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June 14, 2010

You Can Blog It Up

DPOTD: Ever Make Love to a Hall of Famerís Wife?

by Steven Goldman

Dead Player of the Day (Johnny Mostil Edition)

#27 Johnny Mostil CF 1918, 1921-1929 (1896-1970)

Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Johnny Mostil was a Brett Gardner type of player with great speed and tremendous defensive range who spent his entire career (and his entire professional life) with the White Sox. A .301/.386/.427 career hitter (.275 True Average), he  twice led the American League in steals, once in walks and runs scored, and also led in being hit by pitched three times.

As his True Average suggests, Mostil’s offensive value is a bit overstated by his raw rates. Offense was generally high in the 1920s, right after the introduction of the lively ball, with the AL hitting .286/.352/.399 during Mostil’s career. Mostil knew it, too, saying in the 1960s, “If it hadn’t been for my fielding, I’d have had trouble holding my job. You see, a .300 hitter in those days would be something like a .240 hitter today. I had Harry Hooper and Bibb Falk playing on either side of me and they’d have a bad year if they didn’t hit .340.” He was being too modest; Bibb Falk only got to .340 twice in a 12-season career and Harry Hooper never did, and though they sometimes hit for higher averages than Mostil, they weren’t decisively more productive thanks to his high on-base percentages. More supportive of his point is that despite his.301 career average and a peak of .328 in 1926, he never finished in the top 10 in any batting race.

Fortunately, his glove was exemplary. Our Davenport Translations rate him as +20 FRAA in 1923 and +21 in 1926. He was also -12 in 1924, but he seems to have had a problem with his legs that year; his stolen base attempts dropped from 57 to 18 and his percentage from 72 to 39. “There may have been reasons with which you are not familiar for Mostil stealing seven bases,”  manager Eddie Collins said mysteriously. That aberrant season aside, Mostil was a great ballhawk. Collins said that he could fly over the ground. “I never saw anyone with his ability to cover ground,” he said. “He could go farther than Tris Speaker to get a fly ball. For covering ground, Mostil was in a class by himself. I never saw his equal.” Ty Cobb said the White Sox outfield “consists of Johnny Mostil and two traffic cops.” Mostil’s teammate Ted Lyons said, “He could go get ‘em. It was like turning a rabbit loose when the ball was hit to center field.”

Most of the on-field stories about Mostil are about his fielding. In a 1925 spring training game, he was able to race past left fielder Falk and catch a foul ball down the left field line, which seems to be the only time a center fielder has made a play in foul ground. He played only 20 games in left field during his career, but on April 30, 1922, he started there because Falk was injured and the fourth outfielder, Amos Strunk, was insistent on playing center. He made two circus catches to help Charlie Robertson to a perfect game. On August 21, 1926, Lyons started and walked Red Sox leadoff man Jack Tobin to open the game. Number-two hitter Topper Rigney lined a 2-0 pitch into center field, but Mostil was able to snag it and double Tobin off of first. The slate wiped clean by the double play, Lyon went on to pitch a complete game no-hitter.

Despite these Gold Glove moments, we probably wouldn’t have much to say about Mostil if he hadn’t had a very bad day in 1927. That spring, he was 30 years old and in the prime of his career. He was coming off his best season, having hit .328/.415/.467 with 120 runs scored and a league-leading 35 steals. (“All Johnny needs to be great is to believe in himself.” Collins had said during spring training in 1925, and apparently Mostil did, because two of his best seasons followed.)  The White Sox had had a pretty good year by post-Black Sox standards, going 81-72, and they could pretend they would be competitive. Off the field, he was engaged to be married to a Miss Margaret Carroll of Hammond, Indiana. It was seemingly a good time to be Johnny Mostil.

Indeed, Mostil had led a charmed life to that point. His whole career was based on happenstance. A dedicated baseball fan who would sneak into White Sox and Cubs game as a kid, at 22, he had had no professional baseball experience beyond semipro games. One day in 1918, a Chicago cab driver who happened to be a former minor leaguer spotted Mostil playing second base on a sandlot, put him in his cab, and drove him straight to Comiskey Park. Somehow the driver got him a tryout and somehow Mostil impressed enough to get a contract (one wonders if he sliced a few years off his age). Having gotten that far, Mostil probably would have disappeared into the minors at that point, being totally unpolished and blocked at second by no less a player than Eddie Collins. Instead, World War I began drawing players away from the majors. Collins went into the Marines and Mostil finished out the season in his place.

