story to research, illustrating a heck of an off-beat way to make it to the big leagues!


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

155. Willard Hershberger: The Man Who Destroyed Himself (Part 2)


This is the second and last part of the Willard Hershberger story. For part one, please start HERE.

The Sunday morning traffic that moved through the lobby of the Copley Plaza Hotel surged and flowed around the group of ballplayers who sat in the plush arm chairs. Some fiddled with cigarette lighters and watches but most pretended to study the newspapers they hid behind. None were open to the Sunday sports section. A handful of newspaper men went from man to man only to be quietly shooed away after scribbling a few lines in their notepads. After a while, most simply took seats next to the men they were trying to talk to and sat silently as well. Though everyone wanted to be alone, no one took the elevator to their rooms, for upstairs was where Willard Hershberger, catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, had killed himself yesterday afternoon.

Three years earlier when Willard Hershberger arrived at the Cincinnati Reds spring training camp, he found a team in transition. Once the whipping boys of the National League, the Reds had begun a quick resurgence under general manager Larry MacPhail. In a whirlwind of activity he restructured the farm system, installed the first lights in the majors atop Crosley Field, discarded lazy and defeatist players and instilled a winning attitude to the clubhouse. He had moved on to Brooklyn by that spring but the changes he put in motion would bring Cincinnati back-to-back pennants in less than a year. It was an exciting time and the arrival of Willard Hershberger was expected to be a harbinger of future Reds success.

Through the Reds worst years the one bright spot in the line up was future Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi. Big and cumbersome, he was called "Slug" for his sloth-like speed on the bases and fielding his position. None-the-less was a bonafide slugger and all-star. What he lacked in speed Lombardi made up in his quick, accurate arm. You simply didn't steal against Lom. With his years of experience the pitchers loved having him call the game.

The big man was also a character. He was gregarious and especially popular with the ladies of Crosley Field. His large nose would unleash a snoring barrage that was legendary in both leagues. He was a friendly veteran and was just the kind of mentor Hershie needed in his first year in the big leagues.

The summer of 1938 was exciting indeed. As Hershie rode the pines observing the veteran Lombardi work, the Reds surprised everyone by making a run for the pennant. New manager Bill McKechnie had come over from the Boston Bees and took over the re-made ball club. He was a kind and wise man, known throughout his career as "The Deacon". Though thoroughly in control, he kept the club loose and very quickly they had gelled into a tight-knit group. When Johnny Vander Meer tossed his back-to-back no hitters in June, the city exploded into a Reds fever that hadn't existed since 1919. The pennant race between Chicago, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and Cincinnati went right down to the wire, Gabby Hartnett's "homer in the gloamin'" famously bringing victory to the Cubs.

Hershie got into 49 games that first year and batted a nice .276. He caught in 39 of those games and proved himself a reliable backup to Lombardi. Smaller and more agile than the lumbering Lombardi, Hershie quickly became a favorite of the Crosley Field fans. He was constantly in motion and soon earned the nickname "Herky-Jerky". It was meant in a good way since his defensive play on pop-ups and covering the bases surpassed Lombardi's skills. As loved as the big catcher was in Cincinnati, many fans were heard to exclaim "Hershie would have got that one!" when Lombardi was slow to catch a fly ball. 

When he wasn't catching, Hershberger was the Reds secret offensive weapon off the bench. For a guy who wasn't comfortable with pressure, he excelled as a pinch hitter. Blessed with a good eye and patience, it was almost impossible to strike him out. In his 402 at bats in the majors he whiffed only 16 times. With men on base, Hershie put the ball in play and the fans appreciated him for that.

With Lom and Hershie, the Reds had themselves the best catching staff in the majors.

1939 was the Reds' year. The team MacPhail put in motion finally came together with the addition of Billy Werber at third and Bucky Walters finding his feet as a starting pitcher. The Reds charged through the summer, all the while beating back a strong St. Louis club which would turn into a powerful dynasty during the war years.

Again the Reds' backup catcher turned in a strong year. He came into his own, performing particularly well off the bench with runners in scoring position. In 174 times at the plate he batted a .345, the best average on the team. Still, he was prone to being inconsolable after a Reds loss and a bad day at the plate ate him up inside.

