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January 18, 2010
You Could Look It Up
In the aftermath of Mark McGwire’s confession, one of the more dubious reactions came, as you might expect, from the MLB Network’s own Harold Reynolds. Reynolds said (I paraphrase) that even if you accepted McGwire’s explanation that he received no performance benefit from his usage of so-called performance-enhancing drugs, but rather was doing so to thwart his own physical frailty, then McGwire still did something wrong, because the marathon baseball season requires stamina. If you resort to taking a drug to stay on the field, you’ve cheated your way to overcoming a basic requirement of the sport.
As I’ve pointed out over at the Pinstriped Bible, anything a player might use to get through the drag of the season, from a cortisone shot (a legal use of steroids) to the ubiquitous greenies of the 1970s, to Joe DiMaggio’s black coffee and cigarettes, is taking a drug to stay on the field. No player, whether he takes an aspirin to overcome a blinding headache or undergoes Tommy John surgery, depends only on his own internal powers of recuperation. Putting aside the question of whether McGwire did or did not see his level of production increase due to his usage, saying that his taking a particular substance to promote healing was wrong, when there are so many other substances and procedures available to players for the same purpose, is just drawing a boundary that arbitrarily and hypocritically separates one medicine or therapy from another. And before you reply, as some of my readers did, "Yes, but steroids have nasty side effects, so that’s why they’re bad," every drug has side effects, and most of them come along whether you’ve used them properly or not. There is a reason that drug commercials come with disclaimers like, "If you experience sudden death while using AsthmaMax, consult a medical professional immediately."
Try to imagine a world in which players could not take any action to accelerate their recovery from injury or fatigue. The disabled lists would swell; rosters would have to double in size to account for all of the wounded, and many would never come back. Of course, it never has been this way. Players have always had some medical recourse for most injuries, however limited, except in one area: psychological illness. Antidepressants weren’t widespread until relatively recently and, if a player had problems with depression or anxiety, his options were to deal with it somehow or to go find another line of work. Those that would condemn McGwire for pursuing a pharmaceutical solution to his injury problems would, of course, have it no other way, even if it would cost us the pleasure of watching a Hall of Fame career unfold. This has, in fact, happened.
After Ernie Banks, Charlie Hollocher was the greatest all-around shortstop in the history of the Chicago Cubs. Born in St. Louis in 1896, as an amateur Hollocher looked like a classic good-field/no-hit type, as a result of which both the local Cardinals and Browns organizations declined to sign him. Turning pro with Keokuk of the Central League in 1915, he began to work his way upward, reaching Portland of the Pacific Coast League in 1917. Along the way, he fulfilled the expectations of the St. Louis scouts, fielding well but not hitting with any particular impact. The PCL played a very long schedule thanks to the long western summer, so in 1917 Hollocher, played in 200 games and hit .276 and slugged .342, hitting 33 doubles, nine triples, and one home run in 813 at-bats.
The Cubs bought him for $7,500 anyway, as they had had a very difficult time finding a solid shortstop since they had traded Joe Tinker to the Reds after the 1912 season:
Does a Bear Boot Grounders in the Woods? Cubs Shortstops, 1913-1917 Year Player G AVG OBP SLG EqA FRAA 1913 Al Bridwell 136 .240 .358 .316 .253 0 1914 Red Corriden 107 .230 .323 .318 .253 -7 Claud Derrick 28 .219 .257 .271 .197 0 1915 Bob Fisher 147 .287 .326 .370 .260 -5 1916 Chuck Wortman 69 .201 .258 .261 .192 -9 Eddie Mulligan 58 .153 .200 .212 .129 -7 1917 Chuck Wortman 75 .174 .245 .205 .174 -10 Pete Killduff 56 .277 .324 .371 .265 -10
Hollocher would likely have been another infielder through the revolving door, but something changed when he reached the majors. According to SABR’s Arthur Ahrens, who wrote one of the only full-length articles on Hollocher, "Realizing that his survival depended on his hitting ability as well as his glove work, Hollocher altered his batting stance." Whether this came as a result of Hollocher’s own insight, good coaching at the major-league level, or simple maturation on the part of the then-22-year-old Hollocher, he was suddenly a completely new player.
