This article was written by Art Ahrens
This article was published in 1986 Baseball Research Journal
Triumph, mystery and sorrow marked his life. A weak hitter as a semi-pro, the pint-sized shortstop not only starred afield, but also batted .304 during his seven years with the Chicago Cubs.
Early in the morning of August 14, 1940, Constable Arthur C. Mosley and Deputy Charles Gordon of Clayton, Mo. (a suburb of St. Louis), came upon a strange car parked in a driveway on Lindbergh Boulevard. Upon investigating, they found a horrible sight – lying next to the auto was a man with his throat torn apart by the self-inflicted blast of the 16-gauge shotgun found under his arm. On the dashboard was a note saying, “Call Walnut 4123, Mrs. Ruth Hollocher.” The suicide victim was Charlie Hollocher, who 20 years earlier had been one of the most highly-touted players in the National League.
His was a short life and a meteoric career, filled with triumph, mystery and ultimately sorrow. Born in St. Louis on June 11, 1896, Charles Jacob Hollocher learned his baseball in city streets, back alleys and schoolyards. While playing for a local amateur team called the Wabadas, he caught the eye of sportswriter John B. Sheridan, who taught him the game’s finer points. As young Hollocher graduated from the amateur ranks to semi-professional status, his friends urged both the Cardinals and the Browns to give him a tryout, but the scouts of both teams declined, citing his alleged inability to hit.
On Sheridan’s recommendation, Keokuk of the Central Association signed Hollocher to a contract in 1915. Charlie’s brother Louis, who died in 1937, also appeared on several minor league teams but never made it to the majors.
After a year at Keokuk, Hollocher was drafted by Portland of the Pacific Coast League, then farmed to Rock Island of the Three-I League early in the season. Recalled to Portland in 1917, he appeared in 200 games, batting .276 and leading the league’s shortstops in putouts, assists and errors. The Chicago Cubs, badly in need of infield assistance, purchased Charlie’s contract for a reported $3,500.
However, it was not Hollocher the Cubs were after but rather Rogers Hornsby of the Cardinals, who had just given baseball a preview of coming attractions with a .327 average. For the next several months the Cubs dangled Charlie and cash in front of the Cardinals as trade bait, but to no avail. They were stuck with Hollocher whether they wanted him or not. (The Cubs did obtain Hornsby years later but via a different route.)
Realizing that his survival depended on his hitting ability as well as his glove work, Hollocher altered his batting stance. The results were amazing.
There were no Rookie of the Year honors in 1918, but had such awards existed Charlie would have been a prime candidate. A quick thrower and a smooth fielder who covered all his ground and then some, Hollocher made the Cubs solid at shortstop for the first time since Joe Tinker had left the team six years earlier. He became especially renowned for his ability to haul down Texas League pop flies.
Nicknamed “Holly” for obvious reasons, the pint-sized (5 feet, 7½ inches and 158 pounds) Hollocher belied his previous reputation by swinging the hottest bat on the team. Charlie’s team-leading .316 average was fourth highest in the league, while he led the circuit in hits (161), at-bats (509) and total bases (202) and was third in stolen bases (26). Thanks in no small part to Hollocher’s efforts, the Cubs leaped from fifth place to the pennant.
Hollocher, who generally batted second, was an intense hustler who was adept at beating out bunts and who sometimes even slid into first base on ground balls in hopes of beating the throw. Teammate Bob O’Farrell, the last survivor of the 1918 Cub champions, described Charlie nearly 60 years later as “the sparkplug of the team.”
O’Farrell also recalled, significantly, that “he had a very nervous stomach.”
As World Series time with the Boston Red Sox approached, Ring Lardner waxed poetic in the Chicago Tribune:
H is for Hollocher, Hendrix and Hooper.
You’ll see them all play if you’re not in a stupor.
The young phenom was of little help in the Series, however, batting only .190 as Boston took the Cubs in six games, with Babe Ruth beating them twice.
In the meantime, Charlie had received “greetings from Uncle Sam.” Scheduled to enter the Army, he was attacked by the influenza epidemic then ravaging the Western hemisphere. By the time he recovered the Armistice had been signed, and as a result he was not drafted.
Perhaps weakened by the flu, Hollocher fell to .270 in 1919 as the Cubs slipped to third place. On September 12 he took part in the first of two triple plays he would participate in during his career. In the sixth inning the Dodgers had Hy Myers on second base and Zack Wheat on first when Ed Konetchy came to the plate. He drove a sharp liner to Hollocher, who stepped on second to double Myers, then fired to first base to retire Wheat.