Off the field his behavior was as quiet and secretive as it was in the minors. He would occasionally take in a movie with his teammates but more often than not he stayed in and read books and magazines about hunting and guns. While the other Reds thought him pleasant enough, his only close friend on the club was Johnny Vander Meer, whose love of fishing and hunting gave the two a common bond. For Hershie, his idea of a good time was scouring the countryside in his new car in pursuit of antique firearms for his collection. As in Binghamton and Newark, the fans gravitated to the quiet catcher and women surrounded him for autographs, hoping for a date. Indeed in a contest, Lombardi and he came in first and second for the ladies' favorite Reds player. Yet he never dated and remained a solitary figure. More than one teammate used the word "loner" to describe him.

He was diligent at putting his money aside and sent much of it home to his mother. In an age when most ballplayers boozed heavily, Hershie drank in moderation, a fact his teammates later made a point of mentioning. On the long train trips between cities, the other players would find him alone, staring out the window at nothing. 

Ably handled by Lombardi and Hershberger, the five Reds starters won a combined 87 games between them. Bucky Walters won 27 and won the National League MVP Award. Paul Derringer won 25 and came in 3rd in the MVP vote. Timely hitting combined with the team's air-tight infield defense helped the Reds take the pennant by 4 1/2 games.

Unfortunately for Reds fans, the post season excitement ended almost as soon as it began. In what was one of the most disappointing losses in Reds history, the Yanks swept the series in 4 straight. Hershie had two at bats with a hit and an RBI. He took his series check and commissioned a house for his mother. Back home in California he spent long hours drawing up the plans for the new home. After the season began he would proudly tell his teammates the fine details of its construction.

The Reds of 1940 was a modified, suped-up version of the '39 team. Jim Turner and Joe Beggs bolstered the already strong pitching staff and rookie Mike McCormick replaced aging outfielder Wally Berger. The superb infield of McCormick-Frey-Myers-Werber was even tighter their second summer together which made all the difference: 41 of their 100 wins were by a 1 run margin. Brooklyn stayed close to the Reds all summer, the two teams trading first place no less than 7 times. It was a strenuous time. With the country still suffering from the great depression, the player's share of the World Series money was a huge incentive to win the pennant again. 

As spring turned to summer, Hershberger began acting even more odd than his teammates were accustomed to. Vander Meer, his closest pal, was sent down to Indianapolis to work out his control problems. Though he was consistently hitting over .350, each time he failed to deliver at the plate he sulked inconsolably. Hershie's hypochondria reached new levels and he was constantly badgering the team doctor to the extent of visiting his hotel room in the evening reporting new symptoms. As a matter of course, the other Reds kidded him about it, it was a way to blow off the pressure of a tight pennant race. Stuffing pill bottles in his locker or telling the hypochondriac he didn't look well was all good-natured fun - to everyone but Hershberger.

On the long train trips he told a few players he thought about killing himself. In 1940, suicide wasn't all that common or talked about. It was something sick or financially ruined people did, not a ballplayer in the prime of his life on a pennant-bound team. As usual, no one took him seriously. 

In late July the Reds were about to begin a crucial eastern road trip. Before they left, Hershberger bought a $500 government savings bond and deposited it in the safe of the Cincinnati hotel where he lived. He made a point of pulling aside roommate Lew Riggs and tell him that if anything happened to him on this trip, he could find that bond in the hotel's safe and that it should be delivered to his mother in California. Like everyone else, Riggs shrugged off the fatalistic talk.

As August loomed, a record heatwave enveloped the eastern half of the country, and Cincinnati began to falter. 

Ernie Lombardi was the first pillar that fell. On July 23rd the big man severely sprained his ankle in Brooklyn and was out of commission. Then pitcher Junior Thompson, winner of 10 games so far, was spiked during an bench-clearing brawl with the Dodgers and was on crutches. It was broiling up and down the east coast and the Reds were at the beginning of a grueling schedule that would take them to Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Hershberger taking over the primary catching duties shouldn't have been a big deal, in fact any other catcher would have killed a man to get that spot on a pennant bound team. But for a guy with a severe inferiority complex and nervous disposition, it was a recipe for disaster. At the time Hershberger was batting well over .350, the best on the team. But as the temperature rose and the pressure mounted, Hershie started to melt. 

First, he began to waste away; reports claimed he lost 15 pounds in the heat. Then the Reds split a four game series against the lowly Phillies. Hershie went 1 for 13 at the plate and his average nosedived. Off the field he was inconsolable. Then the Dodgers started winning. The Reds headed back to Manhattan and pulled into the Polo Grounds. The catcher told a few incredulous teammates that he thought certain unnamed players were conspiring against him. The losses were all his fault he said, and everyone knew it. At the Polo Grounds the Reds lost the first game by a single run and Hershberger went 0 for 4. The morning papers were all full of Brooklyn's winning streak and Hitler's blitzkrieg of France. The world was falling apart before his eyes. The next day he bounded back with 3 hits and an RBI as the Reds won 6-3. The sports page on the morning of Wednesday, July 31st showed the Reds were 8 games up on Brooklyn. It was a good lead but not something to get comfortable with. 

