Willard Hershberger

This article was written by Charles F. Faber

In literature’s most famous soliloquy, Hamlet agonizes:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

Hamlet chose to be. Willard Hershberger chose not to be. Why? The slings and arrows that he suffered do not appear to be that overwhelming. If he had called for the wrong pitch in a game, it was something that had been done hundreds of times before. He was in a hitting slump, but every ballplayer endures an occasional slump. There must have been a sea of troubles of which his teammates were unaware. Hershberger was a deeply troubled young man with personal problems that he revealed to few people.

Willard McKee Hershberger was born on May 28, 1910, in Lemon Cove in scenic Tulare County, California, not far from Kings Canyon National Park. His parents were Maud Mary McKee and Claude E. Hershberger, an engineer for Shell Oil Company. Willard was the only son and elder of the two children of Maud and Claude. When Willard was eight years old, his father was transferred to Fullerton, to work in the booming oil fields of Orange County.

Willard became a standout at Fullerton Union High School. He was president of the junior class, lettered in three sports, and was popular with his fellow students. In his senior year he was class vice-president, captain of the baseball and basketball teams, and the place-kicker for the football squad. High school girls liked the handsome young man, but he paid them little attention, preferring to spend his free time hunting, fishing, and camping.

By the late 1920s the oil boom in the area was about played out. Claude was passed over for a promotion; his pay decreased, and the family was in debt.

Worried about finances and the future, Claude had trouble sleeping at night. Willard had spent the day of November 20, 1928, hunting in the woods. When he returned home that evening, he left his shotgun and shells in the hallway, intending to clean the gun in the morning. After midnight, Claude, sleepless, was wandering through the house. He saw the gun, picked it up, went into the bathroom, and took his own life.

The shotgun blast wakened 18-year-old Willard, who was horrified to discover his father’s body. Claude’s death caused changes in the Hershberger household. Willard blamed himself for leaving the gun in the hallway. He became a chain-smoker and suffered from insomnia and hypochondria. His 16-year-old sister Lois tried to console him, showing greater resiliency than her big brother. The widowed Maud got a job as an orange packer. Willard thought he should be her chief provider and protector. He vowed never to marry as long as his mother was alive.

Willard graduated from high school the following spring. The school’s yearbook referred to him as “the boy with the golden toe and the greatest little catcher ever to put on the Fullerton uniform.”1 Scouts from the Yankees and the Pirates followed the exploits of the Fullerton Union High School baseball team, with special attention to shortstop Arky Vaughan and catcher Willard Hershberger. The pair had led the school to a California state high school baseball championship and were viewed as potential major leaguers. The scouts were prescient. Vaughan signed with the Pirates and went on to a Hall of Fame career. After graduating from high school, Hershberger played for a semipro team in nearby Cypress, California, until scout Bill Essick signed him to a Yankee contract.

In 1930 the Yankees sent the youngster to the lowest rung in the minor-league system, the El Paso Texans in the Class D Arizona State League. He slowly climbed the ladder. In eight years he played for seven clubs–the El Paso Texans, Erie Sailors, Springfield Rifles, Newark Bears, Binghamton Triplets, Hollywood Stars, and the Oakland Oaks. He hit over .300 most seasons, but with the great future Hall of Famer Bill Dickey on board, the Yankees had little need for another backstop.

On December 3, 1937, the Yankees traded Hershberger to the Cincinnati Reds for shortstop Eddie Miller and $40,000 cash. The 27-year-old right-handed catcher made his major league debut at Crosley Field on Opening Day, April 19, 1938. He entered the game in the ninth inning as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Al Hollingsworth, reached base on an error by Billy Jurges, and advanced to second base on a walk to Kiddo Davis. He strayed too far off second, but Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett made an errant throw, allowing Hershberger to make it safely to third base. He was unable to score as Dusty Cooke hit into a game-ending force out.

As backup to Ernie Lombardi, who was solid enough year in and year out to be selected posthumously to the Hall of Fame, Hershberger got into 49 games in his rookie season and 63 the next year, when he hit .345. At five-foot-ten and 167 pounds, he was sometimes called “Little Slug” as a contrast to Lombardi, who was “Big Slug.” Mostly, though, he was just called Bill or Hershie.2 Although he was well-liked by his teammates, he never participated with them in social activities. Sometimes he would join his colleagues for a movie, but he never drank with them. He liked to spend his evenings in his hotel room, reading hunting and fishing magazines. Hershberger saved his money, honoring his pledge of lifetime support for his mother by sending much of it home to her in California. He never dated. When an off-day permitted it, he went hunting, fishing, or added to his collection of antique firearms.

