SABR

Chick Stahl

This article was written by Dennis Auger.

Before committing suicide under mysterious circumstances in the spring of 1907, Chick Stahl forged a reputation as one of the best center fielders in the game over the course of a 10-year major-league career. A lifetime .305 batter, the left-handed Stahl could also hit with power, and often ranked among the league leaders in extra-base hits. Among his teammates, the popular Stahl “possessed a pleasing personality that endeared him to all that came in contact with him.” When the 34-year-old ballplayer killed himself on March 28, 1907, his Boston teammates were overcome with grief. “Stahl was a king among men,” said catcher Lou Criger. “He was the squarest man I ever knew. He had only one fault – he was too generous. I never saw him go back on a friend or a deserving acquaintance. In fact, he was often bunkoed because he believed in the goodness of all mankind.”

Charles Sylvester Stahl was born on January 10, 1873, in Avilla, Indiana, the sixth child of Reuben and Barbara (Stadtmiller) Stahl, Catholics of German descent. During his early childhood, his father supported the growing Stahl clan as a peddler, but in 1885 the family moved to Fort Wayne, where Reuben found work as a carpenter. In an 1898 interview, Charles reported that he had 23 siblings. “We had just enough in our family to make a couple nines – eighteen boys and half a dozen girls.”

Young Charles attended Catholic school and developed his skills as a left-handed pitcher and outfielder on Fort Wayne’s vacant lots and diamonds south of the railroads. After playing for Brunswick, a local amateur team, in 1889 the teenager pitched for the Pilsener club in the City League. Between 1889 and 1894, he also pitched for semiprofessional teams in Paducah, Kentucky; Decatur, Illinois; and Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, Michigan. He also worked in his father’s carpentry business. His father wanted him “to tend store at Fort Wayne and give up baseball. But I took an inventory of the soft soap sale and the output of pickles to our customers, and I couldn’t figure how I could turn out the revenue in the grocery business that came to me in baseball.”

In 1895, Stahl signed a professional contract with Roanoke of the Virginia League. At his own insistence, he became a full-time outfielder, and excelled at his new position, playing brilliantly in the field, posting a .311 batting average, and leading the league with 13 triples. His performance attracted the attention of the Buffalo team of the Eastern League, which drafted the young outfielder after the season. In 1896 Stahl continued to show improvement with his new team, finishing the year with a .340 average, 34 stolen bases, 52 extra-base hits, a league-leading 23 triples, and 130 runs scored. Based on Stahl’s “splendid hitting and excellent fielding,” Jimmy Collins, the star third baseman of the Boston Beaneaters, and Sam Wise, a former Beaneaters player, advised Beaneaters manager Frank Selee to draft him, and Selee did so.

Selee planned to use Stahl in a utility role, but the 24-year old quickly became the club’s starting right fielder. In 1897 he emerged “as the game’s most outstanding frosh hitter.” Not only did he lead all rookies in 11 hitting categories, he also paced Boston with a .354 average, a mark that remains the franchise record for rookies. Stahl also topped the Beaneaters with a .499 slugging percentage, helping the Boston offense score more than 1,000 runs and capture the National League pennant. Another crown awaited Boston in 1898, and even though Stahl’s average declined to .308, his fielding talents were highlighted in the sports pages. In one descriptive account, the Washington Post wrote “the soubrette fancier from Fort Wayne retrieved Tommy Leahy’s fly in the eighth with the speed and celerity of a hound retrieving a jack rabbit.” The Beaneaters fell from first in 1899 but the Husky Hoosier (one of Stahl’s nicknames) , hit.351, produced career highs in hits (202), triples (19), home runs (7), total bases (284), walks (72), on-base percentage (.426), stolen bases (33), and runs scored (122). On May 31 he went 6-for-6 in a nine-inning game against Cleveland, “five of which [were] very long drives.”

Boston’s fortunes tumbled in 1900 but Stahl still knocked in 82 runs, his second highest career total, and led National League outfielders with a .968 fielding percentage. In 1901 his teammate and best friend, Jimmy Collins, signed with the American League’s Boston entry to become that squad’s player-manager. Because of religious tension on the Beaneaters, the third baseman targeted talented Roman Catholic ball players to join the upstart club. Considered a devout Catholic as well as one of the National League’s best outfielders, Chick fulfilled the criteria. Moving to center field, the intracity jumper became one of the Americans’ main offensive threats while helping the squad to a second-place finish (.303 batting average, 105 runs scored, 72 RBIs). As for the character of 5-foot-10-inch, 160-pound athlete, it was demonstrated in a late August contest. After rookie umpire Joe Cantillon made a call that went against the home team, furious Boston fans assaulted him. Stahl and teammate Ted Lewis intervened, protecting Cantillon and escorting him off the field.

