"...and though it said on his chest he was one of the team, he sat among them alone; at the train window, gazing at the moving trees, in front of his locker, absorbed in an untied shoelace, in the dugout, squinting at the great glare of the game."
This is an article from the May 6, 1991 issue
A lone at last in his room at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, far from his worried manager and teammates on the Cincinnati Reds, Willard Hershberger locked the door and turned on his black portable radio to listen to the game. It was nearly time to go; he had made his irreducible choice. For Hershberger, 29 the years of anger and torment were almost over.
It was 1:10 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 3, 1940, a wilting afternoon on which the Reds, leading the second-place Brooklyn Dodgers by six games in the race for the National League pennant, were about to begin a doubleheader at National League Field against the last-place Boston Bees. Hershberger was the Reds' second-string catcher, behind future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi, but he was far more than a backup player. In pursuit of their second straight pennant, and their first World Series championship since their tainted victory over the Chicago Black Sox in 1919 the Reds were counting on Hershberger not only to spell Lom in the second game of doubleheaders—Hershberger was mongoose-quick behind the plate and a far rangier fielder than the ponderous Lombardi—but also to hit, particularly in the pinch with men on base.
"As good a hitter as I ever saw at getting a man in from third with less than two outs," says Gabe Paul, then the Reds' publicist and traveling secretary and later the general manager of various teams. "[Hershberger] would find a way to get a man home. A hell of a ballplayer."
In 1939, in 174 at bats over 63 games, Hershberger had hit .345. It was only his second year in the majors. He struck out only four times, for a remarkable ratio of once every 43.5 times at bat. "A real good contact hitter," recalls Gene Thompson, a pitcher for the '40 Reds and now a San Francisco Giants scout. "In my business, that's the kindest thing we can say about a hitter: He gets the bat on the ball."
At 5'10½" and only 167 pounds, Hershberger was, next to Lombardi, a runt who never hit for power. But before the Reds-Bees series started in Boston that August, Casey Stengel, the manager of the Bees, had wailed to reporters about the damage that Hershberger had done to the Boston team in its last set-to at Cincinnati's Crosley Field. "It might seem good to play the Reds in the second game of a doubleheader knowing that Lombardi wouldn't be trudging up to the dish with that big bat of his, but that's an illusion," said Stengel. "Actually, that Hershberger is about as hard to get out as Big Lom."
At the beginning of the Reds' East Coast road trip late in July, Hershberger had been hitting .353. But heading into the Aug. 3 doubleheader with the Bees, he was haunted by old demons and was slipping gradually into a deep, unmanageable melancholy. His average had melted to .309. He was supposed to catch one of Saturday's games, but on Friday he had played as if in a trance—expressionless except for his excited, bulging eyes—and that night he had broken down and wept uncontrollably in the suite of the Reds' manager, Bill (Deacon) McKechnie. The next morning, as Hershberger sat in a chair in the hotel lobby and stared ahead, his teammates called his name as they passed by, heading out the door to pile into cabs for the ballpark.
"Come on, Hersh, let's go," said second baseman Lonnie Frey.
"Yeah, yeah," Hershberger said. "I'll be along."
Pitcher Paul Derringer was the last player to see him. It was 11:55 a.m. when Derringer swept past Hershberger toward the door. "Aren't you coming, Hershie?" Derringer asked.
"Not yet," Hershberger said. "I'm waiting for a friend."
The day before, he bought a bottle of iodine in the drugstore of the Copley Plaza, but he changed his mind about drinking it, even if he could not shake the impulse that had led him to buy it. After the players had left, Hershberger drifted back to his room. At 1:10 p.m., as he sat there thinking, the phone rang. At McKechnie's urgent request, Paul was trying to reach Hershberger from a public phone booth at the ballpark. "The phone rang a long, long time," recalls Paul.
When Hershberger finally answered it and Paul identified himself, the usually gentle, soft-spoken catcher snapped: "What do you want?"
"Bill asked me to call you," Paul said. "He's worried about you, and he wants you to come to the ballpark."
"I'm sick," said Hershberger.
