Baseball and Tragedy...and Life
When real life intrudes on our dumb little pastime
My column at Cincinnati Magazine this week was about the tragic tale of former Reds catcher Willard Hershberger. If you haven’t read that column this week, scroll down or click this link. It’s a really sad story, and I’m guessing many of you don’t know about this somber episode in Reds history.
If you haven’t read it yet — or if you don’t know the story — please go read it now. This is your last warning.
Okay, you’re back from reading it. Or you already knew the story. Or you are just ignoring my warnings and plowing ahead with abandon, hurtling yourself through these interwebs with no concern for anything. Kudos to you, my friend. I wish I possessed your reckless nature.
As you know by now, Hershberger’s tale is a sad one. In the middle of one of the greatest seasons in Reds history, “Hershey” — who was having a good season and was popular in Cincinnati — committed suicide. I won’t go into all the details here (I’ve done that over at The Magazine, after all), but in researching the piece, there were a number of things I discovered that I couldn’t fit into the column.
In my story, I mentioned the train ride to Boston, but in his fine book, “Memories of a Ballplayer,” Reds third baseman Bill Werber went into detail about the days and hours before Hershberger took his own life. As summarized by Charles Faber in Hershberger’s SABR bio:
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.” 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.
My research also uncovered some other sad footnotes involving a couple of the participants in the Hershberger tragedy. Hershberger’s body was found by Dan Cohen, the owner of a Cincinnati shoe store who was traveling with the club, for some reason. Evidently, Cohen was friends with Hershberger, and that’s why manager McKechnie dispatched him to check on the young catcher. History doesn’t record how much that discovery affected Cohen, but I did discover that Cohen himself committed suicide two decades later.
Hershberger was in the everyday lineup because Cincinnati’s all-star catcher Ernie Lombardi was injured. I thought I knew a lot about Lombardi, a Hall of Fame backstop who was reputed to be among the slowest players in big league history. I was not, however, aware of Lombardi’s later years. According to Bill James, in “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:”
Out of baseball, Ernie operated a liquor store in San Leandro, California, for several years. In 1953 he became seriously depressed, seemingly unable to go on. His wife decided to take him to a sanitarium in Livermore, California. Ernie agreed to go. En route to the sanitarium on April 8, 1953, they stopped to stay overnight with Ernie’s sister. Ernie went into a bathroom, found a razor, and slit his throat from ear to ear. His wife found him and screamed. He pleaded with her not to save him, to let him die. He fought with the hospital attendants who tried to save him.
Although the newspapers described him as “clinging to life,” his injuries were not critical. He was transferred to the sanitarium two days later.
In my Magazine story, I didn’t go into specifics about the details of Hershberger’s suicide nearly fourteen years earlier, but they were nearly identical in almost every respect to Lombardi’s attempt.
Obviously, it’s not fair to speculate about Lombardi’s motivations without more information, but the similarities are striking. You have to wonder how much Hershberger’s suicide weighed on his mind in the months and years to come.
One last note: I hope Reds manager “Deacon” Bill McKechnie didn’t come across poorly in the Hershberger story. I think he really cared about Hershberger and tried to do the right thing. His empathetic and caring response to this mental health crisis seems especially admirable, given the fact that it was 1940. McKechnie is a legend in Reds history who is mostly unknown to modern-day Reds fans, and I think we need to revisit his impact on this franchise. I imagine I’ll be writing about him soon here at The Riverfront.
Okay, I need a break. This is an incredibly sad story to recount, but I think it’s an important moment in Cincinnati Reds history that current-day fans need to know. We all need to remember Willard Hershberger.
You know, we tend to ascribe great importance to the results of our little sports teams here in Cincinnati. We get frustrated when Bob Castellini or Mike Brown screw around with our favorite clubs, betraying the public trust.
Sometimes, we need a reminder that it just ain’t that important.
This week’s column: The Sad Story of Willard Hershberger
Last week, the production company behind the brilliant HBO “When It Was A Game” baseball documentary series posted a “home movie” clip from a Reds game at Wrigley Field in 1940. It’s a beautiful minute-long look at one of the best Cincinnati teams ever, the color footage showing players warming up on the field and goofing off in the dugout.
The clip also brought a reminder of the single most somber moment in Reds history, the details of which are not familiar to most current-day Reds fans. With the 2022 Reds just playing out the string on another difficult season, now seems like a good time for us to take a moment to remember Willard Hershberger.
Hershberger had been a three-sport star at Fullerton Union High School in California. After graduation, he signed with the New York Yankees, not long after his teammate Arky Vaughan signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates (Vaughan would go on to a Hall of Fame career.) He hit well at nearly every stop in his journey up the minor league ladder -- .357 in El Paso, .339 in Erie, .310 in Newark -- but with future Hall of Famer Bill Dickey firmly entrenched behind the plate in New York, Hershberger’s future seemed to be elsewhere.
He got his chance in 1937 when he was traded to the Reds in exchange for shortstop Eddie Miller.* After a fine performance in the spring of 1938, “Hershey” won a spot on the big league roster. Of course, he was slated to be the backup to another future Hall of Fame catcher, Ernie Lombardi. And that seemed to be just fine with him.