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The Razor's Edge
William Nack
May 06, 1991
As the Cincinnati Reds chased a pennant in 1940, a dark family legacy tortured the mind of catcher Willard Hershberger
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May 06, 1991

The Razor's Edge

As the Cincinnati Reds chased a pennant in 1940, a dark family legacy tortured the mind of catcher Willard Hershberger

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Hershberger's mother could see the changes in him in the off-season, when he came home to Three Rivers, Calif., 10 miles west of Lemoncove, to ride the ranges and hunt for quail and deer. Earl McKee, Blanche's brother, recalls Maude Hershberger telling him of how her son began brooding silently. "I'd find him up late at night, sitting in the dark by the window, smoking cigarettes," Maude said.

The reason he rattled around for so long in the minors, from El Paso to Eric to Oakland, was one of those odd turns of fate that seemed to plague Hershberger. Back in 1930, having heard sensational reports about Hershberger, Pirate scout Art Griggs set out from Los Angeles to Fullerton to see him play. At the same time Yankee scout Bill Essick took off in the same direction to look at Vaughan, the shortstop phenom. Instead of going straight to Fullerton, though, Essick detoured through Long Beach to have a look at another player. That left Griggs grazing alone in Fullerton. When he saw Vaughan, Griggs signed him immediately, becoming so distracted by his find that he forgot about Hershberger. When Essick arrived a few days later, he saw that Vaughan was gone and, in his place, signed Hershberger. If Essick hadn't chosen to swing through Long Beach, chances are the two scouts would have gotten what they originally had come for; Vaughan would have joined Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio on the Yankees, and Hershberger would have been a Buc, teaming with future Hall of Famers Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, Paul and Lloyd. In the 1930s, the Pirates changed catchers regularly, and Hershberger would have made the majors long before 1938, his first year up.

As things turned out, Hershberger played all his minor league years for the Yankees, a dead-end career path for any catcher while the great Bill Dickey was performing in the Bronx. With all the teams that could have used Hershberger as a starter, the Yankees sent him in the winter of '37 to Cincinnati, where he would be a sub, in exchange for $25,000, shortstop Eddie Miller and an option on another player.

They loved Hershie in River City. He and Lombardi were a pair—the wiry Hershberger and the 6'3", 230-pound Schnozz, who had hands like picnic roasts and an ornament of a nose that raised snoring to a performing art. Everywhere Lombardi went, the lovable oaf fell asleep, and everywhere he fell asleep, he snored—at parties, in darkened movie theaters, on trains. Players would gather around him just to watch him snore. To watch the first flutters coming from his lips, like a light breeze that foretold the storm. "Here it comes!" someone would say. And then the gathering of vibrations, the deeply inhaled breath and, finally, the climactic explosion, an eruption from an abyss that left the audience slapping knees in laughter and Lombardi waking with a start to thunder: "What's so funny?"

"He was the loudest snorer I ever heard," recalls utility infielder Eddie Joost. "Terrible. But a great guy. As kind a person as you'd ever want to meet in your life. And could he hit! One year he hit .342 to lead the league, and he couldn't run to first base in 10 minutes. If he could have run, he'd have hit .400." Indeed, shortstops played him so deep that Lombardi once said to Pee Wee Reese, the Brooklyn shortstop, "You'd been in the league for five years before I learned you weren't an outfielder."

While Hershberger had a quick, accurate arm, Lombardi had a cannon. Nevertheless, "Lom threw the lightest ball I ever caught," says Frey. "You hardly knew you had it in your hand. Just put your glove down, and it was there."

Which is the reason why, as long as Lombardi was around. Hershberger would never start in Cincinnati. Though he and Lombardi could not have been more dissimilar, they were two of the team's best-loved players. In one poll conducted in late July 1940, women fans voted Lombardi the most popular Reds player, with Hershberger second.

While Lombardi moved like a dirigible behind the plate, slow in fielding pop-ups or bunts, Hershberger dashed to back up the first baseman on ground balls to short. He was so active behind the plate that fans began to call him "Herky Jerky." Whenever he came in for Lombardi in the late innings of a game, they applauded him warmly. As much as they admired Lombardi, Crosley fans put the needle to him whenever he failed to get back for a dugout pop-up. "Hershie woulda got it!" they screamed.

Cincinnati was a meat-and-potatoes town, and players recall how the crowds would stir whenever Hershberger came to the on-deck circle with men on base. "Boy, he was tough in the clutch," Frey recalls. "And he had a peculiar habit out there. Every time we had men on base and Hershie came up to hit, before he went to the plate he bent down and untied and then retied his shoestrings. But only when it meant something. I remember the guys would see him doing that and someone would say, 'Hershie's bearin' down.... He's tyin' his shoes!' "

Good as Hershberger was, it struck Thompson as curious that the catcher seemed content to back up Lombardi. "No doubt in my mind he could have been a starting catcher for most anybody," Thompson says. "I don't think Hershie realized he was near as good as he was. We pitchers just thought he was outstanding. If you find someone with the ability that Hershie had, and he's aggressive at all, he's not gonna be satisfied to catch behind anyone. Most guys with Hershie's ability would say, 'Trade me. I want to go to a place where I can catch every day.' He had no confidence. He was satisfied."

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