"You don't have to put on your uniform," said Paul. "Bill says you can come out and sit in the stands. He's concerned, and he just wants you out here."
Hershberger hesitated. "All right," he said. "I'll be right out...."
Paul was the last person known to have spoken to him. Hershberger never made it to the ballpark. Around 2 p.m., he stripped off his shirt and undershirt and shaved with his brand-new electric razor, which he had bought just before this road trip. In the bathroom, Hershberger then gathered up all the towels from the racks, got down on his hands and knees and, as meticulously as a mason laying tiles, unfolded and spread out the towels, wall to wall, on the bathroom floor. He was too polite and thoughtful a man to make a terrible mess for the maid to clean up. No, he would leave nothing like that. Nothing like the mess his father, Claude, had left 12 years before, when Willard was a high school boy of 17 living at home in Fullerton, Calif., and one dark November morning was jolted awake by the thunderous roar of the shotgun exploding in the bathroom at the bottom of the stairs.
Hershberger finished laying out the towels. The game at the park was in the seventh inning, with the Reds winning 2-1, when he picked up the used single-edge blade that he had taken from his roommate's safety razor. He turned his back to the tub.
Peering above the basin into the reflecting glass, Willard McKee Hershberger looked into the face of the only man who ever really wished him ill.
He was born on May 28, 1911, in Lemoncove, Calif., but Willard and his younger sister, Lois, started school and grew up in Fullerton, 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles, where their father had gotten a job in the drilling fields of Shell Oil. From the time he was a boy, Willard's world was immutably fixed: sports, guns, hunting and tinkering with shortwave radios. Girls only loitered on the edges of this world. "I always had plenty of older girls coming over to the house asking for me, but it was Willard they really wanted to see," Lois recalled in September 1989, eight months before she died. "He never seemed interested in any one girl, particularly. Maybe because the girls were more interested in him than he was in them."
Instead, Hershberger developed into a playground rat who worked endlessly at sports and games, everything from baseball and basketball by day to kick-the-can at night. Baseball was his abiding love. "Willard always had a baseball in his hand and a mitt tied to his belt," said Lois. "He wanted to be a ballplayer all his life."
"A catcher," recalls his cousin, Blanche McKee Maloy, whose father was the brother of Hershberger's mother, Maude. "Cousin Lois was a strong, athletic gal, too. After school, she would throw to him in their backyard. When she got to high school, none of the girls wanted to catch her because she threw too hard."
By the time Willard reached his senior year at Fullerton Union High School, an athletic mecca in Southern California, he had become not only the school's surpassing athlete but a model student and leader as well. The year before, he had been elected president of his junior class and president of the Varsity Club, a group for athletes who had earned six letters. He was the only junior among them. He was a dominant figure in three sports: a runner and kicker in football ("The boy with the magic toe," according to the school's yearbook), a basketball letterman and a baseball player ("The best little catcher ever to wear a Fullerton High School suit").
To be sure, Hershberger was not the only kid at Fullerton in 1928 who was looking to the future and sharpening his spikes. In the tradition of old grad Walter (Big Train) Johnson, who won 416 major league games in 21 years of pitching (1907-27), Fullerton shortstop Arky Vaughan, just a year behind Hershberger and one of his closest friends, was but four years away from launching a major league career in Pittsburgh in which he would hit between .300 and .385 for 10 straight seasons on his way to Cooperstown. And then there was that young Fullerton underclassman, the boy with the full crop of brown hair and the print tie, as he was pictured in the '28 yearbook with this note: "Special mention should be made of the excellent work of Richard Nixon, the high school representative in the National Oratorical Contest on the Constitution."
Coming to his last year—in which he served as the senior class vice-president and as captain of the basketball and baseball teams—Hershberger was a popular, pleasant, affable young man with exceptional athletic ability. He had a quick white-piano-key smile and a cackly, catching laugh that he passed around among the knots of students he met in the halls of Fullerton. At 17, he had everything before him.
"A very lovable human being," recalls Florence Dysinger, 90, a phys-ed teacher at Fullerton then. "Very happy and well-adjusted until...that terrible thing happened with his father."
