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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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Joost was struck dumb. "Why?" he asked himself. "Why would he do a thing like that?"

Thompson was not in the clubhouse, but when he heard what had happened, he wondered if he and the other pranksters had helped drive Hershberger to suicide by making fun of his hypochondria. Says Thompson, "My first thought was, 'Did we have something to do with it?' I've thought about it so many times. I don't think we had any idea how this was hurtin' that young guy. Since then, I've never made fun of anybody. That will stay with me the rest of my life. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but I don't think we helped it."

In his suite that night, McKechnie gathered his players together. He told them what Hershberger had said to him the night before—how his father had killed himself, how Hershberger had wanted to kill himself, too, and how he felt he had let down the team. McKechnie also said Hershberger had talked about other personal problems that the manager felt honor-bound not to reveal. McKechnie mentioned that Hershberger had several un-cashed paychecks in his pocket. Lombardi, Riggs and a few others were weeping. "I thought I had talked him completely out of it," McKechnie said. "I thought everything was put back together again. I couldn't keep a bodyguard on him."

The meeting lasted about half an hour. McKechnie made one plea. "The thing for us to do now is win the pennant and vote Hershie's mother a full share of the World Series money," he said. "And I know we'll win it." They did indeed win the Series, beating Detroit four games to three, and Maude Hershberger got a full share, $5,803.62.

Ironically, Hershberger's death led to the best of all 1940 World Series stories. In mid-September, Lombardi sprained his ankle, and without Hershberger, McKechnie turned to the only man in the organization he thought could handle the job—coach Jimmy Wilson, 40, a former catcher who had caught but two games in nearly three seasons. Wilson caught in six of the seven Series games, and Thompson can still see him hobbling in pain, his thigh muscles knotted up from so much squatting. Between innings, Wilson would teeter to the runway behind the dugout, drop his pants and sit down so that Rohde could massage a scalding salve into his thighs. "Oh, mercy, it was hot," Thompson says. "And his catching hand was so swollen from catching fastballs that he could barely get it in and out of the glove. He was great."

Wilson also hit .353—six singles in 17 trips. It was a rare farewell, a final performance by an old man who rose one more time to honor himself and the game.

The other legacies of Hershberger's act were not so glorious. Maude Hershberger collapsed in the Three Rivers post office, where she was working, when she learned that her son had followed his father's example. She lived only seven more years.

Hershberger's friend Cohen, who had found him dead, committed suicide in 1961. Even Lombardi nearly emulated Hershberger. In 1953, out of baseball for four years, the Cyrano of the Iron Mask slipped into a deep depression. On their way to a sanatorium in Livermore, Calif., where he was to receive psychiatric treatment, Lombardi and his wife, Berice, stopped at a relative's house, where Lombardi found a razor and sliced open his throat. He begged Berice to let him die and struggled against the sheriffs deputies who came to take him to the hospital.

Those who knew Lombardi say there is no connection between Hershberger's suicide and Lombardi's attempt, but the nature of their acts suggests otherwise. Thompson believes that Hershberger's act was precipitated by the fear of failing when he was forced to become the regular catcher in Lombardi's absence. "When it all fell on Willard's shoulders," according to Thompson, "he said to himself, 'Hey, I can't handle this.' "And that would mean Lombardi's absence helped cause Hershberger's death. Ultimately, the most popular Cincinnati player of his day became as tragic a figure as the second most popular. Lombardi worked for six years as a press box attendant for the Giants in Candlestick Park, until an insult by a young reporter sent him packing in anger and shame. Lombardi next surfaced years later pumping gas in Oakland and railing against those who had allegedly denied him his rightful place in Cooperstown. He died in 1977; he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986.

Trivia question: Who is the only catcher in major league history to win two batting titles? (Lombardi, in 1938 and 1942.)

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