Then came the breaking point.

That afternoon, up 4 to 1 going into the bottom of the 9th with 2 out, the Reds came within 1 strike of winning the ballgame. Instead Bucky Walters put Bob Seeds on base with a walk. Then Walters ran a full count on Burgess Whitehead before he put his fastball into the stands making it a 4-3 ballgame. Bucky Walters was the best pitcher the Reds had and with the game still only one out away from a win, McKechnie left him in. Now Mel Ott stood ready. In the sweltering heat, Walters again ran the count full. Ott kept the bat on his shoulder and was soon standing on first with another walk. Still, McKechnie left Walters in to finish the job. 

In today's game, there would have been no way this scenario could have played out. First of all, today it's rare that the starter lasts past the 7th inning, but in 1940, pitchers were expected to finish the games their own games. If McKechnie would have yanked Walters with 2 outs in the 9th, it would not only have been odd, it would have been insulting to Walters. Today, by the time Walters' walked the second batter, he would have been replaced by a relief pitcher, but this was 1940, not 2013. He stayed in.

With Ott on first, that brought Harry Danning to the plate. The Giants' catcher batted a solid .300 but wasn't a power hitter. Walters bore down and got 2 quick strikes on him. Hershie called for Walters to throw his fastball. The pitcher shook off the call but Hershie insisted. Fastball. Danning saw it coming a mile away and launched it into the stands for a home run to end the game. Hershberger stood motionless behind the plate, frozen in horror at the loss he caused.

That evening the team rode the train up to Boston. A gruelling series of 3 days worth of double headers awaited them. Still, even with the slump and ceaseless humidity, six games against the Boston Bees wasn't so bad - simply put, Boston stunk. It could be just the thing to help the Reds shake off their slump and gain ground in the standings. As the train roared towards Boston, Hershberger told anyone who'd listen that it was all his fault. When Billy Werber tried to talk him out of it he told the third baseman that Walters had won 27 games the previous season; he was too good of a pitcher to have lost the game himself. No, Hershberger claimed he called all the wrong pitches. Lombardi would have called the right ones, he and his bad judgement was solely responsible for the Reds predicament.

The Reds had Thursday off before the 3 straight days of double headers. To pass the time and unwind, many of the players took in movies and that's what Hershie and Werber did. In the darkness of the theater, instead of relaxing Hershberger grew more anxious. Through out the feature he kept getting up to pace the lobby. He couldn't shake the idea that he was dragging the club down. Besides losing the pennant, he was taking money from the player's pocket - that World Series check was like getting a second year's salary. Now all because of him they would lose that as well.

The weather on Friday August 2nd was mild compared to the last couple weeks. The morning paper was full of war talk. Congress was hammering out the final details on re-instituting the draft, Japan was taking over French Vietnam and the previous night Hitler's Luftwaffe flew over London unopposed, dropping leaflets warning the populace of the hell that was to come. In the sports pages, Brooklyn was 6 1/2 back, playing the Cubs who were barely playing .500 ball. In the lobby of the Copley Plaza Hotel, Hershie stopped at the drug store and bought a small bottle of medicine and brought it up to the room he shared with Bill Baker. Then he took a cab to Braves Field for the double header.

The first game was a disaster. The Bees jumped all over Jim Turner in the first scoring 4 runs. By the time it ended Cincinnati lost 10-3. At least Hershberger couldn't blame himself for this one, he sat out the game as third-string catcher and roommate Bill Baker worked the loss. Game two was Hershie's.

Though the Bees stung early with a run in the first, the Reds scored 3 in the 5th to take the lead. The game proceeded easily until the 8th when with 2 away the Braves tied it up with a pair of singles and a double by Max West. Now the game went into extra innings as neither team could score. Hershie came to the plate five times with men on base - his old specialty - and all five times came up empty. That the rest of the Reds bats were silent didn't register in his mind, Hershie carried the weight of the entire team on his back and it began to show. When he failed to field a slow roller in front of the plate, forcing the pitcher to come off the mound to make the play, Bill McKechnie came out of the dugout to see what was wrong with his catcher. 

