Willard Hershberger

Willard Hershberger
Catcher
Born: May 28, 1910(1910-05-28)
Lemon Cove, California
Died: August 3, 1940(1940-08-03) (aged 30)
Boston, Massachusetts
Batted: Right Threw: Right 
MLB debut
April 19, 1938 for the Cincinnati Reds
Last MLB appearance
August 2, 1940 for the Cincinnati Reds
Career statistics
Batting average     .316
Home runs     0
Runs batted in     70
Teams

Willard McKee Hershberger (May 28, 1910 – August 3, 1940) was a catcher for Major League Baseball's Cincinnati Reds from 1938 to 1940.

He has the distinction of being the only major league player to date to commit suicide during the season.

Contents


Life and career

Willard Hershberger was born in Lemon Cove, California. Willard's family moved to Fullerton, California, when his father got a job in the oil fields there. He attended Fullerton Union High School, where he was a star athlete. The yearbook labeled Hershberger "the boy with the golden toe" referring to his football achievements, and "the greatest little catcher to ever put on the Fullerton uniform."[1] The 1926 baseball team, on which Hershberger played, won the CIF championship. In 2003, he was elected to the All-Time FUHS baseball team[2]

On November 21, 1928, his father, Claude, despondent over financial problems, shot himself to death with a shotgun in the family home's bathroom. Hershberger discovered the body.

Willard Hershberger signed with the Yankees, but did not make his major league debut until age 27, after eight minor league seasons.[3] He was a member of the Yankees' Newark (New Jersey) Bears farm team which posted an outstanding 109-43 record in 1937[4]. On December 3, 1937, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for shortstop Eddie Miller and $40,000.[5]

During his three-year tenure with the Reds, Willard Hershberger was a backup to regular catcher Ernie Lombardi. He was a good hitter for average and was smaller and far more athletic than the lumbering Lombardi. However, he lacked Lombardi's power; he hit no home runs in his major league career. In his rookie season, Hershberger played in 49 games and batted .276. The following year, he played 63 games and hit .345 and the Reds represented the National League in that year's World Series. It was their first National League championship since the 1919 season, when they won that year's controversial World Series. However, they were swept by Hershberger's former team, the Yankees. Hershberger batted twice and had one basehit. In 1940, he played in 48 games and batted .309. The Reds again won the National League championship and defeated the American League champion Detroit Tigers four games to three in the World Series.

However, the season was marred by Willard Hershberger's suicide.

Suicide

In July, Ernie Lombardi suffered an injured finger and Willard Hershberger filled in for him well. However, in a game against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on July 31, the Reds blew a 4-1 lead and lost the game 5-4. Hershberger perceived that some of his teammates might have blamed him for the loss. The Giants would finish the season in sixth place.

On August 2, the Reds lost both games of a double-header to the moribund Boston Bees 10-3 and 4-3, respectively. Hershberger caught the second game and went hitless in five at-bats. At some point during the game, an upset Hershberger alluded to his father's suicide and said he would do likewise. After the game, Hershberger opened up to Reds manager Bill McKechnie in private and personally took the blame for the losses. However, after about an hour, Hershberger had calmed down considerably and McKechnie believed he would be fine. The following morning, Reds publicist and traveling secretary Gabe Paul called his room at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston and relayed a message from Bill McKechnie that he didn't need to play that afternoon and needn't put on his uniform; arguably McKechnie wanted to give Hershberger time to collect himself emotionally. However, Hershberger said he would be there. But when he failed to appear for pre-game activities, Paul became concerned. The hotel manager unlocked the door to Hershberger's room and admitted him.

Gabe Paul saw Willard Hershberger in a blood-filled bathtub. He had slashed his throat.

After giving his team the tragic news, Bill McKechnie exhorted his team to dedicate themselves to winning the World Series "for Hershie". After the final game, the Reds players decided to share a portion of their championship money, totaling $5,803, to Hershberger's grieving mother, Maude.

Bill McKechnie never publicly revealed what Willard Hershberger said to him during their meeting. He told reporters, "It had nothing to do with anybody on the team. He told it to me in confidence, and I will not utter it to anyone"[6].

The Cincinnati Reds temporarily retired his uniform #5. However, it was reactivated in 1942. In 1967, it was assigned to another catcher: Johnny Bench, who would be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1989. The number was retired permanently in 1986.

Willard Hershberger is interred at Visalia Public cemetery, in Visalia, California.[7]

Lombardi's attempted suicide

In a nearly tragic coincidence, the affable and popular Ernie Lombardi, who had retired in 1947, himself attempted suicide in 1953 in the same manner as Willard Hershberger. However, Lombardi was saved despite his pleas to allow him to die. He was hospitalized and recovered and received treatment for his depression. Lombardi, who died in 1977, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.

See also

References