His chain-smoking, insomnia, and hypochondria continued. His roommate in Cincinnati, third baseman Lew Riggs, would sometimes wake up at night and see Hershberger smoking and staring out the window into the darkness. He frequently complained of not feeling well. Almost every day he would ask Dr. Richard Rhode, the Reds trainer, to check him over. One day it would be his eyes, the next day his ears, another day his tongue; some part of him always seemed to need attention. He took a large supply of medicines with him wherever the team traveled. His teammates engaged in good-natured ribbing, telling him how bad he looked and filling his locker with empty pill bottles. The Sporting News later reported Hershberger was “good humored and highly popular with his fellow players. He could take kidding better than any of them, and a joke always brought a hearty laugh from him.”3

Under new manager Bill McKechnie, the Reds overcame years of second-division finishes, and moved up to fourth place in Hershberger’s rookie season. McKechnie was known as “Deacon Bill” for his unassuming, quiet demeanor and regular participation in a church choir. He was reputed to be a thoroughly decent man, who exerted kindly, fatherly leadership. Most of all he was a highly successful manager—the first skipper to take three different clubs to World Series championships.

McKechnie and Hershberger both joined the Reds in 1938, and in their second year together Cincinnati won its first pennant in twenty years. Pitching and defense were credited for the Reds’ success, but they had some hitting, too—Frank McCormick led the league in runs batted in. Hershberger hit .345 as a solid back-up for Lombardi. Cincinnati second baseman Lonnie Frey said Hershberger hit especially well with men on base: “Boy, he was tough in the clutch. And he had a peculiar habit out there. Every time we had men on base and Hershie came up to hit, before he went to the plate he bent down and untied then retied his shoestrings, but only when it meant something. I remember the guys would see him doing that and someone would say, ‘Hershie’s bearin’ down. He’s tyin’ his shoes.’”4

Cincinnati pitcher Gene Thompson was one of many who thought Hershberger was good enough to be a first-string catcher on most clubs. “No doubt in my mind he could have been a starter for most anybody,” Thompson said. “I don’t think Hershie realized he was near as good as he was. We pitchers just thought he was outstanding. … Most guys with Hershie’s ability would say, ‘Trade me. I want to go to a place where I can catch every day.’ He had no confidence. He was satisfied [to be Lombardi’s backup.]”5

The Reds faced the New York Yankees in the 1939 World Series and lost four straight games to the Bronx Bombers. In both Games Two and Three, Hershberger caught the later innings after Lombardi had been lifted for pinch-runners. He had no at bats in Game Two and flied out to right field for the final out of Game Three. In the seventh inning of Game Four Hershberger pinch-hit for Paul Derringer and hit a single to left field, knocking in the tying run. Despite Hershberger’s efforts, the Reds went on to lose the game and the Series. Hershberger took his World Series check of $4,193.39 to California and spent the winter planning a house that he was designing and having built for his mother.

In defense of their 1939 National League crown, the Reds took over first place on July 7, 1940, and gradually built a lead. An injury to Lombardi and a slump in late July, while not dislodging the Reds from first place, caused concern. With Lombardi out of action, Hershberger caught nine of the next 11 games, five of them losses, and blamed himself for every loss. Particularly galling to the sensitive young man was a loss to the Giants on July 31. Reds’ pitcher Bucky Walters had a 4-1 lead going into the ninth inning, but couldn’t hold it. Harry Danning won the game for the Giants on a home run off a fastball called by Hershberger. “I called for the wrong pitch to Danning,” the despondent catcher insisted. “It was my fault.”6

After the game, the team boarded the train for Boston. Hershberger sat on the side of his Pullman berth across the aisle from Cincinnati’s third baseman, Bill Werber. He kept blaming himself for the loss. “I called for the wrong pitches. If Lom had been in there, we wouldn’t have lost. I’ve let the team down.”7 Werber tried to console him, telling him it was not his fault and it wasn’t important anyway as the club still had a substantial lead. The next day was an off-day, so many players slept late. Werber and Hershberger had breakfast together in the Copley Plaza hotel. Later the two went for a walk, with Hershberger constantly blaming himself and Werber trying to reassure him. Later the two men went to a movie. Hershberger couldn’t sit still. Several times he got up and went to the lobby, but he always came back. After the movie, the players walked back to the hotel, with Werber trying to cheer up the distraught catcher.8

