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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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"...and though it said on his chest he was one of the team, he sat among them alone; at the train window, gazing at the moving trees, in front of his locker, absorbed in an untied shoelace, in the dugout, squinting at the great glare of the game."
Bernard Malamud
The Natural

A lone at last in his room at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, far from his worried manager and teammates on the Cincinnati Reds, Willard Hershberger locked the door and turned on his black portable radio to listen to the game. It was nearly time to go; he had made his irreducible choice. For Hershberger, 29 the years of anger and torment were almost over.

It was 1:10 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 3, 1940, a wilting afternoon on which the Reds, leading the second-place Brooklyn Dodgers by six games in the race for the National League pennant, were about to begin a doubleheader at National League Field against the last-place Boston Bees. Hershberger was the Reds' second-string catcher, behind future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi, but he was far more than a backup player. In pursuit of their second straight pennant, and their first World Series championship since their tainted victory over the Chicago Black Sox in 1919 the Reds were counting on Hershberger not only to spell Lom in the second game of doubleheaders—Hershberger was mongoose-quick behind the plate and a far rangier fielder than the ponderous Lombardi—but also to hit, particularly in the pinch with men on base.

"As good a hitter as I ever saw at getting a man in from third with less than two outs," says Gabe Paul, then the Reds' publicist and traveling secretary and later the general manager of various teams. "[Hershberger] would find a way to get a man home. A hell of a ballplayer."

In 1939, in 174 at bats over 63 games, Hershberger had hit .345. It was only his second year in the majors. He struck out only four times, for a remarkable ratio of once every 43.5 times at bat. "A real good contact hitter," recalls Gene Thompson, a pitcher for the '40 Reds and now a San Francisco Giants scout. "In my business, that's the kindest thing we can say about a hitter: He gets the bat on the ball."

At 5'10½" and only 167 pounds, Hershberger was, next to Lombardi, a runt who never hit for power. But before the Reds-Bees series started in Boston that August, Casey Stengel, the manager of the Bees, had wailed to reporters about the damage that Hershberger had done to the Boston team in its last set-to at Cincinnati's Crosley Field. "It might seem good to play the Reds in the second game of a doubleheader knowing that Lombardi wouldn't be trudging up to the dish with that big bat of his, but that's an illusion," said Stengel. "Actually, that Hershberger is about as hard to get out as Big Lom."

At the beginning of the Reds' East Coast road trip late in July, Hershberger had been hitting .353. But heading into the Aug. 3 doubleheader with the Bees, he was haunted by old demons and was slipping gradually into a deep, unmanageable melancholy. His average had melted to .309. He was supposed to catch one of Saturday's games, but on Friday he had played as if in a trance—expressionless except for his excited, bulging eyes—and that night he had broken down and wept uncontrollably in the suite of the Reds' manager, Bill (Deacon) McKechnie. The next morning, as Hershberger sat in a chair in the hotel lobby and stared ahead, his teammates called his name as they passed by, heading out the door to pile into cabs for the ballpark.

"Come on, Hersh, let's go," said second baseman Lonnie Frey.

"Yeah, yeah," Hershberger said. "I'll be along."

Pitcher Paul Derringer was the last player to see him. It was 11:55 a.m. when Derringer swept past Hershberger toward the door. "Aren't you coming, Hershie?" Derringer asked.

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