Blanche Maloy always saw Willard in contrast to his father, whom she remembers as a figure hovering in the background, looking grainier and more remote than anyone else. "Two of Claude's cousins had killed themselves," recalls Blanche. "One of them hung himself. Willard's father was a strange, moody man. Withdrawn. A little odd. He had these home remedies that he used on Willard and Lois. Willard always had real bad earaches. His father would light up his pipe and draw hot smoke and blow it in Willard's car. That was supposed to cure the earache. If the kids had a bad cold, he'd kill a skunk and render out the oil and rub them with skunk oil. I don't know where the man came from."
But she remembers how he left. At 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 21, 1928, about two months after Willard had begun his senior year in high school, his father picked up a shotgun that Willard had inadvertently left leaning against a downstairs wall. What he did next was reported the same day by the Fullerton Daily News:
Claude E. Hershberger, 54, 222 N. Yale Ave., father of Willard Hershberger, prominent high school athlete, committed suicide in his home...today by shooting himself with a shotgun.
The decedent had been despondent for several weeks it was believed, brooding over financial worries brought on by changes in personnel of the oil company for which he was employed and which were said to have left him in an inferior position to that which he formerly held.
Retiring to the bathroom of his home, Hershberger is said by police to have pointed at his breast while seated on the edge of the bath tub. The trigger was pushed by means of a cane. Death was believed instantaneous.
"Willard's bedroom was directly above the bathroom, and he was the first one to reach his father," says Maloy. "He ran down the stairs and there [Claude] was. It had blown him into the tub."
Lois, then 15, followed Willard in to see if her father was breathing. She remembered standing there with her brother's arms around her. "I was the strong one," Lois said. "Willard blamed himself for not putting the gun upstairs where it belonged. He hugged me for strength. I guess we were both so upset that we never mentioned it again. We absolutely never spoke a word of it to each other for the rest of our lives."
Of course, the unending horror of the experience—the crashing of the gunshot and the sight of the blood, the void it created and the feelings of anger and betrayal it aroused in the boy—more than altered the course of Hershberger's life. It left him with a widowed mother for whom he would become chief provider and protector, a woman who worshiped him and all he did, in return for which, Lois said, he vowed never to marry while his mother was alive. It also left him with the memory of a father who had shown him not how to be a man but how to be a victim—an unspeakable legacy that ineluctably led him, 12 years later, to that bathroom in the Copley Plaza Hotel. "You can imagine how it affected Willard," says Maloy. "You know, to my knowledge, he never took a bath in a tub again. Only showers."
"Lois adjusted very well," recalls Dysinger. "She came in and talked to me the day after her father killed himself. She said that Willard had found him and he was terribly shocked. Something snapped. It didn't go away. It ate into him. It changed his life."
Indeed, throughout his entire professional baseball career—eight years on seven teams in the minors and 2½ years with the Reds in The Show—Hershberger would never be known as the lighthearted lad he had been in Fullerton. Not that his playing suffered. He hit better than .300 in six of the seven minor league years for which there are records, and in 1937, his final year with the legendary Newark Bears, he hit .325 in 314 at bats, striking out only six times, and had 62 RBIs. At season's end, he was voted the International League's Catcher of the Year. The Bears, owned by the New York Yankees, won the '37 Junior World Series and were regarded by some as the greatest minor league club ever assembled.
Pitcher Jack Fallon was the only '37 Bear not to make it to the bigs. Newark was the third minor league team on which he had played with Hershberger, and he had come to know the catcher as an uncompromising perfectionist. "Everything he did he wanted to do right," Fallon says.
Failure, or even mediocrity, was like poison to Hershberger. "If he went oh-for-four, or was in a slump, it worried the hell out of him," says Atley Donald, another '37 Bears pitcher. Hershberger became a hypochondriac, hoarding pills and predicting his illnesses two weeks in advance. "Hershie was popular when he got to the ballpark, but a lonesome man away from the game," says fellow Newark catcher Buddy Rosar. "And lots of bottles of pills. He had a nervous condition."
