Cieradkowski: Willard Hershberger, the man who destroyed himself

From SABR member Gary Cieradkowski Jr. at The Infinite Baseball Card Set on July 5, 2013:

Every time you come across Willard Hershberger it is always in conjunction with the single thing he will be forever known: the only player to commit suicide during a regular major league season. That’s how I of course came across him years ago, in a newspaper story accompanied by a photograph of him with a troubled look on his face. Since Willard only played in the majors for 3 short summers, he didn’t leave much of a legacy except for that unfortunate way in which he left the world. About 8 years ago Brian Mulligan wrote a book on the 1940 Cincinnati Reds team. Since I was living in Cincinnati at the time, I bought the book and I really knew nothing about those Reds teams that won back-to-back pennants in 1939 and 40. I was always more interested in the Brooklyn and Cardinals teams of the same era and figured I really needed to bone-up on this forgotten team. While spinning a good tale of the 1940 season, the author relates the story of the troubled and mysterious Hershberger and how his suicide played into the Reds mad scramble for the National League pennant. It’s a good book about a great team and I highly recommend it. 

I wanted to find out more about the man who took his life in the middle of a gruelling pennant race. Over the years I built up a file of contemporary newspaper articles about Willard and his career in the minor leagues, culminating with the famed 1937 Newark Bears, known as the greatest minor league team of all time. Through my research the picture emerges of not simply a second-string catcher but as one of the more promising catchers of the era. Highly respected for both his energetic fielding and clutch hitting, on paper Hershberger had a fine career to look back on and everything to look forward to. Yet inside, something was wrong.

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Originally published: July 18, 2013. Last Updated: July 18, 2013.