If Bergen seemed odd off the field, he more than made up for it in the Bostons' run to beat the Baltimores for the '98 National League title. That year, Bergen bought his farm two miles outside North Brookfield for $1,650, putting $300 down, and for Christmas the club sent him a present fit for a young gentleman farmer with a family: "Two handsome horses, a carriage, sleigh, harness and a piano," reported The Springfield Union.
He was a favorite of the fans, so the money changers in the front office loved him. Bergen had hit only .248 in his second year in the majors, playing 87 games, but he came back in '98 to have his best season, hitting .289 over 120 games and earning his reputation as the best fielding catcher in the game. Yet that year he also grew increasingly hostile and unbalanced and, according to the Boston Morning Journal, "assaulted several of the most inoffensive members of the team while in the west."
All this came to a boil on July 28 in what The Sporting News would describe as a "sensational scene" instigated by Bergen over breakfast in the fancy dining room of the Southern Hotel in St. Louis. The night before, on the train bearing the team from Brooklyn, pitcher Vic Willis and other players had begun kidding one another. "Bergen took a hand in the fun-making," the News reported, "and good fellowship was the rule. Suddenly Bergen grew morose and refused to join in the horseplay. He growled at Willis, but no one paid any attention to it, as it was nothing unusual for him to relapse into one of his spells when he would not talk with or be talked to by anyone."
The next morning, Willis came down to breakfast and was escorted by the headwaiter to a seat next to Bergen. The 22-year-old Willis, a 6'2" rookie on his way to winning 25 games that season, greeted his catcher as he sat down. "If you don't get away from me," snarled Bergen, "I'll smash you, sure!" Willis refused to move, and Bergen reached over and slapped him on the face. Smarting from the blow, Willis appeared ready to fight, but he checked himself. Several players urged him to another table, then out of the room.
Selee warned him not to retaliate. "I'll make a sacrifice of my personal feelings and swallow the insult in the interests of the club," vowed Willis, "but if Bergen makes another break at me, we'll settle the question of which is the better man." Bergen refused to apologize, claiming he was made the butt of jokes on that train, and Selee warned him against any further trouble, telling Bergen, "If you say the word, I'll begin negotiations at once to trade you." Bergen said that he wanted to stay but that nobody would make a fool of him. The other players, trying for a fifth pennant in eight years, admired Bergen as a hustling, hardworking player but were livid over the slapping incident.
"It's his disposition to be gloomy and morose and we give him all the latitude we can in order to keep peace with him," one unnamed player told the News. "That scrap with Vic Willis was an outrage. Bergen made an ass of himself and brought discredit on us all by his inexcusable conduct.... It is a surprise to me we were not all thrown out bag and baggage.... There is no boycott on Bergen, but there is nothing cordial in our relations with him and he so understands. He has made trouble with a good many of the boys and we just give him a wide berth. But he's a ballplayer, and once we get into a game, personal feelings are set aside in admiration of the artist, for such he is."
The Southern Hotel incident, suppressed by the writers at Selee's request during the season, finally broke in The Sporting News in mid-October—after Boston had won the pennant—but the story did not force the team to trade its star catcher. The club had come to perceive him as too valuable. Since the middle of the '98 season, however, the Bostons had been a house unevenly divided, an entire team set against one man. Matters could only grow worse.
In addition to paranoia, Martin Bergen most likely suffered from schizophrenia with a touch of manic depression. "If I had to make a diagnosis, that would be it," says Dr. Carl Salzman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who examined various contemporary accounts of Bergen's behavior. Schizophrenia, Salzman says, can be marked by delusions such as Bergen experienced: "a belief that something is happening that isn't, and it's usually threatening. Other symptoms are withdrawal, inability to socialize, or fear of socializing; flat or dull feelings, not the usual range of expression of emotion; and difficulty thinking and controlling one's thoughts. It's a brain disease that causes the person to be more vulnerable to the usual stresses of life."
Today someone like Bergen would be treated with drugs and psychotherapy, but at the turn of the last century "there weren't any medications to treat this illness," says Salzman. "There was no psychotherapy. Many people [with Bergen's symptoms] were put in hospitals and locked up." The only medicine Bergen seems to have been prescribed were bromides, mild sedatives that, according to Salzman, were "commonly used at that time to quiet people down, especially if they were very anxious or had trouble sleeping." Against Bergen's afflictions, though, bromides were worthless.
Meanwhile, the stresses on the field and off mounted through 1899. The crowds seemed to grow louder and closer around Bergen. His wife became ill with tuberculosis. His paranoid fantasies had become self-fulfilling. Following the St. Louis incident, his teammates indeed "gave him a wide berth" and were no longer cordial. After his son Willie died in April, Bergen began to imagine that players were making light of the boy's death and joking about it behind his back.