Mostil was sent down in 1919 and was moved to the outfield while playing with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. In 1920, he hit .318/.~387/.427 with 67 walks and 27 stolen bases. This didn’t change his outlook any, because the Sox had another very good player, Happy Felsch, playing center in the majors. With the arrival of the lively ball in 1920, Felsch had hit .338/.384/.540, and at 28 he wasn’t going anywhere. Fortune smiled on Mostil again when Felsch chose to conspire with Chick Gandil and the rest to throw the 1919 World Series. Felsch was banned after the 1920 season, and suddenly the White Sox desperately needed a center fielder. Mostil fit the bill and literally ran from there.

Despite this, Mostil wasn’t happy during spring training in ’27. His contract didn’t suit him. He was suffering from neuritis, which was causing him pain, and his wisdom teeth were bothering him. He seemed depressed, perhaps also suffering from what the Sporting News later termed “romantic perplexities.” On the morning of March 9, 1927, baseball activities at the Sox camp in Shreveport, Louisiana were rained out. Mostil and the rest of the players stayed around the team hotel. Mostil took a nap, then late that afternoon visited Red Faber and his wife Irene in their room. What they discussed there is unknown, but the timing of the meeting led to inferences being drawn about what happened next.

Also in camp with the Sox that year was Paddy Prouty, a fan and friend of owner Charlie Comiskey who “like[d] to ride the trains with the ball players.” After the talk with the Fabers, Mostil let himself into Prouty’s room and, removing a safety razor from its holder, inflicted 13 deep cuts to his wrists, ankles, chest and throat, also attempting to stab himself in the heart with a pen knife. Prouty returned to his room shortly thereafter and found Mostil bleeding on his bathroom floor.

Mostil moaned, “Why did I do it?” as he was taken to the hospital. He had lost quite a lot of blood, and he was given the last rites. Doctors, though, were able to save him. Speculation as to the reasons for his attempted suicide continue to this day, with a popular reason being that he was bonking Mrs. Faber and that Red had confronted him during that conversation just prior to the attempt. Irene Faber was frequently around the team, was 10 years Red’s junior, and their marriage was described as unhappy. Arguing against this theory is the fact that the Fabers remained married until Irene’s death in 1943. There also seems to be a more likely, albeit slightly less salacious motive.

As noted above, Mostil was engaged to be married to Miss Margaret Carroll. He never did marry her. His roommate, fellow outfielder Whispering Bill Barrett, did. Now, no one was nice enough to leave a diary or any other kind of manuscript around explaining the sequence of events, and it’s not clear if Barrett hooked up with Carroll before or after Mostil tried to off himself, if the suicide attempt was a result of his having been dumped or if the attempt itself was what caused him to split with Carroll. If before, if Mostil had been jilted for his teammate, it would certainly be a clear motive. Unlike the Faber story, which is purely speculative, we do have a clear chain of events in his announced engagement to Margaret Carroll and her subsequent marriage to Barrett. Arguing against both stories is the fact that the Sox made no effort to separate Faber, Mostil, or Barrett. All remained with the team in the aftermath of the incident.

Mostil spent the 1927 season healing the damage to his body, principally damage to the ligaments in his left wrist, not getting back to the White Sox until September. He missed all but 13 games. He came back to play a full season in 1928, but the magic was gone; he hit .270/.360/.340 and was successful on only 23 of 43 stolen base attempts, his 20 times caught leading the league. On May 19, 1929, he fractured his right ankle sliding into home on the front end of a double steal and that proved to be it for his major-league career. After a failed tryout with the Giants, John McGraw sent him to Toledo, where he spent a couple of seasons playing for Casey Stengel. He then slipped down to the lower minors as a player-manager. Eventually, he returned to the White Sox in this capacity and spent the rest of his life the organization as a scout and manager, skippering his last season at the age of 60 in 1956 and scouting until shortly before his death.  He never married and he never did say what had prompted him to try to kill himself that rainy day in Shreveport.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Spring Training Diary

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