Despite the manner of his father's death, for which he continued to blame himself, Hershberger built a vast collection of guns—"He carried one in his suitcase on road trips and usually bought a new one in each city," says Fallon—and he took target practice regularly at the Cincinnati police shooting range. He was a crack shot in rifle, pistol and skeet. Some days he even took target practice in his hotel. In Binghamton, N.Y., he and Fallon had adjoining rooms. "The hotel room was papered in a daisy pattern," Fallon recalls. "Hershie had this pump gun, an air rifle that shot .22-caliber pellets. He shot the center out of every daisy on that wall. He set bottle caps on the edge of the bathtub, and from his bed across the room he shot the caps off the tub. All you heard in the next room was Peeez! Peeez! Hershie was an odd person in many ways."
Hershberger's mother could see the changes in him in the off-season, when he came home to Three Rivers, Calif., 10 miles west of Lemoncove, to ride the ranges and hunt for quail and deer. Earl McKee, Blanche's brother, recalls Maude Hershberger telling him of how her son began brooding silently. "I'd find him up late at night, sitting in the dark by the window, smoking cigarettes," Maude said.
The reason he rattled around for so long in the minors, from El Paso to Eric to Oakland, was one of those odd turns of fate that seemed to plague Hershberger. Back in 1930, having heard sensational reports about Hershberger, Pirate scout Art Griggs set out from Los Angeles to Fullerton to see him play. At the same time Yankee scout Bill Essick took off in the same direction to look at Vaughan, the shortstop phenom. Instead of going straight to Fullerton, though, Essick detoured through Long Beach to have a look at another player. That left Griggs grazing alone in Fullerton. When he saw Vaughan, Griggs signed him immediately, becoming so distracted by his find that he forgot about Hershberger. When Essick arrived a few days later, he saw that Vaughan was gone and, in his place, signed Hershberger. If Essick hadn't chosen to swing through Long Beach, chances are the two scouts would have gotten what they originally had come for; Vaughan would have joined Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio on the Yankees, and Hershberger would have been a Buc, teaming with future Hall of Famers Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, Paul and Lloyd. In the 1930s, the Pirates changed catchers regularly, and Hershberger would have made the majors long before 1938, his first year up.
As things turned out, Hershberger played all his minor league years for the Yankees, a dead-end career path for any catcher while the great Bill Dickey was performing in the Bronx. With all the teams that could have used Hershberger as a starter, the Yankees sent him in the winter of '37 to Cincinnati, where he would be a sub, in exchange for $25,000, shortstop Eddie Miller and an option on another player.
They loved Hershie in River City. He and Lombardi were a pair—the wiry Hershberger and the 6'3", 230-pound Schnozz, who had hands like picnic roasts and an ornament of a nose that raised snoring to a performing art. Everywhere Lombardi went, the lovable oaf fell asleep, and everywhere he fell asleep, he snored—at parties, in darkened movie theaters, on trains. Players would gather around him just to watch him snore. To watch the first flutters coming from his lips, like a light breeze that foretold the storm. "Here it comes!" someone would say. And then the gathering of vibrations, the deeply inhaled breath and, finally, the climactic explosion, an eruption from an abyss that left the audience slapping knees in laughter and Lombardi waking with a start to thunder: "What's so funny?"
"He was the loudest snorer I ever heard," recalls utility infielder Eddie Joost. "Terrible. But a great guy. As kind a person as you'd ever want to meet in your life. And could he hit! One year he hit .342 to lead the league, and he couldn't run to first base in 10 minutes. If he could have run, he'd have hit .400." Indeed, shortstops played him so deep that Lombardi once said to Pee Wee Reese, the Brooklyn shortstop, "You'd been in the league for five years before I learned you weren't an outfielder."
While Hershberger had a quick, accurate arm, Lombardi had a cannon. Nevertheless, "Lom threw the lightest ball I ever caught," says Frey. "You hardly knew you had it in your hand. Just put your glove down, and it was there."
Which is the reason why, as long as Lombardi was around. Hershberger would never start in Cincinnati. Though he and Lombardi could not have been more dissimilar, they were two of the team's best-loved players. In one poll conducted in late July 1940, women fans voted Lombardi the most popular Reds player, with Hershberger second.
