This article was written by Jon Weeks
Rising from the Chicago sandlots, Johnny Mostil joined the White Sox during the club’s darkest hour. It was no easy feat replacing the highly regarded Happy Felsch in center field, but Mostil was up to the task—establishing a reputation as one of the premier fly chasers in the majors. There is no telling what he might have accomplished had his playing career not been prematurely derailed by injuries and personal problems.
Mostil was born on June 1, 1896, in Chicago. He was the son of Casper Mostil, who hailed from the Windy City suburb of Whiting, Indiana, and his wife, Barbara. Johnny was enamored with baseball from an early age. As a boy he reportedly tore his First Communion clothes while climbing the fence at the Cubs’ West Side Grounds. On another occasion, he was detained by White Sox staff and personally reprimanded by Charles Comiskey for entering White Sox Park without permission. He had no idea at the time that he would play for the iconic executive several years later.
According to some reports, a Chicago cab driver who had spent time in the minors spotted Mostil playing second base on a sandlot in 1918 and drove him to Comiskey Park, where a tryout was arranged. Mostil performed well enough to be offered a contract. An opportunity surfaced in August when, with the US in the World War, Eddie Collins joined the Marines and Mostil was briefly installed as a second baseman. He hit .273 during a ten-game trial, then was demoted to Milwaukee of the American Association. In hindsight, the club was actually doing him a favor since he would avoid being implicated in the 1919 World Series scandal.
Demonstrating superior speed, Mostil was converted to a center fielder in Milwaukee. He had a breakout year in 1920 with 45 extra-base hits and a .318 batting average for the Brewers. On the strength of those numbers, he landed himself a permanent roster spot with the White Sox the following year. By 1921 most of Chicago’s top players had been banned from baseball for conspiring to throw the World Series. The effects were disastrous as the Sox would finish in the second division for nearly two decades. Disgusted with the entire affair, many fans turned their attentions elsewhere. Mostil gave loyal patrons something to cheer for.
A patient batsman with a keen eye, Mostil cracked the .300 mark four times between 1921 and 1926. He was fearless at the plate, getting hit by more pitches than any of his American League peers on three occasions. In his first few seasons, he was often used as a fifth- or sixth-slot hitter. When he later emerged as a threat on the basepaths, he was moved to the top of the batting order. He would lead the league in stolen bases twice as a leadoff man. Mostil was far too modest about his abilities, commenting to a writer in the 1960s: “If it hadn’t been for my fielding, I’d have trouble holding my job. You see, a .300 hitter in those days would be something like a .240 hitter today.”i
It’s true that some of Mostil’s finest moments occurred while patrolling the outfield. Hall of Fame pitcher Ted Lyons remarked that it was “like turning a rabbit loose” whenever the ball was hit in Mostil’s direction.ii One popular anecdote alleges that he was the only center fielder in history to catch a foul ball. The play in question reportedly occurred during a 1925 spring-training game at Nashville. According to numerous accounts, Mostil actually beat left fielder Bibb Falk to the ball. Mostil’s superb defense preserved a perfect game for Charlie Robertson in 1922 and a no-hitter for Ted Lyons four years later.
Robertson’s gem was just the fifth perfect game in history. He was so dominant against the Tigers that afternoon that both Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann halted play to accuse the right-hander of doctoring the baseball. In a rare left-field appearance, Mostil bailed Robertson out of trouble with a diving foul-line catch on a liner by Johnny Bassler (pinch-hitting for pitcher Herman Pillette) to end the game. During Lyons’s magnum opus, Mostil made a shoestring grab on a hard smash by Boston’s Baby Doll Jacobson. He then made an accurate throw to first base, catching Jack Tobin off the bag to end the first inning. During the course of his stellar defensive career, Mostil posted the highest range factor (average putouts and assists per game) among AL center fielders on four occasions. As of 2012 he ranked third all-time in that category behind Taylor Douthit and Richie Ashburn.
The wide-ranging Chicago ballhawk reached the peak of his career in 1926, when his productive bat and slick glove landed him second in MVP voting to George Burns of the Indians. He reached career-high marks with 197 hits, 41 doubles, and a .328 batting average. It was all downhill from there. By 1927 Mostil’s health had taken a downward turn. He was suffering from a recurring dental condition and also from neuritis, an inflammation of nerves that caused him chronic pain. Reporters had insinuated that he was a hypochondriac. When he arrived at the White Sox’ spring-training facility in Shreveport, Louisiana, before the ’27 season, he was pretty run-down.
Checking into the Hotel Youree, Mostil was treated by one of the team’s trainers for dental issues. During his first round of batting practice, he was hit in the chest with a ball. A doctor looked him over later and reported to teammate Ray Schalk that Mostil was “in bad shape.”iii
The next day, practice was canceled because of rain. After spending a portion of his idle time napping at the team’s hotel, Mostil reportedly paid a visit to Red Faber and his wife, Irene. When that conversation was concluded, the ailing center fielder stopped by the room of Pat Prouty, an avid White Sox supporter who often traveled with the team. Prouty didn’t answer the door so Mostil let himself in.
