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Collision at Home
William Nack
June 04, 2001
A century ago the best catcher in baseball, Boston's Martin Bergen, waged a losing battle against mental illness—a violent struggle in which he was not the only casualty
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June 04, 2001

Collision At Home

A century ago the best catcher in baseball, Boston's Martin Bergen, waged a losing battle against mental illness—a violent struggle in which he was not the only casualty

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Early on the morning of Friday, Jan. 19, 1900, in a little wooden farmhouse on a snow-swept spit of land in central Massachusetts, the finest catcher the game of baseball had yet known—a gentle, churchgoing man, an attentive husband, a doting father of two—rose from the couch on which he had been sleeping and made his way in darkness to the kitchen stove. Martin Bergen, age 28, was about to build a fire.

Out back, in the barn where his father was sleeping, the cows needed milking and the hens and the horse feeding, but Bergen's circuitry had been shorting out recently, and he was no longer of this world. On this graying wisp of a winter dawn, those scolding humpbacked witches mat had ridden him for years were hanging on more grimly than ever: the paranoid delusions that had made him duck knife blades as he played behind the plate; the inclement spells of nervousness and catatonia; the fear of his impulse to violence; the lapses in memory; the fits of melancholy; and the fantasies, oh, the fantasies on the train.

He had "suffered spells" and "acted queerly," as people put it in those days, long before he joined the Boston club of the National League in 1896, and the fact that he had stuck there over four full years revealed how much a team was willing to endure to have him behind the plate. Though Bergen was only an adequate hitter, .265 lifetime, the Boston scribblers had crowned him the King of Catchers. He was the Charles Johnson of his day, a nimble fielder with a bullwhip arm who could snap the ball to second base without so much as moving his feet.

"As a catcher, Martin Bergen was the best the world ever produced," future Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett, a St. Louis outfielder, told the Worcester Spy in 1900. "No man acted with more natural grace as a ballplayer. There was finish in every move he made. His eye was always true and his movements so quick and accurate in throwing that the speediest base runners...never took chances when Bergen was behind the bat."

The Bostons, popularly called the Beaneaters, forgave Bergen's eccentricities while they were winning pennants in '97 and '98, but by the summer of '99, when the team began to struggle, his increasingly erratic behavior made him a lightning rod for discontent. That April his four-year-old son, Willie, had died of diphtheria while the Bostons were on the road, and it had troubled Bergen that he could not get home before the end of the religious service—late to his favorite child's funeral. "It's pretty tough that my boy should be taken away," Bergen lamented to neighbors, "but it seems a great deal harder still to think that I should just get home in time to see him being taken out of the door in a box."

Phantoms were wheeling like crows now in his head. Increasingly distracted and morose, he skipped out on the ball club in the middle of a pennant race, in late July, and stole home to his 60-acre farm in North Brookfield, Mass., for a couple of weeks, believing that his teammates were plotting to kill him. In passenger trains, heading to road games, he had sat with his feet in the aisle so he could see his assassins approach from either side. He believed that the National League had hired his personal physician, Louis Dionne, to poison him. He had cried like a frightened boy after unburdening himself of his paranoid fantasies to a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer and had begged the man not to write what he had said. (The reporter complied.) The clamor and cheering at games had been driving Bergen to a state of heightened agitation.

After his return to the team in August he caught fewer and fewer games. He smoked heavily and chewed a 10-cent plug of tobacco every game. Dionne listened to his woes and diagnosed the problem as "tobacco heart"—frayed nerves due to excessive use of nicotine.

As the season drew to a close, with Wee Willie Keeler and the Brooklyn Bridegrooms pulling away to beat the Bostons for the flag, Bergen's mental condition grew more acute. He sought remedies from doctors and importuned three Catholic priests—Bergen rarely missed a Sunday Mass—to still the demons that had nested in his soul. He brooded in the clubhouse, staring into the distance for hours. Though of average stature, at 5'10" and 170 pounds, he appeared to grow larger and more fearsome to his teammates, evolving into a semblance of James Wait in Conrad's Nigger of the Narcissus, who inspired such fear among his mates that they shrank from even looking at him. Boston club president Arthur Soden told his boys to be careful around Bergen.

The catcher's wife, Hattie, had told Dionne that she had no fear of him. Nor did she fear for their two children, six-year-old Florence, a pretty brunette in curls, and flaxen-haired Joe, three years younger. Martin liked to hitch up his horse and buggy and take the kids to pick up the mail in town. By January 1900, though, he was not getting along with his father, Michael, whose drinking had been a source of tension between them, and on the night of Jan. 18—when Michael was supposed to start living with the family on the farm—Hattie met her father-in-law at the door and refused to let him into the house. A row ensued. At one point Hattie hid Martin's shotgun under the sheets of their bed, in the same room where the two kids slept, and when Martin got up around 5:30 a.m. to make that fire, he had a couple of shotgun shells in one of his pockets.

Standing before the kitchen stove, he lifted the oven lids and scooped out Thursday's ashes. Then he gathered old papers and laid them on the grate. Crossing the kitchen in his stocking feet, he opened the woodshed door and went inside. He may have meant to break up some wood for kindling. The heavy woodsman's ax was in one corner of the shed. Bergen picked it up. There's no telling where his last hallucination took him, but in that shed he Jekylled into Hyde. He swept back into the kitchen, the ax in his hands, and cut the corner into the bedroom. Hattie saw him coming toward her. She got to her feet and raised her hands to protect herself.

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