While Lombardi moved like a dirigible behind the plate, slow in fielding pop-ups or bunts, Hershberger dashed to back up the first baseman on ground balls to short. He was so active behind the plate that fans began to call him "Herky Jerky." Whenever he came in for Lombardi in the late innings of a game, they applauded him warmly. As much as they admired Lombardi, Crosley fans put the needle to him whenever he failed to get back for a dugout pop-up. "Hershie woulda got it!" they screamed.
Cincinnati was a meat-and-potatoes town, and players recall how the crowds would stir whenever Hershberger came to the on-deck circle with men on base. "Boy, he was tough in the clutch," Frey recalls. "And he had a peculiar habit out there. Every time we had men on base and Hershie came up to hit, before he went to the plate he bent down and untied and then retied his shoestrings. But only when it meant something. I remember the guys would see him doing that and someone would say, 'Hershie's bearin' down.... He's tyin' his shoes!' "
Good as Hershberger was, it struck Thompson as curious that the catcher seemed content to back up Lombardi. "No doubt in my mind he could have been a starting catcher for most anybody," Thompson says. "I don't think Hershie realized he was near as good as he was. We pitchers just thought he was outstanding. If you find someone with the ability that Hershie had, and he's aggressive at all, he's not gonna be satisfied to catch behind anyone. Most guys with Hershie's ability would say, 'Trade me. I want to go to a place where I can catch every day.' He had no confidence. He was satisfied."
The Yankees swept the Reds in the 1939 World Series. Hershberger got into three games and went 1 for 2, with an RBI single in Game 4, and he used his share of the Series money, $4,000, to build his mother a house in Three Rivers. "He dug a well for her.," says Maloy. "He built a little bridge over a little creek that crosses the driveway up to the house. He built a fence around the yard to keep the cows out. She was so happy, and so proud of Willard."
In October 1939, some 300 Orange County residents attended a banquet honoring Hershberger in the cafeteria of Fullerton Union High School. The Junior Chamber of Commerce was welcoming home, as one newspaper put it, "the local boy who made good as catcher for the National League champion Cincinnati Reds." It was a highlight of the Fullerton social season. "Everybody loved him," Maloy says. "Just a hero to the kids."
There was no reason to believe, as the 1940 season began, that Hershberger had anything more menacing on his mind than the tying and untying of his laces. But he did. He had never shared his family secret, so far as anyone could recall. In the majors, as in the minors, he sat apart from his teammates off the field—a nervous, distant, often brooding man. "On the train, you'd be talking to people, and he'd be over there looking out the window, never getting involved in what was going on around him," Joost says. "The impression he gave was of sadness, as if he was saying, 'What am I doin'? Where am I goin'?' I can see his face today. Vividly. A somber face. I am walking by him in a railroad car. He is staring out the window."
The late Lew Riggs, the Reds' backup third baseman and Hershberger's roommate at the Kemper Lane Hotel in Cincinnati, saw him as Maude Hershberger had seen him at home. "Whenever I woke up at any hour of the night, I would find him seated in a chair by the window staring out into the darkness and smoking cigarette after cigarette," Riggs once recalled. "I joked with him about his ability to go into a game the following day and hit a few right on the nose...and he would say, 'It's a gift.' He practically would not get any sleep at all."
Hershberger's insomnia gave him more time to nurse his hypochondria. "He had a big briefcase filled with all kinds of pills," recalls centerfielder Harry Craft. In his locker, there were bottles in boxes, and nose drops and unguents and sprays. Hershberger spent hours with Doc Rohde, the team trainer, in Rohde's hotel room. He would pull down the skin under his eyes, check the whites of them in the mirror, then ask Rohde: "Doc, aren't these eyes yellow-lookin' to you?"
"No, they look fine to me," Rohde would say.
"I never heard of anybody in my life who could predict down the road that he would be sick," says Thompson. "But [Hershberger] could. He'd say, 'By the way I feel now, I'll be down with a cold by next Wednesday.' The oddity of it was, he would get sick on Wednesday."