A ghastly scene awaited Prouty when he returned to his room a bit later. Mostil lay sprawled on the bathroom floor in a pool of his own blood. According to newspaper reports, the troubled star had used a pocket knife and razor to inflict 13 wounds to his neck, legs, wrist, and chest. Several teammates, among them Ray Schalk and Willie Kamm, administered first aid while an ambulance was en route. The wounds were so severe that Mostil was not initially expected to survive.
Members of Mostil’s family were shocked by the sudden turn of events. His mother, Barbara, reportedly collapsed when she heard the news. When questioned by the press, all were at a loss to explain his actions. But defying a fatal prognosis, the resilient fly chaser left the hospital on March 28. He predicted a speedy return to the club, but was listed as voluntarily retired in late May. At that point, he still had not provided a viable public explanation for his impetuous behavior.
Several theories still exist, including the proposition that Mostil was distressed over financial matters. It has also been suggested that the outfielder was having an affair with Red Faber’s wife, which led to a dramatic confrontation between the two. The first hypothesis can be summarily dismissed since Mostil had just signed a lucrative contract. The second assumption has been supported by the accounts of Bob O’Farrell, a teammate of Mostil’s, and Johnny Dickshot, a former player and friend of Faber’s. Without the testimony of Faber and Mostil, however, those declarations cannot be substantiated. Faber remained married to his wife until the time of her death in 1943 and maintained an affable attitude toward Mostil in later years—facts that have led some researchers to consider other explanations.
One hypothesis that has grown in popularity involves a combination of factors. For certain, Mostil’s painful neurological condition played a major role in his actions. But Mostil may also have been distraught over the loss of his long-time girlfriend, Margaret Carroll, to teammate Bill Barrett. Mostil reportedly began dating Carroll in 1924 and the relationship grew serious enough to include discussion of marriage at some point. Carroll and Barrett did end up together (they were wed in 1929), though the timeline of their romance cannot be firmly established. Carroll was not at spring training in 1927. She could indeed have been having an affair with Barrett at the time, but she could also have started the relationship after Mostil’s suicide attempt. Mostil later confided to family members that his actions were irrational. He kept the details of his relationship with Carroll to himself.
Making a remarkable recovery, Mostil returned to the White Sox in September of 1927. Signs of rust were evident as he misplayed the only ball hit to him in his first defensive assignment. He got into a total of 17 games that year and managed just 2 hits in 16 at-bats. He returned to full-time duty in 1928, but had clearly lost a step on the bases, swiping just 23 bags in 43 attempts. In May of 1929 he tripped over home plate executing a double steal and broke his ankle. He was out for the rest of the season and would never return to major-league play.
Beginning in 1930, Mostil embarked on a long and fruitful minor-league career. He spent two seasons with the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association, managed by the colorful Casey Stengel. Playing alongside former Yankee pitching great Carl Mays and Jocko Conlan, a future Hall of Fame umpire, Mostil hit at the .300 level both years. He was demoted from Double-A ball in 1932 and spent seven seasons as a player-manager in the Class D Northern League.
Mostil’s ’36 Eau Claire Bears were affiliated with the Boston Red Sox. The club switched alliances the following year, joining the Cubs organization. Mostil led both squads to the league finals, claiming the championship in 1936. By then he was playing only sporadically. He migrated to the Three-I League in the 1940s, guiding the Jonesboro White Sox to a playoff appearance one year.
Mostil served as a White Sox scout for nearly two decades. Eventually promoted to a supervisory position, he became somewhat disillusioned with the greediness of young players. In 1954 he joked to a Sporting News correspondent: “If a scout says ‘hello’ to a high school boy, it’s $5,000.”iv He retired from baseball at the age of 73. At the time of his death in 1970, he was living in a Midlothian, Illinois, nursing home. He has been described by a surviving relative as “a first class individual who supported family members and never asked for anything in return.” During the 1950’s and ’60’s, he generously funded youth baseball in Hammond and Whiting without fanfare. He was elected to the Hammond Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.
Note: A slightly different version of this biography will appear in “Baseball’s Most Notorious Personalities: A Gallery of Rogues,” available through Scarecrow Press in 2013.
E-Mail exchange with Charles Pall, nephew of Johnny Mostil.
Warren Corbett, “Ted Lyons,” sabr.org/bioproject.
Jim Margalus, “Johnny Mostil: From the Hall of Fame Player Files,” Southsidesox.com, October 30, 2011.
David Porter, Biographical Dictionary of American Sport.(Wesport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000).
“The Strange Case of Johnny Mostil,” WordPress.com, March 5, 2009.
“Johnny Mostil Attempts Suicide,” New York Times, March 9, 1927.
“The 25 Best Chicago White Sox of All Time, #23, Johnny Mostil, Chicagobaseballreport.com, December 21, 2011.
The Sporting News obituaries, December 26, 1970.
“Mostil Slashes at Throat, Wrists in Suicide Attempt,” Associated Press, March 9, 1927.
i Steve Goldman, “You Can Blog it Up: DPOTD [Dead Player of the Day],” Baseballprospectus.com, June 14, 2010.
ii Donald Honig, A Donald Honig Reader (NewYork: Simon & Schuster, 1988).
iii Brian McKenna, “Johnny Mostil: A Troubling Time,” Baseballhistoryblog.com, February 9, 2011.
iv Oscar Ruhl, “From the Ruhl Book,” The Sporting News, February 3, 1954.