Stahl coached Notre Dame’s college baseball team from January to April of 1900 – leading them to a 15-2 record – he spent his offseasons primarily in Fort Wayne. On the evening of January 26, 1902, while he was walking with a friend in his hometown, Louise “Lulu” Ortmann, a 22-year-old stenographer, approached him. Described as “a very handsome girl,” she reached for a revolver concealed in the folds of her dress, with the intent of killing him. The local police superintendent, who had been tipped off that the infuriated woman was stalking Stahl, arrived just in time to disarm and arrest her. In accounting for her actions, Ortmann said she felt jilted by her “recreant lover.” “Mr. Stahl, on the other hand, had nothing to say” and dropped any charges. This episode did not affect his 1902 season, as Stahl batted .323 with 92 runs scored and the Americans finished in third place.

In April 1903 Stahl injured his leg while sliding, and was limited to 77 games and a .274 average. Nevertheless, the Americans easily won the pennant. In the World Series against Pittsburgh, which Boston won in eight games, he was the only Boston player to hit .300, as he banged out 10 hits, including three triples, in 33 at-bats.

Stahl’s health improved in 1904 and the outfielder returned to his old form with a .290 batting average, 27 doubles, and a league-leading 19 triples, as the Americans captured a second consecutive pennant. Stahl also showcased his glove during Cy Young’s perfect game on May 5 against Philadelphia. After the game Young expressed his gratitude for Stahl’s play on a sinking line drive off the bat of Ollie Pickering “that Chick caught around his knees after a long run from center.”

Along with many of his teammates, Stahl’s play declined precipitously in 1905. He finished the year with a .258 batting average – by far the lowest of his career – and only 21 extra-base hits. The next season he improved to .286 with four home runs and 51 RBI, while leading American League outfielders in putouts and double plays. The Americans, however, won just 49 games, and Stahl became the acting manager in late August after the suspension of the increasingly disenchanted Jimmy Collins. One scribe wrote that Stahl was “the only man on the team who played his real game this season.” In what turned out to be his last major-league at-bat, he hit a home run off Tom Hughes of the New York Highlanders, .

On November 14, 1906, Stahl married Julia Harmon at St. Francis de Sales Church in the Roxbury section of Boston. They had met at a church function and she was described as “a pretty little brunette” and accomplished musician. Their honeymoon took them to Arkansas’ Hot Springs and ended as guests of Jimmy Collins in Buffalo. The other significant event during this month was that Stahl, at the urging of owner John Taylor and with the approval of his closest friend Collins, accepted the manager’s position for the coming season.

In 1907 the Chicks, as the team was nicknamed in deference to their manager (they wouldn’t become the Red Sox until 1908), reported to Little Rock, Arkansas, for spring training. It soon became evident that Stahl’s personality and the duties required of a manager were incompatible. On March 25, with the team in Louisville, Stahl abruptly resigned. Explaining his decision, he said, “This handling of a baseball team both on and off the field is not what it is cracked up to be. Releasing players grated on my nerves and they come so frequently at this time of the year that it made me sick at heart.” On March 27 the team arrived at West Baden Springs, Indiana, where they were to play the next day. Having agreed to serve as acting manager until a replacement could be found, Stahl said in a telegram to his wife that night, “Cheer up little girl and be happy. I am all right now and able to play the game of my life.”

The next morning Stahl ate breakfast, checked the condition of the field, and returned to the hotel room to put on his uniform. Jimmy Collins, who shared the suite, saw Stahl go into the next room for a moment, then stumble back toward Collins and fall onto his bed. He had swallowed four ounces of carbolic acid, which had been prescribed for a sore on his foot. There are a number of variations, but Stahl’s last words were, “I couldn’t help it. I did it, Jim. It was killing me and I couldn’t stand it, Jim.” In another version Stahl simply said cryptically, “It drove me to it.” Medical help arrived, but to no avail. Stahl suffered excruciating pain, dying in 15 minutes from poisoning. Since the death was ruled a suicide, a Catholic burial was denied. On March 31 the funeral rite, conducted by the Benevolent Order of Elks and the Fraternal Order of Eagles, took place at Stahl’s mother’s residence. The emotional state of the two women he had loved most “were pathetic in the extreme,” according to one newspaper account. “The young bride of a few months was almost prostrated and the grief of the aged mother of the deceased was pitiful to behold.” Five former teammates – Criger, Buck Freeman, Bill Dinneen, Freddy Parent, and Jake Stahl (no relation) – attended, but Collins was too distraught to be present. Stahl’s body was conveyed to Lindenwood Cemetery “in one of the largest funeral corteges ever seen in Fort Wayne.” Thousands marched to the burial place, where Congressman James Robinson gave the eulogy.