His hypochondria became the butt of clubhouse jokes. Players filled his locker with bottles of pills. As Hershberger left Rohde's room, someone would say, "You look a little peaked, Hershie, are you all right?" Hershberger was not laughing with the boys. "He would get upset about it," says Thompson. "Of course, we were gettin' a big kick out of it, laughing."
By July 1940, something far more ominous than insomnia or hypochondria had Hershberger in its grip. Earlier in the season, he had told Riggs and another teammate, Bill Baker, that he planned to kill himself, but they had not taken him seriously. His brooding and sleeplessness became worse. He started dropping into McKechnie's office and threatening to quit. "Bill, I can't go on," he said one day. "I'm a jinx. I'm getting out of baseball." He bought a savings bond, put it in the Kemper Hotel safe and told Riggs, 'If anything happens to me, Lew, I want you to know where it is. See that my mother gets it.' " He purchased a new car, but he also took out a $5,000 life insurance policy.
It was as if Hershberger had seen an omen. Once again, fate played cruelly with him. The eastern road trip began in Brooklyn with a doubleheader against the Dodgers, who were five games behind the Reds. Lombardi started the first game, which the Reds won 4-3, and Hershberger was behind the plate as the Reds took the second 9-2. Noted The New York Times the following day: "Bill Hershberger led the attack on the Brooklyn pitchers in this game, getting four hits in five times up." He also had two RBIs. The next day, with Lombardi sidelined by a sore ankle, Cincinnati won 6-3 to sweep the series, but Hershberger went 0 for 4.
All at once he found himself the first-string catcher of the pennant-chasing Reds in the middle of the season. A heat wave, with temperatures hovering in the high 90s, made the East Coast a bubbling caldron. Wearing wool uniforms, ballplayers suffered damnably. In Philadelphia on July 26, the Reds won their seventh straight, 9-5, and Hershberger drove in two runs with a single in the first, his only hit in five at bats. He began to melt away. On July 27, in 100° heat, the Phillies whipped the Reds 5-3 and hold Hershberger hitless. The next day the Reds won the first game of a doubleheader against the Phillies 7-2, but lost the second 4-1, with Hershberger going 0 for 4. The grandstands were beginning to close in on him.
In the furnace of New York's Polo Grounds on July 30, Hershberger went 3 for 4 in the Reds' 6-3 victory over the Giants, but by then he had lost 15 pounds and was beginning to suffer from dehydration and exhaustion. Whatever it was that had been gnawing at him in the night, he finally surrendered to it on July 31. Reds pitcher Bucky Walters had a 4-1 lead over the Giants in the ninth inning, with two out. He was tiring, but McKechnie left him in. Walters walked Bob Seeds, and Burgess Whitehead homered to make the score 4-3. Walters then walked Mel Ott, and up came Harry (the Horse) Danning, who drove an 0-2 pitch into the balcony in left to win the game 5-4.
Hershberger was inconsolable. For the next two days he insisted on taking the blame for the loss, claiming that he had called for the wrong pitch to Danning. Craft says that Walters blamed himself. After the game the Reds climbed into a Pullman car and headed for Boston. Hershberger was sitting in his berth across from Bill Werber, the Reds' third baseman, and shaking his head. "If Ernie had been catching, we wouldn't have lost those ball games," Hershberger told him. "We'd have never lost that game tonight with Ernie behind the plate."
Werber waved that away. "You got nine guys out there, Hershie," Werber told him. "Everybody's responsible."
Hershberger would not hear it. "It's just terrible," he said. "Losing those ball games that you've got in your pocket. It's all my fault. All my fault." He had begun to feel, too, that members of the team were lining up against him. While sitting on the bench one day with Morrie Arnovich, a Reds outfielder, Hershberger confided: "There's a lot of fellows on this club who are down on me." Arnovich told him this was not so. Hershberger grew silent. He was drifting out of touch.
