July 22, 2008
You Could Look It Up
The Unintended Consequences of Defunct Catchers
In a respectful salute to Jorge Posada's possibly season-long return to the disabled list, the best, most complicated, most tragic, broken catcher story of all time. It begins, as such stories often do, with a future Hall of Famer. In 1940, Ernie Lombardi was the starting catcher for the Cincinnati Reds. "Bocci" Lombardi may have been the slowest player to have a long career, but my, could he hit. Combining an unusual batting grip-his fingers interlaced on the bat handle-and great strength, Lombardi combined great bat control with a line-drive swing. When all went well, this resulted in high batting averages and double-figure home run totals. The downside was that the combination of hard-hit balls and a body that couldn't get out of first gear meant an average of 23 double-play grounders per season. The infielders could play in the shallow outfield, confident that Lom would get the ball to them in plenty of time for them to throw him out.
Lombardi's MVP award, two batting titles, and eight All-Star game selections hint at his importance to the Reds in the 1930s and early 1940s, but not as much as his survival of the rebuilding that manager Bill McKechnie initiated after 1937. The Reds had been a second-division club since 1927 and had gone 56-98 when "The Deacon" was hired to remake the team. McKechnie's first move on taking over a club was to strengthen the defense, and in pursuit of this he turned over half the lineup in his first season, improving the team to 82-68 in the process. By 1939, he had turned over the entire infield except for shortstop Billy Myers. Lombardi survived the purge and got to enjoy the Reds' first pennant since 1919.
"Enjoy" might be the wrong word, since the Series became famous for "Lombardi's Snooze." In the last game of the Yankees' Series sweep, the game was tied 4-4 in the top of the tenth at Cincinnati. The Yankees' Frank Crosetti had walked and was on base at third, and Charlie Keller, who reached on Myers' error, was on first with one out; Joe DiMaggio stepped in at the plate. Pitcher Bucky Walters dealt, and DiMaggio hit the ball into right field for a single. Crosetti scored easily, right fielder Ival Goodman bobbled the ball, and Keller was able to race around the bases to the plate, arriving just ahead of the throw. Something happened at that moment-it's very hard to tell from the films what it was-but there was some contact between Keller and Lombardi. Some say Lom took a knee to the head, others to the groin. Either way, he was knocked senseless, and the ball rested quietly at home plate as DiMaggio flew around the bases. Lombardi woke up, but not before DiMaggio slid in with the Yankees' seventh run. Lom was the Series goat, though the play was more memorable than game-changing-DiMaggio's tacked-on run was completely irrelevant to the final outcome.
To their credit, the Reds survived that embarrassment, got stronger, and went 100-53 in 1940, winning another pennant. Lombardi hit .319/.382/.489, although two major injuries had him out of the lineup for long stretches, and he only played in 109 games instead of his usual 120-130. On July 26, Lombardi sprained his left ankle while running over the first-base bag in Philadelphia. Fortunately for the Reds, McKechnie cared a lot about who his reserve catcher was, and he had a solid one in Willard Hershberger, a singles hitter who the Reds had bought out of the Yankees system, where he had long been blocked by Bill Dickey and Buddy Rosar. Hershberger had zero power, but he could slap a .300's-worth of singles and was more athletic than Lombardi. He went into the lineup, and in most years, with most teams, and with most players, that would have been that. The season would have rolled on, and the Reds would have won the pennant, or not. But Hershberger was not an ordinary player.
In the first eight games after Lombardi went down, the Reds went 2-6. Hershberger caught six of them, the team going 1-5. He had been batting .368 in limited playing time, but he failed to make a hit in any of the five losses. He berated himself for bad pitch-calling, particularly in a July 31 loss to the Giants in which the Reds had blown a 4-1 ninth-inning lead, the Giants walking off on a Harry Danning home run. The next day, the Reds dropped both ends of a doubleheader to the Braves at Boston. Hershberger not only went hitless, but appeared lethargic in the field.
After the game, McKechnie held Hershberger back in the clubhouse, and he and coach Hank Gowdy tried to cajole Hershberger out of his apparent depression. Later, back at the Copley Plaza Hotel, McKechnie had Hershberger up to his suite and talked to him for several hours. At that time, Hershberger told the Deacon that he was contemplating suicide. "My father did it and I'm going to do the same," he said, crying uncontrollably. McKechnie never revealed the exact nature of their conversation, but whatever he said to Hershberger at that point, he was satisfied that it had worked to change the catcher's mind. Hershberger said he felt better, and the two went out to dinner, then went back to their respective rooms to sleep.