After the off day, the Reds were scheduled to play the Braves in a doubleheader on August 2. That morning Hershberger bought a small bottle of iodine at the Copley-Plaza drug store, took it to his room, and caught a cab to Braves Field. His roommate on the road, Bill Baker, caught the first game of the twin bill; Hershberger caught the second, going hitless with one walk in six trips to the plate. In the sixth inning Boston’s Max West bunted a ball that rolled only about 15 feet in front of home plate. Hershberger made no attempt to field it, leaving it up to pitcher Whitey Moore to throw West out. McKechnie rushed out of the dugout and asked Hershberger if something was wrong. “You bet there is,” the troubled catcher replied. “I’ll tell you about it after the game.”9

The Reds lost both games of the doubleheader, the second one in 12 innings to run their losing streak to three. Their lead in the National League pennant race was now down to six games. After the second game McKechnie and coach Hank Gowdy called Hershberger aside to talk. The three sat in the empty bleachers. Despite assurances from the two older men, Hershberger continued blaming himself for the Reds’ recent losses.

Returning to the hotel, McKechnie took the catcher to his suite. Hershberger lay on a couch in the manager’s room. McKechnie said, “He cried like a kid. Seemed he cried an hour and then he told me he was worried about the club losing games he had caught. The poor kid. He was worked up particularly about that game in New York Wednesday night in the ninth inning. He said he thought he had called the wrong pitches.” I told him everything was okay, and he seemed all right.10

Hershberger told his manager that he was contemplating suicide. He mentioned that is father had committed suicide and that he was going to do the same. He told him about the bottle of iodine he had bought at the drug store that morning, but he had decided to use a razor blade to cut his throat, but he had only an electric razor with him. The two men talked for hours, with the manager assuring the catcher that everything was going to be all right. After the catcher had apparently shaken off his despondency, the two men went out to dinner. Hershberger seemed in better spirits. McKechnie went to bed that night thinking he had saved a life.11

The next morning (August 3) Hershberger ate breakfast with Lou Smith, a sportswriter for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He appeared to be in good spirits. After breakfast he sat in the hotel lobby. Various teammates asked him to share a cab to Braves Field, for the club’s second straight doubleheader, but he declined, saying he was waiting for someone. When he didn’t arrive at the ballpark in time for batting practice, McKechnie asked Gabe Paul, Cincinnati’s traveling secretary, to phone his hotel room and find out what the trouble was. Hershberger answered and said he was sick and couldn’t come to the game. When Hershberger said he was sick, Paul told him he didn’t have to play, but urged him to come and sit in the stands. The catcher promised to do so. “I’m sick and can’t catch, but I’ll be right out and watch the games.”12

Between games of the doubleheader, McKechnie held a meeting in the clubhouse, at which he told the players: “We have an unusually sick man among us who must be treated differently than we are in the habit of treating one another. We must cease playing jokes on him, and above all, we must cease asking him how he feels. He is so sick mentally that we must overlook anything he does, and try to raise his spirits back to normal.”13

When Hershberger didn’t appear at Braves Field, McKechnie dispatched Dan Cohen, a Cincinnati fan and friend of the catcher, who was traveling with the team, to go to the Copley-Plaza and check on the missing player.

McKechnie said, “Tell him we won the first game and that he won’t even have to get into uniform, but to come out.”14 Cohen found the door to Hershberger’s room locked and summoned a maid, who let him in. He discovered Hershberger’s lifeless body in the bathroom. Hershberger had found a safety razor in Baker’s bag, removed the blade and took it to the bathtub. He spread towels across the bathroom floor, took off his shirt, slit his throat, knelt down on the towels, leaned over the tub and bled to death.15 He became the first major-league player ever to commit suicide during the baseball season.16

Returning to Braves Field while the second game was in progress, Cohen gave the sad news to McKechnie. The manager decided not to say anything to the Reds players during the game. After the game was over, McKechnie called the team together and told them of Hershberger’s suicide. He told them a little about his conversation with Hershberger the previous evening. He said the catcher told him he had a personal problem that he was dealing with, and that it had nothing to do with the team. The skipper said he promised Hershberger he would never reveal the nature of the problem the catcher had told him in confidence. He kept his word. Whatever was said that evening about Hershberger’s personal problems went with McKechnie to his grave in 1965.

