There is a certain tragedy in baseball: with one team's victory, another falls in defeat. Yet as Willie Stargell famously noted, when the game starts, the umpire yells, "Play ball!" ... not "Work ball!" It is, in the end, a game. Or so they say. Many grown men would tell you otherwise; they stake their liveliness, their livelihood, and their lives on the grand sport of baseball. This is one such story.
Willard McKee Hershberger was born May 28, 1910 in Lemon Cove, California. He showed an enormous potential around the sandlot and in high school (even becoming MVP over future Hall of Famer Arky Vaughan), so much so that a bidding war ensued for his services when he was only 16 years old. Eventually, he signed to play in the vaunted New York Yankees farm system, and he proudly presented a $2,000 signing bonus to his parents.
He shipped off to Columbus, Ohio, where he played two outstanding seasons as a catcher. In 1928, in the midst of a 21-game hitting streak, Hershberger received tragic news: his father had committed suicide. Hershberger was distraught, and immediately quit the team and returned home. He worked around the city doing odd jobs to support his mother, until one day he was asked by the Columbus manager if he would like to return to the Yankees. After getting his mother's permission, Willard returned to the team.
By this time, the Yankees had already acquired another catching prospect, Buddy Rosar. Both he and Hershberger competed for the job to back up Bill Dickey in the majors, but eventually Rosar won out on his defensive skill. It was 1936, and Willard was already 26 years old.
He was sold to Cincinnati in late 1936, and played well enough in the 1936 and 1937 season that he was called up in May of 1938. His first big league start was impressive: he caught a 2-hitter from Johnny Van Der Meer and went 3-for-4 at the plate. He platooned with the great Ernie Lombardi throughout the season, batting .276.
1939 was an even more outstanding season: he batted .345 in 63 games for the Reds, knocking in 32 runs. Still, players on the team noticed Hershberger often complained of headaches and nausea. He was occasionally moody, and seemed to keep to himself. The players simply shrugged it off, thinking it had to do with Hershberger's sad past.
In June 1940, Hershberger's big break came. Lombardi's knees gave out on him, and Hershberger was indefinitely handed the starting job. He provided a respectable .309 average and his catching was more than competent. The Reds were in a tight pennant race, and they had just moved into a slightly comfortable lead, 4 games ahead of the New York Giants. On July 31, a doubleheader between the teams was held, with the Reds winning the first game, and the Giants overcoming a 4-1 deficit in the 10th inning of the nightcap to win 5-4.
Hershberger blamed himself for the loss, saying his pitch calling had gone down the drain. He was inconsolable. On August 3, the Reds were scheduled to play the Boston Braves in another doubleheader. As the first game time approached, manager Bill McKechnie noticed Hershberger was absent. He called Willard's room at Boston's Copely Plaza Hotel, where Willard told him he was sick and wouldn't be able to play. Unconvinced, McKechnie sent Hershberger's friend Dan Cohen back to the hotel to investigate.
When Cohen entered the room, he found a grisly sight: Hershberger lay on the ground in a pool of his own blood. He had slit his throat. He was only 30 years old.
Although the Reds went on to win the World Series that year, it was a hollow victory. Willard Hershberger had shown all the signs of a potential suicide victim, yet no one had acted upon it. He is a sad reminder that for some, certain things are not a game. They are, in fact, matters of life and death.
YEAR TEAM G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA
1938 CIN NL 49 105 12 29 3 1 0 12 1 ? 5 6 .276
1939 CIN NL 63 174 23 60 9 2 0 32 1 ? 9 4 .345
1940 CIN NL 48 123 6 38 4 2 0 26 0 ? 6 6 .309
CAREER 160 402 41 127 16 5 0 70 2 0 20 16 .316