Why did Stahl commit suicide? Initially, baseball-related stress was given as the reason, but soon other theories began to surface. Frederick P. O’Connell, the baseball editor of the Boston Post, contended that a nonbaseball factor had led to his suicide. He wrote, “a great trouble was generally admitted” which was known to many. The truth was never known, as O’Connell developed pneumonia while in West Baden covering Stahl’s funeral, and died there on April 21. Glenn Stout, a baseball historian who has written about the Red Sox, wrote that the “trouble” referred to a brief affair that Stahl had with a woman in Chicago in 1906 and its aftermath. In March 1907 the woman, claiming she was carrying Stahl’s child, threatened to blackmail him unless he married her. Unable to deal with the pressure and scandal, he ended his life. Stout cited another historian, Harold Seymour, who wrote, “There is reason to believe that a woman who asserted she was his pregnant wife hounded Chick Stahl into committing suicide.” Seymour provided no documentation. Stout also cited David Voigt, another baseball historian, who accepted the theory, referring to a 1959 quote from Al Stump, similar in content and with no identifiable source. In short, all of the historians provided an inconclusive theory based on questionable allegations.

The most significant contribution in examining Stahl’s suicide came from baseball researcher Dick Thompson, who uncovered a crucial story in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette of March 30, 1907. In an article that ran with the headlines “MEDITATED SELF-SLAYING, CHICK STAHL HAD OFTEN TALKED ABOUT SUICIDE,” and “BASE BALL PLAYER HAD ENTERTAINED DANGEROUS IDEAS ABOUT SELF-DESTRUCTION,” the paper wrote that Stahl had suffered from depression and suicidal ideation since 1889. The paper quoted close friends “who were not surprised at his suicide.” Statements ranging from “Chick talked about killing himself several times” to “sometimes the slightest disappointment would sink him into almost a stupor of depression” appear to confirm that he suffered from clinical depression.

This glimpse into Stahl’s psyche helps us to understand his behavior. If his reputation as a womanizer was true, clinically, it is not unusual for a depressed person to self-medicate emotional pain through unbridled sexual activity. Also, since baseball was an integral dimension to Stahl’s identity, his perceived failing as a manager could have intensified his depression. There is yet another element to the story. On March 30, 1907, a syndicated newspaper article related that David Murphy, an engineer in Fort Wayne, had committed suicide by swallowing carbolic acid. Stahl was described as “an intimate friend of Murphy,” and the latter left a note that read, “Bury me beside Chick.” From a psychological perspective, this language and behavior strongly indicates that the relationship was not merely a platonic one. Was Murphy delusional, resulting in an unreciprocated sexual obsession? Or, if it was mutual, was this Stahl’s “dark secret”?

Chick Stahl a strong Catholic faith. As one newspaper report after his death said, “Stahl never forgot his religious duties during the baseball season. Only a week ago last Sunday, Stahl did his Easter duty in Little Rock. He never missed mass if it was possible for him to attend.” To understand his behavior, it is important to realize that Jansenism, typically known for its ultra-rigid moral outlook and emphasis upon human nature as being corrupt, heavily influenced the nature of the Catholic Church during Stahl’s lifetime. As a result, Stahl would have been exposed to teachings about God’s love and forgiveness, countered by sermons regarding sins of the flesh and the fires of hell, with suicide being the ultimate sin. The unresolved conflict between his beliefs and behavior could have increased his inner turmoil and consequently his chronic depression. The healthy and unhealthy components of his persona were expressed during the last week of his earthly life, when he both fulfilled his Easter duty and committed suicide. As Thompson wrote, “I think O’Connell [the Boston Post writer] did know the truth, but the truth was not that Stahl was responding to a blackmail threat. It was that he was responding to his own haunted emotions.”

Speaking to his teammates after the ballplayer’s death, Cy Young – named temporary manager in Stahl’s absence – said, “It is mighty tough, boys. I never dreamed such a thing could happen. In fact, none of us could imagine Stahl doing away with himself. Players may come and go, but there are few Chick Stahls.”

 

An updated version of this biography appeared "New Century, New Team: The 1901 Boston Americans," edited by Bill Nowlin (SABR, 2013). The biography originally appeared in "Deadball Stars of the American League" (Potomac Books, 2006), edited by David Jones.


Sources

Boston Globe
Boston Post
Chicago Tribune
Evening Times
(Pawtucket)
Journal-Gazette (Fort Wayne)
Los Angeles Times
New York Times
Washington Post

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