The Cincinnati fans didn't call him "Herky-Jerky" for nothing, it was an easy play that Hershie should have been all over. Pointing to the area in front of the plate where the ball was fielded, McKechnie asked Hershberger if something was wrong.

"There's plenty wrong with me" he said. "I'll tell you about it after the game."

In the bottom of the 12th the Bees loaded up the bases on reliever Joe Beggs. With two out, rookie Chet Ross knocked a 3-2 pitch into left field scoring the winning run. A glance at the out of town scores showed that Brooklyn lost to the Cubs 4-3. Still, Brooklyn gained a half game and was now 6 games back.

As the Reds players showered and dressed in silence, McKechnie kept Hershberger behind. He wanted to get to the bottom of what was troubling his catcher. Along with coach Hank Gowdy, the three men walked out into the empty stadium and sat down in the bleachers. Hershberger broke down and talked about how he blamed himself for the Reds' slump and his inability to hit and call the right pitches. The skipper and coach attempted to raise his spirits. Hell, the two of them had been around the game for more than 30 years. They'd seen it all before, the slump was just temporary, the Reds will snap out of it. The two men tried to get the catcher to see the bright side of things: he was batting over .300, was still the teams best pinch hitter and though they'd lost some ground, the Reds were still on top of the standings. But, as the sun set behind the bleachers, McKechnie could see that something deeper was bothering Hershie.

Returning to the Copley, McKechnie brought Hershberger back to his suite. Laying on his managers couch, Hershie broke down. Punctuating his story with tears, he told McKechnie he planned on killing himself. It wasn't something new, his father had done it before him and he was going to do it, too. He told the speechless manager that he had purchased a bottle of iodine at the drugstore that morning and was going to drink the poison before he lost his nerve. Then he settled on using a razor but all he had with him was his brand new electric shaver. By then it was time to go to the ballpark.

All this must have been shocking to Bill McKechnie. In 1940, men didn't talk about their feelings, let alone cry and reveal thoughts of suicide. Fortunately McKechnie was a kindly man and something of a father figure to his boys. Still, this was something deep that even he couldn't completely comprehend. All he could do was listen. 

In a stream of consciousness, Hershberger went from the inescapable thoughts of taking his life and the recent Cincinnati losses to his father's suicide and how he knew the other players blamed him. In between he cursed Hitler and sobbed freely. After a few hours, he'd talked himself out. The tears dried up and McKechie felt he'd recovered his senses. He knew the catcher was a sensitive man and different than his other boys, and that the last couple of weeks had been hard on all of the Reds. Talking about suicide was one thing, but doing it was quite another. McKechie felt that all Hershberger needed was a good outlet to blow off steam. Since he didn't drink or carouse like most of the other guys, he didn't have that time-honored outlet for his emotions. This long talk, no matter how unorthodox it was, probably did the trick. Grabbing his hat, he took Hershberger out for a good dinner.

Arriving back at the Copley after eating, Hershie paused to joke with some of the Reds who were lounging around the lobby. Everyone said he appeared fine. 

Later that evening, Bill Baker returned to the room he shared with Hershberger. At first he thought his roommate was sleeping or out, but soon realized he was over by the window, sitting in the dark smoking a cigarette. Turning on the light, Baker could see Hershie staring at something on the floor. He followed his gaze to a coil of radio antenna wire that lay at his feet. The whole scene was odd, didn't make sense. But it wasn't the first time he'd seen his roommate like this. Leaving Hershie to his thoughts, Baker turned in.

On Saturday morning Hershberger woke up and told Baker he didn't feel well. Dressing, he went downstairs and had breakfast with Cincinnati Enquirer sports writer Lou Smith. When Smith tried joking around with the catcher to raise his spirits, he found him unresponsive. Later, he sat in the Copley Plaza's vast lobby. His teammates strode past in small groups, each pausing to ask if he wanted to grab a cab with them. No, he said, he was waiting for a friend. When pitcher Paul Derringer stopped to chat, Hershie smiled and told him he was going to go 4 for 4 that day. When asked if he wanted to share a taxi, Hershie said no. As Derringer's cab pulled away from the curb, Hershberger took the elevator back upstairs to his room.

When Hershberger didn't arrive at the ballpark, McKechnie began to worry. He asked Gabe Paul, the team's traveling secretary, to call his room. After ringing a long time, Hershberger picked up. Sounding annoyed, he told Paul he was sick and couldn't play. The secretary said that was ok, McKechnie said to just come out to the park, he could sit in the stands and watch the games. Hershberger said he would and hung up.