McKechnie began to sense how far the catcher had gone only on Friday, Aug. 2, when Hershberger went 0 for 5 in the second game of a doubleheader against the Bees. At one point in the game, he simply failed to field a swinging bunt in front of the plate, forcing pitcher Whitey Moore to come scrambling for it. After the inning ended, McKechnie put his hands on Hershberger's shoulders. "What's the matter, son?" he asked. "Are you sick? Is there anything the matter with you?"
"You bet there's something the matter with me," said Hershberger, his eyes wide. "I'll tell you about it after the game."
Riggs, who may have known Hershberger best, could see how far he had gone over the edge. "He caught that game through instinct alone," Riggs said. "When he would come back to the bench, he would not say a word to anybody. I don't believe he really knew what plays had been made."
Later that day, McKechnie took Hershberger to the ballpark's deserted grandstand, but Hershberger balked at sitting there. "I can't talk to you here," he said. "I'll break down."
It didn't really matter. Back at the Copley, on McKechnie's couch, Hershberger unburdened himself. "The kid just sat there and cried for a full hour, and I let him, because I wanted him to get it off his chest," McKechnie said. "Then he started to talk."
At one point, Hershberger said: "My father killed himself, and I'm gonna do it too. I was gonna kill myself this morning when we got off the train. I went to the drugstore and bought a big bottle of iodine. I was gonna drink that, but then I thought there were better ways to do it." He told McKechnie that he alone was responsible for the recent losses. McKechnie tried to console and reassure him. Hershberger said that he bore no animosity toward any of the players and that none of this was their fault. The conversation ranged far afield. The Luftwaffe had begun the air war over Britain, and several times Hershberger referred to "that son of a bitch Hitler." At 9 p.m., the two men went to dinner. At around midnight, thinking he had talked Hershberger out of any notions of suicide, McKechnie left him at his room.
"I'm all right now, Bill," the catcher told his manager. "I'll be in there with my old pep tomorrow."
Later that night, Hershberger's road roommate, Baker, returned to find their hotel room dark. He called Willard's name. No answer. He flicked on the light. Hershberger was sitting in the bathroom. "What are you doing, Hershie?" Baker asked.
"Just smoking a cigarette, Bill."
On the floor lay a coil of wire that Riggs had given Hershberger to use as a radio antenna. It had been on the dresser earlier that night. Later Baker saw that Hershberger, relaxed at last, got his first full night's sleep in many weeks. Hershberger knew what he was going to do.
The following afternoon, after watching his teammates leave the hotel, he went upstairs, shaved, set out the towels and, facing himself in the bathroom mirror, felt for the jugular. He found it only after hacking around clumsily with the blade. Once the the vein was open, he turned toward the tub, knelt over its rim and bled to death.
Between games of the doubleheader, McKechnie, realizing that Hershberger had not arrived at the park, asked the catcher's friend Dan Cohen, a visiting Cincinnati shoe-store owner who was to have dinner with Hershberger that night, to check on him at the hotel. The door to Hershberger's room was locked, and no one answered. Cohen finally prevailed on a maid to let him in. The room was empty, neat as a watch, and Cohen was about to leave when he decided to peek into the bathroom. Hershberger was leaning over the tub, half in and half out. Cohen raced back to the ballpark. The second game was in the fourth inning. "When I saw Dan Cohen running down to the bench during the second game," said Riggs, "I knew that something terrible had happened to Hershberger. Goose pimples broke out all over me, and the fellows told me I turned as white as a sheet."
On his way out of the dugout, McKechnie told coach Hank Gowdy what had happened and, putting Gowdy in charge of the team, asked him not to tell the players until after the game was over. The Reds lost the nightcap, 5-2, and Craft recalls walking into the clubhouse and hearing Gowdy call the team together.
"All right, now be quiet," the coach said. "I want to tell you something. Willard Hershberger has just destroyed himself."
Craft dropped his head, too stunned to speak. "What?" he thought. "Hershie what?"
Joost was struck dumb. "Why?" he asked himself. "Why would he do a thing like that?"
