Boston Baseball Tragedy: The Sad Tale of Marty Bergen

This article was written by Kerry Keene

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “The Northern Game—And Beyond,” the 2002 SABR convention journal.

 

While many believe that the darkest day in Boston sports history was the day Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees, January 19, 1900, may well qualify as its most tragic. It was in the early hours of that Friday morning in the town of North Brookfield, Massachusetts, that Marty Bergen, star catcher for Boston’s National League team, killed his wife and two children with an ax, then sliced his own throat with a razor. Though the 28-year-old North Brookfield native was thought for some time to have been experiencing severe mental problems, few believed he was capable of such a horrific act.

The brutally grim discovery was made that morning by Bergen’s father, Michael, who had stopped by the farmhouse two miles outside of town to do a few chores. As he entered the kitchen he witnessed the startling sight of Bergen in a pool of blood with his throat cut and a razor resting on a table nearby. His six-year-old daughter Florence lay beside him with severe damage to her skull inflicted by the blunt end of an ax. In the next room, Bergen’s wife, Harriet, was found lying in bed next to their three-year-old son Joseph, both with traumatic head wounds. A bloody long-handled ax was leaning in a doorway a few feet away.

The tragic news spread quickly through the small central Massachusetts town not far from Worcester. The newspapers would write, “It was the deed of a maniac executed in the most brutal manner.” It was also said of Bergen that he was a clean- living, deeply religious, and devoted family man, and “when in his right mind, a better fellow never lived.”1

The landscape of sports in 1900 was such that the Boston Beaneaters, later known as the Braves, were the only professional sports team in the city. The Red Sox franchise was still over a year away from its inaugural season, and the National League team had the area’s baseball fans all to itself. Bergen had debuted with Boston in 1896 and had been an integral part of the National League championship teams of ‘97 and ‘98. Many regarded him as one of the finest catchers in the league at that time—a very competent batsman with a deadly accurate throwing arm.

Bergen had earned a reputation early in his career for his erratic behavior and extreme eccentricities. Displaying what was likely severe paranoia, he was described by acquaintances as constantly giving the impression that someone was out to do him an injustice.2 This trait seemed to become even more pronounced as his playing career went on.

In the spring of 1899 while Bergen was on a road trip in Washington, one of his young sons passed away, and that tragedy pushed him closer to the brink of insanity. Many of his teammates, concerned about his mental state, were said to fear him, avoiding him whenever possible. It had become fairly common for Bergen to abandon the team without notice for days at a time. Manager Frank Selee, who led Boston to five NL pennants in the 1890s, could no longer tolerate his actions and seriously considered trading him to Cincinnati. Contacted at his Melrose, Massachusetts, home shortly after the gruesome crime, Selee observed, “His mental derangement, although noticeable from the time he became a member of the club, seemed to grow worse the past season.”

In the wake of the heinous incident, it was told that Bergen had consulted physicians and clergymen alike in an effort to seek relief from the mania and delusions that were gripping him. Reverend Humphrey Wren of St. Joseph’s Church reported that Bergen had been in to discuss his troubles six weeks prior and had appeared comforted by the priest’s kind words. His physician, Dr. Louis Dionne, characterized him as having “been a maniac for years” and said that “his disease had finally overcome him.”3

With the advent of modern psychiatry decades away, there was no effective method to deal with a condition that has become relatively easy to treat a century later. Hall of Fame outfielder Hugh Duffy, captain of the Boston team, echoed the sentiments of many upon learning of the tragedy. While acknowledging Bergen’s excellence as a ballplayer, he added, “I have realized for a long while that Bergen has not been right. His personality has been an enigma to me ever since he joined the team, and knowing his melancholy moods and understanding so thoroughly how false were his ideas that the boys were all against him, a more serious outbreak was not altogether unexpected by me.”

Only one teammate, star outfielder and future Hall of Famer Billy Hamilton, attended the funeral service. Also in attendance was East Brookfield native Connie Mack, who would begin his legendary 50-year reign as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics the following year.

The memory of the murder/suicide has now long faded into obscurity to the baseball public with the passage of a century. Yet it is hard not to speculate on the utterly intense media coverage such an incident would create if the equivalent were to occur today. An All-Star caliber athlete in the prime of his life and career, playing for one of the most successful pro sports franchises in the country, murdering his family in a psychopathic rage. The sad occurrence would likely spawn a movie and a book and be the topic of discussion on numerous television and radio talk shows.

 

Notes

  1. Boston Globe, January 20, 1900.
  2. Worcester Evening Gazette.
  3. Boston Globe, January 20, 1900.

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