Derringer pitched well in the first game, scattering 11 hits and keeping the Bees scoreless until the 7th inning. The Reds scored first in the 4th, again in the 6th and added another in the 9th to win 3-1. Between games, McKechnie scanned the stands for Hershberger. Realizing that he never showed, the skipper became both annoyed and worried. Being depressed over his performance was one thing, but failing to show up at the ballpark couldn't be tolerated, it set a bad example. He asked Daniel Cohen, a Cincinnati businessman who sometimes tagged along on road trips, to go back to the Copley and bring Hershberger to the ballpark. Meanwhile, McKechnie called his players together in the locker room. He told them that they had a sick man amongst them, a man that should be treated differently from the rest. Everyone knew he was talking about Hershberger. He told them to stop asking him how how he was feeling and to cease playing jokes. This was a man who needed his spirits lifted back up to normal. The players knew this was serious. Playing jokes and needling other ballplayers was an expected part of locker room life. It was unheard of to have a manager ask something like this. As the Reds filed out for the second game, a solemn mood overtook the players.

Earlier, while the first game was entering the 6th inning, Hershberger went into the bathroom and shaved with his new electric razor. While his portable radio broadcast the ballgame in the other room, Hershberger rifled through his roommate's shaving kit. Finding Baker's safety razor, he unscrewed the head and set the blade on the sink. He gathered all the towels and carefully spread them seamlessly across the cool tile floor. Standing, Hershberger took off his shirt and stood bare chested before the mirror above the sink. He picked up the razor, felt for his jugular vein and sliced repeatedly at the side of his neck until he finally hit it. He then knelt down on the towels and leaned over the tub. By the time the Reds scored another run in the 9th, Willard McKee Hershberger was dead.

Dan Cohen banged on the door. He knew Hershie was ill, but had no idea of what he had discussed with McKechnie the night before. Thus, when he got a hotel porter to unlock the door, Cohen wasn't expecting the scene that unfolded before him. Hershberger's lifeless body was draped over the tub, the towels and the drain limiting the mess to the bare minimum. Willard couldn't bare to leave behind the kind of mess his father had done 10 years before.

When Lew Riggs saw Dan Cohen running towards the Reds' dugout in the 4th inning of the second game, he knew something bad had happened. McKechnie spoke hastily with Hank Gowdy, grabbed the team doctor and Dan Cohen and left. Already behind a few runs, all the air left the team and they lost 5-2. In the locker room, Gowdy gathered the players.

"I want to tell you something. Willard Hershberger has just destroyed himself".

The aftermath affected each player differently. That night, McKechnie called a team meeting in his hotel suite. Devastated by the suicide and his failure to prevent it, he reassured his boys that Hershie was a sick man, that all the kidding had nothing to do with his destruction. He told them about his father's suicide and how it affected his mind. More over, the manager revealed that in the talk the previous evening, the catcher revealed other, more personal problems he was dealing with. While McKechnie reassured the players it had nothing to do with anyone on the team, he promised Hershberger he would never reveal what they were. Still, many players, like Eddie Joost and Junior Thompson, resolved never to poke fun at another man so long as they lived. 

In the years since that August afternoon in 1940, rumors have swirled around what caused Hersberger to take his life, and what exactly those personal issues were he revealed to McKechnie. For his part, the manager kept his word and never spoke about it. Silence breeds speculation, and while I was going to list all the suspected reasons other writers have posed for his suicide, I decided it wasn't appropriate or responsible, since there was no evidence to come close to proving any of the theories. 

The memory of Willard Hershberger hung over the Reds for the rest of the summer. McKechnie told the team that they owed it to Hershie to go forward and win the pennant. In tribute to the catcher, each man wore a black armband on the right sleeve of their jerseys. In a novel tribute for the time, the Cincinnati Reds even retired Hershie's number 5 for the rest of the season. Unlike today, numbers weren't taken out of circulation by a ball club after being worn by a good player, but simply handed over to the next guy who needed one. While the retirement of Hershberger's number 5 wasn't permanent, in 1984 it was finally hung up for good - after Johnny Bench, who wore it on his own back for 17 seasons, retired. 

As McKechnie predicted, the Reds started winning again, held off the Dodgers and finished 12 games in front. Hershberger's suicide left the team's catching staff in a terrible state, Lombardi was still not completely healed and Baker was not experienced enough. Going into the World Series against Detroit, the Reds activated their coach Jimmy Wilson, a former catcher. Though he hadn't caught a game in years, he became the hero of the 1940 World Series, catching 6 of the 7 games and batting .353 as Cincinnati won. At the end of October, 1940, the Reds sent Willard's mother a check for $5,803.62 - Hershie's full share of the World Series winner's money.

