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...

  • 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.

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