By the spring of 1920 Charlie’s hitting was back in stride. It was then that the first storm warnings appeared. On June 8 he took ill on a train en route from St. Louis to Philadelphia with what was reported as ptomaine poisoning. He appeared somewhat better two days later when he had three hits in a 9-8 loss to the Phillies, “but was weak from his sickness before the game was over.” By June 16 he was back in the hero’s role when his eighth-inning triple drove in Max Flack with the game’s only run as Jim Vaughn won, 1-0, at Boston.
The attack had been all but forgotten by July 15, when the Chicago Tribune disclosed that “Hollocher was laid up with another attack similar to that which incapacitated him on the last eastern trip. . . .” Charlie returned to the lineup on July 24 but played only two more games before another departure. Following a long silence, it was announced on August 15 that he was hospitalized. Strangely, the papers did not mention what hospital he was in or what he was suffering from.
On August 17 it was announced that Charlie had been released from the hospital but would play no more that season. The Chicago Herald-Examiner passed a comment that would have been funny had future events not taken the sad turn that they did:
Charley Hollocher escaped from the hospital and came out to see the game. He denied that the doctors found a prune seed in his appendix.
While Hollocher was out for the remainder of the 1920 season, nothing appeared wrong the following year as he played in 140 games and performed better than ever defensively. Making fewer errors than any other regular shortstop in the National League, Charlie led the circuit with a .965 fielding average. And on August 30, 1921 he participated in a unique coincidence.
It was the bottom of the third inning at the Polo Grounds, with Johnny Rawlings on second and Earl Smith on first for the Giants. There were none out and the hit-and-run was on. Cub second baseman Zeb Terry snared Art Nehf’s liner and flipped to Hollocher to double Rawlings. Charlie then fired to first baseman Ray Grimes to complete the triple killing. Before the day was over Charlie would go 4-for-4 with a double and a home run, scoring twice in a losing effort as the Cubs bowed, 5-3.
On the same afternoon the Braves pulled a triple play against the Reds with the bases loaded in the sixth. It went from second baseman Hod Ford to shortstop Walt Barbare to first baseman Fred Nicholson. This was the only time in major league history that two triple plays were completed on the same day. Ironically, the Braves were losers also as Cincinnati won, 6-4.
In 1922 Hollocher looked like the reincarnation of Honus Wagner. Again leading the league in fielding with a .965 average, he batted .340 for the highest average by a shortstop since Wagner hit .354 for the Pirates in 1908 and the best by a shortstop in the majors that season. Reaching career highs with 37 doubles, 69 RBIs and 90 runs scored, he became only the second Cub player in history to attain the magic 200-hit figure with 201. Moreover, he set a National League record that still stands (500 at-bat minimum) by striking out only five times in 592 trips to the plate.
On August 13 he became the third of only four Cub players to gamer three triples in a game, leading Chicago to a 16-5 romp over the Cardinals at St. Louis. (The three others are Marty Sullivan in 1887, Bill Dahlen in 1896 and `98, and Ernie Banks in 1966.) Another great performance again came at St. Louis on August 29. Behind 10-5 after six innings, the Cubs rallied for four runs in the seventh, four in the eighth and two in the ninth to outslug the Cardinals, 15-11. Charlie’s contribution was a 4-for-4 outing with four runs scored, two walks and a double.
Just as Hollocher seemed to be reaching superstardom his problem began to resurface. Following a bout with the stomach flu in January of 1923, Charlie seemingly recovered, only to suffer a relapse at the Cubs’ spring training camp at Catalina Island. Returning to.St. Louis, he was examined by the famed Cardinal physician and surgeon, Dr. Robert F. Hyland. Cub president Bill Veeck, Sr., later sent him to a specialist in Chicago. Hollocher did not get into a game until May 11, 1923 at New York.
As had been the case three years earlier, there were no outward signs that Charlie had been ailing. If anything, he came across as being fitter than ever during the next two and one-half months. On June 7 he went 5-for-5 with a double and two runs scored in a 9-7 victory over the Giants at Chicago. Charlie enjoyed a 4-for-5 outing at Boston on July 7 and duplicated this effort against the same team two days later, pulling a steal of home in the latter contest. The Cubs won both games, 9-1 and 4-1. By July 22 Hollocher was hitting .350, but by July 26 he had slipped to .342.