Carrying the weight of the whole ball club on his shoulders, the boys felt he earned it.



SOURCES
  • Mulligan, Brian The 1940 Cincinnati Reds: A World Championship and Baseball's Only In-Season Suicide (McFarland and Company 2005)
  • Bradley, Leo H. Underrated Reds: The Story of the 1939-40 Cincinnati Reds, The Team's First Undisputed Championship (Fried Publishing, 2009)
  • Nack, William The Razor's Edge (Sports Illustrated May 6, 1991)
  • Mayer, Ronald A. The 1937 Newark Bears: A Baseball Legend (Rutgers University Press, 1980)
  • Various Contemporary newspaper sources including Binghamton Press, Newark Evening News, The Sporting News, Cincinnati Post.

Friday, July 5, 2013

154. Willard Hershberger: The Man Who Destroyed Himself (Part One)


Every time you come across Willard Hershberger it is always in conjunction with the single thing he will be forever known: the only player to commit suicide during a regular major league season. That's how I of course came across him years ago, in a newspaper story accompanied by a photograph of him with a troubled look on his face. Since Willard only played in the majors for 3 short summers, he didn't leave much of a legacy except for that unfortunate way in which he left the world. About 8 years ago Brian Mulligan wrote a book on the 1940 Cincinnati Reds team. Since I was living in Cincinnati at the time, I bought the book and I really knew nothing about those Reds teams that won back-to-back pennants in 1939 and 40. I was always more interested in the Brooklyn and Cardinals teams of the same era and figured I really needed to bone-up on this forgotten team. While spinning a good tale of the 1940 season, the author relates the story of the troubled and mysterious Hershberger and how his suicide played into the Reds mad scramble for the National League pennant. It's a good book about a great team and I highly recommend it. 

I wanted to find out more about the man who took his life in the middle of a gruelling pennant race. Over the years I built up a file of contemporary newspaper articles about Willard and his career in the minor leagues, culminating with the famed 1937 Newark Bears, known as the greatest minor league team of all time. Through my research the picture emerges of not simply a second-string catcher but as one of the more promising catchers of the era. Highly respected for both his energetic fielding and clutch hitting, on paper Hershberger had a fine career to look back on and everything to look forward to. Yet inside, something was wrong.
 

Since almost every photo you see of Hershberger shows him with a despondent frown or biting his lower lip in a stress-induced grimace, I wanted to picture him when he was younger, playing for the greatest team ever assembled in the minor leagues and full of hope for the future.

Willard's early life was like something from the mind of a mediocre Hollywood screenwriter of cheesy bio-pics. He was born into a loving family in the picturesque setting of Lemon Cove, California. His father Claude worked in the oil fields around Fullerton and moved his family to Orange County when Willard was a boy. He doted on his younger sister Lois. The long, warm summers ensured the young Hershberger boy had ample time to play every sport imaginable. When it was too dark for athletics, the boy tinkered with the most modern technology of the time: radio. At Fullerton High he lettered in football, basketball and baseball and became good friends with two men who would go on to bigger things: future baseball Hall of Famer Arky Vaughan and President Richard Nixon. He was president of his class and a top student. The rural idyllic of Orange County allowed him to indulge in manly pursuits such as hunting, fishing and camping. Like his father, Willard developed into an avid hunter and gun collector. He was a great shot and found solace in the woods. He was strong and handsome, shy but pleasant, a natural leader and everyone liked him. By the time he was a senior in high school, it was obvious Willard was bound for a career in professional baseball. A young man couldn't have asked for a better childhood.

November 20th, 1928 was a good day for hunting, and Willard spent the afternoon in the woods. When he arrived home that evening he lazily left his shotgun and shells in the hallway. He figured he'd clean and put them away in the morning. Unfortunately Claude Hershberger found them first.

Claude had been working for Shell Oil since the move to Orange County over ten years ago. While it was a good job, certain things began to go wrong. First he was passed over for promotion and then came a slow but steady decline in his position and pay. At the same time his paycheck shrank, his debts grew. It was a spin cycle Claude couldn't pull out of, and coupled with his introspective personality, would lead him down a dark path. He spent countless sleepless nights worrying about the future and the early morning of November 21st was no exception. Wandering around the sleeping house at 2:30 in the morning, Claude Hershberger found the shotgun and shells and carried them into the downstairs hall bathroom.

A single blast shattered the tranquility of the sleeping household.

