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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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The Yankees swept the Reds in the 1939 World Series. Hershberger got into three games and went 1 for 2, with an RBI single in Game 4, and he used his share of the Series money, $4,000, to build his mother a house in Three Rivers. "He dug a well for her.," says Maloy. "He built a little bridge over a little creek that crosses the driveway up to the house. He built a fence around the yard to keep the cows out. She was so happy, and so proud of Willard."

In October 1939, some 300 Orange County residents attended a banquet honoring Hershberger in the cafeteria of Fullerton Union High School. The Junior Chamber of Commerce was welcoming home, as one newspaper put it, "the local boy who made good as catcher for the National League champion Cincinnati Reds." It was a highlight of the Fullerton social season. "Everybody loved him," Maloy says. "Just a hero to the kids."

There was no reason to believe, as the 1940 season began, that Hershberger had anything more menacing on his mind than the tying and untying of his laces. But he did. He had never shared his family secret, so far as anyone could recall. In the majors, as in the minors, he sat apart from his teammates off the field—a nervous, distant, often brooding man. "On the train, you'd be talking to people, and he'd be over there looking out the window, never getting involved in what was going on around him," Joost says. "The impression he gave was of sadness, as if he was saying, 'What am I doin'? Where am I goin'?' I can see his face today. Vividly. A somber face. I am walking by him in a railroad car. He is staring out the window."

The late Lew Riggs, the Reds' backup third baseman and Hershberger's roommate at the Kemper Lane Hotel in Cincinnati, saw him as Maude Hershberger had seen him at home. "Whenever I woke up at any hour of the night, I would find him seated in a chair by the window staring out into the darkness and smoking cigarette after cigarette," Riggs once recalled. "I joked with him about his ability to go into a game the following day and hit a few right on the nose...and he would say, 'It's a gift.' He practically would not get any sleep at all."

Hershberger's insomnia gave him more time to nurse his hypochondria. "He had a big briefcase filled with all kinds of pills," recalls centerfielder Harry Craft. In his locker, there were bottles in boxes, and nose drops and unguents and sprays. Hershberger spent hours with Doc Rohde, the team trainer, in Rohde's hotel room. He would pull down the skin under his eyes, check the whites of them in the mirror, then ask Rohde: "Doc, aren't these eyes yellow-lookin' to you?"

"No, they look fine to me," Rohde would say.

"I never heard of anybody in my life who could predict down the road that he would be sick," says Thompson. "But [Hershberger] could. He'd say, 'By the way I feel now, I'll be down with a cold by next Wednesday.' The oddity of it was, he would get sick on Wednesday."

His hypochondria became the butt of clubhouse jokes. Players filled his locker with bottles of pills. As Hershberger left Rohde's room, someone would say, "You look a little peaked, Hershie, are you all right?" Hershberger was not laughing with the boys. "He would get upset about it," says Thompson. "Of course, we were gettin' a big kick out of it, laughing."

By July 1940, something far more ominous than insomnia or hypochondria had Hershberger in its grip. Earlier in the season, he had told Riggs and another teammate, Bill Baker, that he planned to kill himself, but they had not taken him seriously. His brooding and sleeplessness became worse. He started dropping into McKechnie's office and threatening to quit. "Bill, I can't go on," he said one day. "I'm a jinx. I'm getting out of baseball." He bought a savings bond, put it in the Kemper Hotel safe and told Riggs, 'If anything happens to me, Lew, I want you to know where it is. See that my mother gets it.' " He purchased a new car, but he also took out a $5,000 life insurance policy.

It was as if Hershberger had seen an omen. Once again, fate played cruelly with him. The eastern road trip began in Brooklyn with a doubleheader against the Dodgers, who were five games behind the Reds. Lombardi started the first game, which the Reds won 4-3, and Hershberger was behind the plate as the Reds took the second 9-2. Noted The New York Times the following day: "Bill Hershberger led the attack on the Brooklyn pitchers in this game, getting four hits in five times up." He also had two RBIs. The next day, with Lombardi sidelined by a sore ankle, Cincinnati won 6-3 to sweep the series, but Hershberger went 0 for 4.

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