That afternoon he was absent from the lineup and two days later it was announced that he was “ailing.” On August 3 the Chicago Tribune stated that Hollocher was “to be back Sunday,” only to eat its words. That night, without notifying the front office, he jumped the team and departed for St. Louis, leaving the following note to manager Bill Killefer:
Dear Bill –
Tried to see you at the clubhouse this afternoon but guess I missed you. Feeling pretty rotten so made up my mind to go home and take a rest and forget baseball for the rest of the year. No hard feelings, just didn’t feel like playing anymore.
Hollocher then wrote to Veeck stating that he was too ill to play and to Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis asking to be placed on the voluntarily retired list for the balance of the season. Never renowned for his consistency in disciplinary matters, Landis on August 11 gave Charlie a full absolution, even though Hollocher was technically a deserter.
That winter Hollocher held out for $4,200 for the period of his absence, but the Cubs refused to do business on those terms. For the next several months they made no effort to sign him, probably because of his erratic behavior and unknown illness that many thought to be imaginary. Missing all of spring training, Charlie finally signed a two-year contract at $12,000 a year. On May 20, 1924 sportswriter Irving Vaughan of the Chicago Tribune reported, “The X-ray plates of Charlie Hollocher’s stomach have definitely determined that there is nothing organically wrong with the star shortstop.”
Although Hollocher was back at his station, his stomach problem (or perhaps missing spring training) was now taking its toll. After going 0-for-8 in a doubleheader loss to the Braves on August 20, his batting average sank to .245.
For the next two weeks Hollocher was again conspicuous by his absence. On September 4 manager Killefer announced that he had given Charlie permission to return home to regain his health. Ominously, the Tribune admitted that “there is a big question mark around whether he will ever again don a baseball uniform.”
He did, but just barely, appearing at second base in place of Bob Barrett for the last two innings of a City Series game against the White Sox, going hitless in his only time at bat as the Cubs lost, 6-3, on October 3. That was his last appearance on the diamond. Retiring shortly thereafter, Charlie left behind a .304 batting average and 894 hits in 760 major league games. Over the next several years he made some announcements of intended comebacks, the last in 1930, but never went to camp.
Probably to fulfill the remainder of his contract, Charlie returned to the Cubs as a scout in 1931 but left after one year. In an interview with The Sporting News published on January 26, 1933 he lamented:
My health first broke at Catalina Island in the spring of 1923. I returned to St. Louis for an examination by Dr. Robert F. Hyland, who examined me and then turned me over to a specialist. They advised me that I would ruin my health if I played ball that season. But Bill Killefer, then manager of the Cubs, came to St. Louis and urged me to join the team, telling me that I didn’t have to play when I didn’t feel well. I yielded to Bill and, once in uniform, couldn’t stay on the bench. I played when I should have been home. During the following winter I rested up and felt fairly well in the spring of 1924, but my health gave way during the season and I had to go home. Now I realize I made my mistake in playing the 1923 season.
This statement tended to contradict the Chicago Tribune of May 11, 1923, which stated, “The little shortstop declared today that he has entirely recovered from his illness.” Furthermore, if Hollocher’s health problems began “in the spring of 1923,” how did that account for his earlier difficulties in 1920?
In Hollocher’s later years he operated a tavern in suburban Richmond Heights for a while, then became an investigator for the Prosecuting Attorney’s office in St. Louis County while moonlighting as a night watchman at a drive-in movie. In March of 1939 he divorced his first wife, the former Jane Allen, with whom he had a daughter, Ann. Several weeks later he married the former Mrs. Ruth Fleming. Then came the sad, gruesome finale.
When news of Hollocher’s suicide broke, the Chicago Herald-American commented:
The death of Charley Hollocher at his own hand came as no surprise to baseball folks who knew the one-time Cub shortstop when he was rated the top man at his position in the big leagues. Even when he was breaking in at Portland, Oregon, Hollocher was a moody, neurotic boy.
Hollocher’s mysterious malady was obviously very real to him, because it drove him to self-destruction. His widow stated that he had been complaining of severe abdominal pains when last seen alive. At the inquest, St. Louis County Coroner John C. O’Connell concurred with the police that Hollocher’s death was an apparent suicide, and Charlie was gradually forgotten. Whether his sickness was something unknown to medical science of that era or largely psychosomatic will probably never be known. Equally, one can only speculate on the great career that might have been.