Willard was the first to find the body of his father. The horrible mess left by the blast would haunt him for the rest of his life and play a peculiar part in his own tragic end. 

The aftermath was devastating to the Hershberger family. While before they were in debt, at least with Claude they were a family. With him gone they were now both alone and without their breadwinner. The shameful stigmatism of a suicide added to the problems that now enveloped the  Hershberger's. While younger sister Lois sought help by talking with her school teachers about the tragedy, 18 year-old Willard turned inward. What pleasant out-going demeanor he once had now vanished. He was prone to insomnia and began smoking heavily. His quiet confidence evaporated like smoke. Most of all, he blamed himself for leaving that shotgun and shells out that evening. 

Still, his baseball skills were such that as he graduated the scouts started circling. Not only did Fullerton High's class of 1929 produce Willard, but also Arky Vaughan. The Pirates organization was interested in Hershberger while the Yankees dispatched their advance man to sign Vaughan. In what is one of those odd twists of baseball fate, the Yankees man took a detour before going to see Vaughan and the Pirates scooped up the future Hall of Famer instead. Arriving late but still left with a great prospect, the Yankees acquired Willard Hershberger.

"Hershie", as he was quickly known, now entered the vast Yankees farm system. The first stop was the El Paso Texans of the Arizona-Texas League. Originally the team's second-string second baseman, Hershberger got his big break through an odd chain of occurrences. First, the Texans' regular catcher broke his leg. The back-up receiver then broke his thumb beating up a sportswriter. Since Hershie had been primarily a catcher at Fullerton High, he was pressed into service. Before they could get him out of there he had batted .356 and led the Texans to the league championship. It was the first of a string of championship teams he would be a part of.

Hershie began the long climb up the Yankees food chain: Erie Sailors, Springfield Rifles... By 1933 he was in Binghamton, New York with the Triplets. Batting .304 he led the team to the New York-Penn League championship, made the All-Star team and was named the Most Favorite Triplet by the fans. The next year he jumped a few rungs and was sent to the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League where he hit a steady .307 against the stiffer competition. For 1935 the Yankees brought the kid closer to home by assigning him to the Newark Bears. On any other team, Hershberger would have been promoted to the majors by this time. However, playing for the Yankees organization, while sounding good on paper, was actually a mixed blessing. In New York, almost every position was filled by an All-Star or future Hall of Famer. Ahead of Hershie on the Yankees happened to be one of the greatest catchers of all time, Bill Dickey. Backing him up was Joe Glenn, a solid, proven .270 hitter. Unless something tragic happened, no one was breaking into that line up for years to come.

After spending the spring with the Yankees, Hershie was again sent across the Hudson to Newark. When the Oakland Oaks needed a top-notch catcher, the big club sent him west. When he boarded a plane from Newark Airport after catching a game that afternoon, Willard became the first ballplayer to play in games on the east coast one day and the west coast the next. It was a good swap: along with stars Joe Gordon, Chris Hartje and Jack Glynn, the Oaks won the Pacific Coast League pennant. The next season Gordon, Glynn and Hershberger were brought back to Newark.

The Newark Bears were the Yankees' premier minor league showcase. Located right across the Hudson, the team had a rabid following and a tradition of winning. The close proximity to Yankee Stadium meant every play the Bears made was under close scrutiny from the big club. Many of the Yankees players could be found in the stands on their off days looking over the new crop. The team assembled in 1937 would be known as one of the greatest minor league teams of all time and one of its main stars was Willard Hershberger.

On the Oaks Willard was backing up Chris Hartje; in 1937 he was the Bears' starting catcher. With six minor league summers under his belt, he had developed into a solid catcher. His arm was quick and accurate and he was like an acrobat when it came to fielding his position. His even nature kept his pitchers calm. The staff he had to work in Newark was one of the best ever assembled in the International League. Team ace Joe Beggs was 21-4, Atley Donald was 19-2, Vito Tamulis 18-6 and Steve Sundra rounded out the rotation with 15-4. Each one of those guys would go on to the majors and Hershie proved himself ready for the big show by ably handling each arm, coaxing a great season out of every one. 

The sports writers who covered the circuit recognized his talent both behind the plate and in front of it - at the season's end he was voted the Best Catcher in the International League. Since the IL more than any other league was seen as the highest level before the majors, the award was quite an honor. If anyone on the Bears was major league calibre, it was Willard Hershberger.