Thompson was not in the clubhouse, but when he heard what had happened, he wondered if he and the other pranksters had helped drive Hershberger to suicide by making fun of his hypochondria. Says Thompson, "My first thought was, 'Did we have something to do with it?' I've thought about it so many times. I don't think we had any idea how this was hurtin' that young guy. Since then, I've never made fun of anybody. That will stay with me the rest of my life. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but I don't think we helped it."
In his suite that night, McKechnie gathered his players together. He told them what Hershberger had said to him the night before—how his father had killed himself, how Hershberger had wanted to kill himself, too, and how he felt he had let down the team. McKechnie also said Hershberger had talked about other personal problems that the manager felt honor-bound not to reveal. McKechnie mentioned that Hershberger had several un-cashed paychecks in his pocket. Lombardi, Riggs and a few others were weeping. "I thought I had talked him completely out of it," McKechnie said. "I thought everything was put back together again. I couldn't keep a bodyguard on him."
The meeting lasted about half an hour. McKechnie made one plea. "The thing for us to do now is win the pennant and vote Hershie's mother a full share of the World Series money," he said. "And I know we'll win it." They did indeed win the Series, beating Detroit four games to three, and Maude Hershberger got a full share, $5,803.62.
Ironically, Hershberger's death led to the best of all 1940 World Series stories. In mid-September, Lombardi sprained his ankle, and without Hershberger, McKechnie turned to the only man in the organization he thought could handle the job—coach Jimmy Wilson, 40, a former catcher who had caught but two games in nearly three seasons. Wilson caught in six of the seven Series games, and Thompson can still see him hobbling in pain, his thigh muscles knotted up from so much squatting. Between innings, Wilson would teeter to the runway behind the dugout, drop his pants and sit down so that Rohde could massage a scalding salve into his thighs. "Oh, mercy, it was hot," Thompson says. "And his catching hand was so swollen from catching fastballs that he could barely get it in and out of the glove. He was great."
Wilson also hit .353—six singles in 17 trips. It was a rare farewell, a final performance by an old man who rose one more time to honor himself and the game.
The other legacies of Hershberger's act were not so glorious. Maude Hershberger collapsed in the Three Rivers post office, where she was working, when she learned that her son had followed his father's example. She lived only seven more years.
Hershberger's friend Cohen, who had found him dead, committed suicide in 1961. Even Lombardi nearly emulated Hershberger. In 1953, out of baseball for four years, the Cyrano of the Iron Mask slipped into a deep depression. On their way to a sanatorium in Livermore, Calif., where he was to receive psychiatric treatment, Lombardi and his wife, Berice, stopped at a relative's house, where Lombardi found a razor and sliced open his throat. He begged Berice to let him die and struggled against the sheriffs deputies who came to take him to the hospital.
Those who knew Lombardi say there is no connection between Hershberger's suicide and Lombardi's attempt, but the nature of their acts suggests otherwise. Thompson believes that Hershberger's act was precipitated by the fear of failing when he was forced to become the regular catcher in Lombardi's absence. "When it all fell on Willard's shoulders," according to Thompson, "he said to himself, 'Hey, I can't handle this.' "And that would mean Lombardi's absence helped cause Hershberger's death. Ultimately, the most popular Cincinnati player of his day became as tragic a figure as the second most popular. Lombardi worked for six years as a press box attendant for the Giants in Candlestick Park, until an insult by a young reporter sent him packing in anger and shame. Lombardi next surfaced years later pumping gas in Oakland and railing against those who had allegedly denied him his rightful place in Cooperstown. He died in 1977; he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986.
Trivia question: Who is the only catcher in major league history to win two batting titles? (Lombardi, in 1938 and 1942.)
Trivia question: Who was the only active player in baseball history to commit suicide during the season?
Fifty-one years later, the most intriguing question about Hershberger's death remains unanswered: What were the problems he revealed to McKechnie on Friday night that helped drive him to kill himself on Saturday? "He told me what his problems were," McKechnie said at the time. "It has nothing to do with anybody on the team. It was something personal. He told it to me in confidence, and I will not utter it to anyone. I will take it with me to my grave."
True to his word, on Oct. 29, 1965, in Bradenton, Fla., Bill McKechnie took the secret with him.