Martin Bergen was born in North Brookfield, 55 miles west of Boston, on Oct. 25, 1871. He was one of six children raised by Michael and Ann Delaney Bergen. When Martin was a teenager, baseball was just coming to flower as the national game, with Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings and King Kelly of the Chicagos and then the Bostons showing the way in their wools. Martin and his younger brother William practiced endlessly, both as catchers.
William, a smooth fielder, would play 11 years in the majors, most of them for the Brooklyns. His most enduring legacy would be a lifetime batting average of .170, still the lowest for any player with more than 3,000 at bats. Martin was cut from a better but softer grain of wood. Even as a kid, on Father James Tuite's team of altar boys, he had periodic tantrums, throwing down his gear and stalking off the field if another player earned more applause. He had a feel for the game, however, and he shaped his considerable athleticism to fit its languorous rhythms.
Everywhere Bergen went trouble followed. He began his run in minor league ball in Salem, Mass., in 1892, where he hit .247, but the year was not over before he got into a beef with a teammate over what The Sporting News described as an "imaginary grievance" of Bergen's. He gave the other player "a bad beating." Bergen fought with other teammates that year over what they too maintained were imagined offenses.
At Northampton, Mass., in '93, Bergen's prowess as a catcher began to draw attention, and he got offers from several other teams around New England. In '94 he landed in Lewiston, Maine, where he batted .321 in 97 games and caught brilliantly. "A phenomenal ballplayer," his teammate Jack Sharrott recalled years later in the Worcester Evening Gazette, but "so cranky that hardly anyone could get along with him and it was only by the greatest diplomacy that he was gotten along with at all."
Bergen performed so well in Maine that manager Jimmy Manning signed him to his Kansas City (Mo.) Blues in the talent-rich and hotly competitive Western League. There Bergen played to generally effusive reviews. After a 9-7 victory over Indianapolis in late July 1895, The Kansas City Star noted, "Bergen caught an excellent game yesterday and kept the visitors anchored to the bases all through the contest." What's more, it was not only his artful catching that was drawing notices. By July 1, Bergen was leading the Blues with a .407 average. "He is one of the cleanest hitters that ever played in Kansas City," the Star reported on June 23. His play suggested that he belonged at another level—in the only major league then in existence, the National League.
Mood swings aside—Bergen flipped from bright, expansive highs to dark, despondent lows—he was beginning to show a disturbing inclination to flee from his travails. He had met the pretty, fair-haired Hattie Gaines, who worked as a stitcher in the Batcheller shoe factory in North Brookfield, and they had been married in July 1893. He had urged her to join him in Kansas City, but she had chosen instead to stay with her family in upstate New York during the season. Living in a distant town without his wife left Bergen more unsettled than ever, and his erratic behavior incensed the tough Manning. Near the end of the '95 season, in one of his "spells," Bergen left the Blues over a perceived slight and went home to Massachusetts, never to return.
He would not be out of the game long. Bergen had ended up batting .372 for the Blues that season, with 188 hits and 118 runs scored in 113 games, so it was beyond any wonder that, at season's end, the desperately needy Bostons came after him. They had lost their formidable catcher, Charlie Bennett, in January 1894. (Leaving Wellsville, Kans., on a hunting trip, Bennett was running to catch a moving train when he lost his grip, slipped and fell under the wheels. He lived but lost both legs.) Boston manager Frank Selee dispatched his best pitcher, future Hall of Famer Kid Nichols, to scout Bergen in Kansas City. "I saw at once that he was a good man," the Kid recalled in the Boston Morning Journal years later. The Bostons gave the Blues $1,000 and shortstop Frank Connaughton for Bergen, but the catcher sniffed a conspiracy against him, and Selee had to travel to North Brookfield to assure Bergen that he would be used properly and to mollify him over his salary complaints. In those days the National League had a salary cap of $2,400 per player, and Bergen wanted top dollar.
Two seasons would pass before Bergen made the maximum—a good part of '96 was lost to injury—but he began to bloom as a defensive catcher in '97. Some of his feats became legendary. In one game in Washington that year he threw out seven runners trying to steal second base. "Bergen did throwing the like of which had never been seen in that city," said former New England League umpire William Fitzpatrick, a cousin of Bergen's.
The Bostons were charging toward their fourth pennant in seven years, and the catcher asserted himself as a respected and even crucial member of one of the greatest teams of the 19th century. Four of those Bostons would make it to Cooperstown: Nichols, who won 361 games in a 15-year career, had at least 30 wins per season seven out of eight years, from 1891 through '98, and pitched a staggering 532 complete games; outfielder Hugh Duffy, who holds the highest batting average for a season, .438 in 1894 (236 hits, including 18 home runs, in 539 at bats); outfielder Sliding Billy Hamilton, whose career record of 937 stolen bases stood until Lou Brock broke it in 1979; and third baseman Jimmy Collins, who hit .346 and .328 in the Bostons' last two pennant seasons of the 19th century.
They were solid, even brilliant, and Bergen was embraced as a mate. Between the lines he played the unruffled pro. John Gaffney, one of the premier umpires of those times, never knew Bergen as a complainer, this in an era noted for its theatrics. "I have been behind him umpiring for four years, and in that time he never raised a kick at any of my decisions," Gaffney told the Worcester Telegram in 1900. "The worst I ever heard him say was, 'Gaff, look out for the corners a little sharper.'...No man could catch more gracefully or do more with less apparent exertion than Bergen. Every move he made counted. He and [Dick] Buckley were the only two players I've ever seen who could throw to the bases without moving their feet.... That was one of Martin's strongest points. It...worked [sic] havoc with base runners."