Off the field Willard proved to be a complex teammate. He was a hypochondriac in the days before Woody Allan made it adorable, convinced he was ailing from one symptom or another. Back when most players avoided the team doctor like the plague lest the big club get wind of it and think he was frail, Hersh
ie was the Doc's best customer. His teammates claimed he could predict an illness two weeks out - whether this was an example of an athlete extremely in-tune with his body or he subconsciously made himself sick, is anyone's guess. His locker was filled with powders and pill containers and the boys soon took to teasing the catcher about his sicknesses, filling his locker to overflowing with pill containers or telling him he looked under the weather. 

The Newark fans loved him and he was one of the more popular players that summer. Despite, or maybe because of his quiet demeanor, Hershie was the favorite of the young Jersey girls who filled the stands. He was shy though, and even when his teammates set him up on double dates he begged off. The only woman he seemed to have room for was his mother, whom he corresponded with religiously. 

Still, they liked the catcher, especially when he broke out of his introspective shell. At the Bears spring training camp, Hershie and a bunch of the fella's decided to take in a carnival. When the group stopped at the shooting gallery Willard proceeded to win his teammates every prize in the booth until the busted carny took the gun away and kicked him out. He was known as the team's resident technology expert, and if you wanted to know anything about the era's latest gadgets from portable radios to plug-in electric razors, you went to Hershie.

His introvertedness also set him apart from the other Bears. From the first month of the 1937 season, Newark destroyed the rest of the International League. The summer was filled with one celebration after another as the Bears racked up 104 victories. While his teammates caroused and jived like only a pennant-bound team can, Willard stuck to his room after games, venturing out only for a movie or to add to his growing antique gun collection.  Despite, or maybe because of his quiet demeanor, Hershie was the favorite of the young Jersey girls who filled Ruppert Stadium. He was shy though, and even when his teammates set him up on double dates he begged off. 

He was prone to beating himself up over minor batting slumps or bad pitches. More than one teammate called him a "perfectionist". Bears ace Atley Donald related that there were times when he threw a bad pitch resulting in a hit but it was Hershberger who would apologize in the dugout. The other pitchers had the same thing happen. No matter what thing went wrong, Hershie found a way to blame himself for it. Ossie Vitt, who'd managed Hershberger on 3 different teams was convinced he suffered from a inferiority complex. While the drive to make oneself a better player isn't a bad thing to have, Willard's intensity began to wear on him physically. As the triumphant 1937 season drew to a close, his roommate would awake late at night to find him staring out the window into the abyss, smoking an endless chain of cigarettes.

After the Bears beat the Columbus Red Birds in the Little World Series, Hersh
ie returned home to Orange County. The Newark Bears season had been news all across the nation and the citizens threw a first-class banquet to honor their hometown diamond hero. With all the accolades his catching and hitting garnered it was a sure bet he'd be in the majors within a year, if not sooner. Everyone there that night was excited for the future, everyone that is, except Willard.

Even surrounded by his old friends and trying to relax by riding horses and hunting, something was wrong. His mother noticed that this winter, even more than in the past, her boy was deeply bothered inside. Like his roommates in Newark, his mother would find him late at night, staring into the darkness outside his bedroom window, smoking one cigarette after another. She couldn't help but think of her husband Claude.

Meanwhile, in the Bronx, the Yankees front office was evaluating their minor league talent pool. With the Yanks more or less set for another pennant run in 1938, they had a surplus of high-grade talent to deal, especially in Newark. With Bill Dickey still in his prime and Willard pushing 28 years-old, the Yankees were open to a trade. 

In Cincinnati, the Reds were rising from two decades worth of second division muck. Manager Bill McKechnie was quickly assembling the nucleus of a team that would soon pay dividends by winning back-to-back pennants and a World Championship. One hole in their roster was a reliable catcher to back up future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi. Fueled by owner Powell Crosley's ample bank account, general manager Warren Giles went out and got them the best catcher in the minor leagues, Willard McKee Hershberger.

The second part of the story, Hershberger's major league career with the Reds and tragic end, will follow soon...

 SOURCES
  • Mulligan, Brian The 1940 Cincinnati Reds: A World Championship and Baseball's Only In-Season Suicide (McFarland & Company 2005)
  • Bradley, Leo H. Underrated Reds: The Story of the 1939-40 Cincinnati Reds, The Team's First Undisputed Championship (Fried Publishing, 2009)
  • Mayer, Ronald A. The 1937 Newark Bears: A Baseball Legend (Rutgers University Press, 1980)
  • Various Contemporary newspaper sources including Binghamton Press, Newark Evening News, The Sporting News, Cincinnati Post.