Hershberger did not report to Braves Field the next day. Players who saw him in the lobby said he told them that he would be along shortly. Instead, he went back to his room, took one of his roommate's razor blades, and slit his throat, cutting his jugular vein. There was no note, and why should there have been? Hershberger had told McKechnie everything.
Putting the human tragedy aside, the Reds now had a baseball problem. Their starting catcher had a bad ankle, and their second-string catcher was dead by his own hand. They had a third catcher, Bill Baker, the man who shaved with a razor instead of an electric, but he was a 29-year-old rookie, a picture-book definition of a journeyman, and they had another rookie, almost completely untested, in Dick West. They got Lombardi back, and this solved the problem for awhile, but on September 15, Lombardi injured his ankle again and was out for the season.
With a nine-game lead and just 16 games left on the schedule, the Reds were a lock to win the pennant, and would clinch just three days after Lom went down, but if they wanted to win the World Series this time, they needed a quality catcher. They needed a backstop, any backstop, but of course the trading deadline had passed way back in June. McKechnie looked around and, seeing no alternative, he activated Jimmie Wilson, his 40-year-old coach.
Wilson had been in the National League since 1923. A defense-first catcher during his playing days, he was a career .284/.336/.370 hitter, good by Jose Molina standards maybe, but not very impressive by the standards of the 1920s and 1930s seasons during which Wilson played. Beginning in 1934, he had become player-manager of the Phillies, gradually phasing out the playing part of his job. As was true of everyone else who came into contact with the Phillies during this time, he couldn't help them as a player or as a manager, and succeeded only in presiding over a series of bottom-dwellers, including the 45-103 squad of 1938, the historically pathetic unit that got him booted.
Wilson played the last 16 games of the regular season, going 9-for-37 with two doubles for .243/.282/.297 rates, about what the Reds could have expected, given that they were now reaching so far below replacement level that they needed a bathysphere just to deliver Wilson's contract. Naturally, when the World Series against the Detroit Tigers kicked off, Wilson got hot, going 6-for-17 and becoming a sort of national wonder, the geriatric World Series hero.
It wasn't just Wilson's hitting, but also his running that garnered astonishment. Exactly one base was stolen in the Series, and it belonged to Wilson. The Series went to a seventh game in Cincinnati, and with two outs in the second inning, Wilson singled and stole second. The next hitter made an out, so the steal had absolutely no bearing on the game-which the Reds won-but the steal was still greeted by the kind of rapture usually reserved for the endings of major wars.
So the story should end there, with Lombardi hurt but the owner of a winner's ring after his snooze. He even got in a few pinch-hit at-bats during the Series, so he didn't have to feel like a non-participant. Wilson was a national hero for still being ambulatory at 40, and Hershberger, regrettably, remained dead. Yet, there was one more near-term consequence, ironically-one which helped knock the Reds out of their pennant perch at the top of the National League. Wilson became such a celebrity that he was rejuvenated as a managerial prospect, and the Cubs rushed out to hire him, terminating their player-manager (and reserve catcher), Gabby Hartnett.
This would have all been fine, but Cubs' second baseman Billy Herman, then 30, had thought that he was in line for the managerial job if Hartnett was ever let go, and he was now well on the cranky side. This was a problem, because Herman, a five-time All-Star at the time, was a career .310/.366/.418 hitter who was the best offensive/defensive combo at his position in the league, annually worth somewhere between eight and 12 wins above replacement. The Cubs had to have their choice of manager, though, because Old Man Wilson's speed on the bases might come in handy if anyone ever killed themselves. They dutifully dumped Herman to the Dodgers for a utility infielder, a 21-year-old outfield prospect who couldn't hit even a little, and $65,000 in greenbacks. With Herman on hand, the Dodgers would head directly to the 1941 World Series.
Is there a moral to this story? If any, it's that the Yankees should stop messing around with Jose Molina and Chad Moeller and just activate Joe Girardi. He might prove to be pretty spry for an older guy, and in the end that's all that matters.