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HELLER: Hershberger is answer to tragic trivia question

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Catcher Willard Hershberger played in just 160 games for the Cincinnati Reds before World War II, batting .315 but hitting no home runs. He would be the classic example of an old ballplayer nobody remembers, except for one grisly fact. Of the thousands of major leaguers since 1876, he is the only one to commit suicide during a season. You might say his memory lived on, even if he didn't.

According to baseball-almanac.com, nearly 100 former players, managers and executives have killed themselves, most recently former Baltimore Orioles pitcher and executive Mike Flanagan last week. But Hershberger is the only one to do so in the heat of battle, so to speak.

Hershberger, a 167-pound career sub, became the Reds' regular catcher in July 1940, when star backstop Ernie Lombardi sustained a finger injury. Hershberger was a moody, introspective man, and this "break" turned into the worst thing that ever happened to him.

The previous year, the Reds had been swept in the World Series by the New York Yankees after winning their first pennant since 1919, and redemption was a serious theme for Hershberger and the club throughout 1940. Except that Hershberger took it too seriously.

After Cincinnati blew a big lead and lost to the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds at the end of July, some of the Reds criticized Hershberger's pitch-calling and suggested the team would have won the game if Lombardi had been catching. A few days later, on Aug. 2, the same issue arose after the Reds lost to the weak Boston Braves. Afterward, Hershberger told manager Bill McKechnie, "My father killed himself, and I'm going to do it, too."

McKechnie didn't believe him, of course. Who would have? Baseball players are supposed to be tough, mentally as well as physically. But Hershberger, like his father, apparently was suffering from severe depression - an illness little-understood at the time. His dad had committed suicide with a shotgun shortly after Willard put the weapon down during an offseason hunting trip. The sensitive ballplayer might have blamed himself for that tragedy just as he might have done for the Reds' losses.

The Reds were scheduled to play a doubleheader at Braves Field the day after the loss to the Braves. When Hershberger failed to show up before the first game, McKechnie had somebody with the club call the hotel. A house detective went to his room and banged on the door. Getting no response, the detective used his passkey to enter. Probably, he never forgot what he found.

Hershberger was lying in the bathtub, his wrists and throat slit with a straight razor. Blood was everywhere. Of course, he was dead.

Hershberger was only 30 and popular with his teammates, although he might not have realized it in a time and place where it was considered "unmanly" for men to let their feelings show. (Matter of fact, it still is.)

Before joining the Reds in 1938 at age 27 and finding himself stuck behind Lombardi, Hershberger was the regular catcher for the Newark Bears, a Class AAA farm club of the Yankees that won 109 games in 1937 and is considered one of the best minor league teams ever. That would be by far the highlight of his professional career.

Despite his benchwarming status in the majors, Hershberger was a solid contact hitter. He batted .276 in 49 games as a rookie, then raised his average to .309 in 63 games in 1939. In the World Series, he batted only twice and had one hit. When the end came in 1940, he was hitting .309 in 48 games. Jimmie Wilson, a 40-year-old coach, became the backup catcher and starred in Cincinnati's seven-game World Series victory over the Detroit Tigers when the unfortunate Lombardi was sidelined by an ankle injury.

Ironically, Lombardi attempted suicide 13 years later when he was out of baseball, missing the game terribly and scrounging to make ends meet. The brawny Hall of Famer and two-time National League batting champion also slit his throat with a razor during a visit to his sister's California house in 1953 at age 45. Though he begged his wife to let him die after she found him in a bedroom, he survived and later received treatment for his own depression.

In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," the author speculates that Lombardi might have blamed himself for Hershberger's suicide because if he, Lombardi, had been able to play, his teammate would have still been alive. We don't know if this is so. Lombardi died in 1977, but who can ever know what drives people to end their lives? If nothing else, Willard Hershberger's suicide, and those that followed, remind us of the tremendous pressure athletes endure and must learn to live with.

c For more of the authors columns, go to dickheller.wordpress.com.

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