The manager exhorted his players, “We must now win the pennant and give his widowed mother a full share of the World Series money, and I know you fellows will win it.”17

His teammates took the news of Hershberger’s death hard. In the words of Werber, “We were shocked and saddened and terribly depressed. Hershey was loved by everyone associated with the Reds.18 Later Thompson wondered if he and other pranksters had helped drive Hershberger to suicide by making fun of his hypochondria. “My first thought was, ‘Did we have something to do with it?’ I’ve thought about it so many times. I don’t think we had any idea how this was hurtin’ that young guy. Since then I’ve never made fun of anybody. … Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but I don’t think we helped it.”19

On August 8, the Reds held a brief memorial service at Crosley Field, where the center field flag was lowered to half staff. Fans and players stood for a moment of silence, then life and the season went on.20

McKechnie’s biographer wrote “He didn’t kill himself because of poor performances on the baseball field — real or imagined. Willard Hershberger was mentally ill, a victim of crippling, unrelenting depression.”21 McCormick described his teammate’s behavior: “Most of the time, Willard was a nice, easygoing fellow, but he could be moody. Sometimes his spirits would be way up, other times way down. The night before it happened, he was way down.”22 Today such a condition would be called a bipolar disorder.

Although shaken by the news, the Reds recovered and under McKechnie’s leadership went on to win the pennant and the World Series, their first world’s championship in over 20 years. The players voted Hershberger a full share of the World Series pay and sent a check for $5,083.62 to his mother in California.23 The Reds retired Hershberger’s uniform No. 5 temporarily, but reactivated it in 1942. Johnny Bench was last to wear the number, which was permanently retired on August 11, 1984.24

When news of Hershberger’s death reached Orange County, sportswriter Eddie West wrote: “Probably nobody was more shocked than those in Fullerton, Anaheim, and Santa Ana who knew him best. Maybe it was fear of a terrible illness that made him do it. Perhaps it was a sudden attack of extreme melancholy brought on by a mental lapse he had in a game in Boston the day before. More likely there was some magnified sorrow he kept secret. Whatever the reason, it just doesn’t make sense to Hershberger’s associates of happier days. Those I’ve talked to say if anybody asked them the last man who would take his own life it would be Hershberger.”25

Willard McKee Hershberger was 30 years old when he died in that Boston hotel room on August 3, 1940. He was buried in the Visalia Cemetery in his native Tulare County, California. His mother and father are buried nearby. He will forever be remembered by baseball fans, not for what he did on the diamond, but for how he chose to end his troubles.

 

Sources

The author to express his appreciation to fellow SABR members Greg Erion and Jack Zerby, both of whom read early drafts and made helpful suggestions. In addition to those cited in the Notes, the author consulted the following sources.

Ancestry.com

Baseball-Reference.com

SABR.org

 

Notes

1 Gary Cieradkowski, “Willard Hershberger, the Man Who Destroyed Himself,” InfiniteCardSet.com blog, July 5, 2013, accessed July 23, 2015.

2 In writing about Hershberger, some of his associates spelled the nickname Hershie; others spelled it Hershey.

3 The Sporting News, August 8, 1940, 5.

4 William Nack and David Fischer, “The Razor’s Edge.” Sports Illustrated, May 6, 1991, SI.com, accessed August 7, 2015.

5 Ibid.

6 Lee Allen, The Cincinnati Reds (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1948), 278.

7 Bill Werber and C, Paul Rogers III, Memories of a Ballplayer (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 2001), 176-77.

8 Ibid.

9 Allen, 278.

10 San Bernardino County Sun, August 5, 1940.

11 The Sporting News, August 8, 1940, 5.

12# Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15# Ibid.

16 Baseball-Almanac.com listed 123 baseball notables who had committed suicide. Among them were at least 90 men who had played in the major leagues. The vast majority of them had died after they had retired from the majors. Only five were still on active major-league rosters at the time of their death. Four of these five ended their lives during the off-season, with Hershberger being the only one to die during the season. Accessed July 23, 2015.

17 Fresno Bee, August 11, 1940.

18 Werber and Rogers, 177.

19 Nack and Fischer.

20 Mitchell Conrad Stinson, Deacon Bill McKechnie: A Baseball Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 181.

21 Ibid., 180.

22 Ibid., 181.

23 Werber and Rogers, 177.

24 Baseball-Almanac.com.

25 Santa Ana Register, August 5, 1940.