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A Catcher's Call And Tragedy: WILLARD HERSHBERGER

         

    The 1940 baseball season in Cincinnati was one of the happiest ever. The Reds won their second straight National League pennant and beat the Detroit Tigers in seven games in the World Series.

But it also will be remembered as a sad year. It was the season when reserve catcher Willard Hershberger took his life while the Reds were on an East Coast road trip.

 

On the evening of July 31, 1940, the Reds were in first place and playing the New York Giants in the Polo Grounds. Bucky Walters, the Reds big winner, was on the mound and had a 4-1 lead in the ninth inning. Suddenly the Giants got hot. They won the game, 5-4, when Harry Danning blasted a home run.

    The game hit Hershberger hard. He was the catcher and took responsibility for calling the wrong pitch to Danning, normally an easy out for Walters.

He was told to forget such feelings, that the game meant nothing and that the Reds still had a comfortable lead. But Hershberger continued to brood.

 

After two days off, the Reds went into Boston for a double-header with the Braves. Hershberger caught the second game and was still in a state of despair. The Reds lost both games and Hershberger didn't get a hit in five at bats, unusual because he was batting well over .300 at that time.

 

Hershberger obviously was troubled. Once, a Boston hitter bunted a pitch about 15 feet out in front of the plate. Hershberger made no effort to field it. Manager Bill McKechnie was stunned and he bolted out of the dugout.

    "Is something wrong?" McKechnie asked.

As McKechnie related later, Hershberger answered, "You bet there's something wrong. I'll tell you about it after the game."

 

After the game McKechnie took Hershberger to dinner. The manager was shocked by what Hershberger told him. The catcher said he was contemplating suicide.

    They talked late into the night. It appeared to the manager, when the two men went to their separate rooms, that Hershberger's depression had passed.

The Reds had another double-header scheduled the following day. Hershberger was up early, eating breakfast with Cincinnati Enquirer sports editor Lou Smith. Smith later said Hershberger appeared to be in "good spirits."

 

But when the Reds arrived at the ballpark, Hershberger wasn't in uniform to take batting practice.

 

Gabe Paul, the club's public relations director and traveling secretary, phoned Hershberger and asked the reason he wasn't in uniform. The answer he got was, "I'm sick."

 

Hershberger was told to come to the park, that he didn't have to suit up. The catcher agreed. That was the last time anyone talked with Willard Hershberger.

 

Hershberger did not show up by the end of the first game, and McKechnie became concerned. He sent Dan Cohen, a Cincinnati fan who often traveled with the Reds, to the hotel to find Hershberger.

 

When Cohen got to Hershberger's room he found the lifeless body in the bathroom. Hershberger had cut his throat.

 

There appeared to be no more popular player on the 1940 Reds than Willard Hershberger. He was a tremendous substitute for Ernie Lombardi. He batted .276 in 1938, .345 in 1939 and he was batting .309 in 1940, the last year of his life.

 

         
       

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