The 1918 season was truncated due to the war—the government had issued a "Work or Fight" order to all able-bodied young men, and told baseball to wrap up its season. Hollocher made the most of it, playing in a league-leading 131 games, hitting .316/.379/.397 (.293 EqA) as the Cubs’ second-place hitter and leading the league in hits (161). "For a youngster playing his first season in the major leagues he has done better than surprisingly well and he is without a doubt the greatest young infielder the Cub machine has unearthed in years," the Sporting News gushed. "Throughout the league he is spoken of as the successor to Joe Tinker and Hans Wagner because his fielding has been brilliant his hitting the same." With Hollocher on hand, the Cubs improved from 74-80 and a fifth-place finish to 84-45 and the pennant.
Hollocher would disabuse some of those Wagnerian notions when he batted just .190 in the six-game World Series loss to the Red Sox, and again in 1919, when he sophomore-slumped to .270/.347/.347 (.265 EqA). He did have a reasonable excuse, as the deadly Spanish Influenza pandemic had caught him up during the offseason. He was limited to only 115 games, which must have seemed like a transient thing at the time but proved to be an omen.
In 1920, just as the lively ball was souping up offense throughout baseball, Hollocher first developed the stomach problems that would trouble him throughout the remainder of his life. He was in and out of the lineup starting in June. At the end of July, he was hospitalized for causes that were not publically specified, although it is likely the stomach was to blame, as it would be on subsequent occasions. He never returned to the lineup, missing just over half the season, though he hit well when he played, batting .319/.406/.389 (.290 EqA).
Strangely, over the next couple of seasons, things settled down for Hollocher. Though he broke his nose in June of 1921 when a bad-hop grounder hit him in the face, he played in 140 games and hit .289/.342/.384 (.238 EqA). Despite what was a slow season (Hollocher was roughly a league-average hitter that year in terms of raw rates, but in a hitter’s park), sportswriter John B. Sheridan, who had been a booster of Hollocher’s since the latter was a kid playing on St. Louis sandlots, wrote in 1921, "I think Hollocher was the best and most valuable player in the National League." Others held differing opinions, noting that Hollocher, by now the Cubs’ team captain, "seemed rather lackadaisical."
Even if that had truly been the case in 1921, no one could argue with Hollocher’s 1922 season. Though he contracted tonsillitis in spring training, the 26-year-old shortstop played in 152 games and batted .340/.403/.444 (.265 EqA). It was an offensive-minded season in baseball, and Hollocher’s batting average was good only for eighth in the league, his OBP ranked only sixth, and his 201 hits were just the seventh-most. The only category in which he led the league was caught stealing. Still, it was an unusual season by the standards of his position: in all the years of modern baseball, there have been just 22 seasons of a .340 or better batting average in a 400-plate appearance season by shortstops, six of them by Honus Wagner, six in the years since 1995. Holly’s 1922 season legitimately was record-setting, however. He came to bat 692 times (592 at-bats) and struck out five times. His 118.4 at-bats per strikeout remains the modern National League single-season record, and his career rate of 31.2 at-bats per strikeout ranks 15th among modern players. Charlie Grimm later recalled that Hollocher hit Dazzy Vance, the premiere strikeout pitcher in baseball at that time, "like he owned him."
Hollocher, listed at 5-foot-7 and 154 pounds, was also highly regarded defensively. His fielding percentage was the second-best in the National League from 1918-1924, trailing future Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville .955-.954. He also participated in two triple plays. In 1922 he led the National League in fielding percentage (.965) and was +8 runs according to FRAA.
And there Hollocher stopped—well, there was more, but only a little. He reported late in 1923, in poor shape supposedly due to suffering from a cold or the flu, and was quickly sent home due to "illness," not playing until May. Hollocher’s "forced departure was no surprise to those who watched him in the Cubs’ camp," the Sporting News reported. "When he reached camp he appeared to be under weight, was lacking in color, and his usual smile was not much in evidence… He hadn’t been at work more than a week before he was forced to ease up. His ailment was a form of stomach trouble, probably brought on by not giving the effects of the flu sufficient time to work out of his system."
Time did not heal whatever was ailing the shortstop, and in May the Cubs sent him to a specialist who determined through X-rays that there was nothing physically wrong with his stomach. Hollocher returned to the Cubs, but with the assurance that he could take a day off when he felt he needed it. He would play one day, then ask out of the lineup the next, saying, "I feel as if I was going to collapse." Despite the clean bill of health, the stomach drove him back to the bench for good in July. Shortly thereafter, he jumped the club and went home, leaving a note for manager Bill Killefer:
In late July, John Heydler, the president of the National League, went to St. Louis to try to persuade Hollocher to return to the club. The shortstop demurred. In the end, he played in only 66 games, batting .342/.410/.423 (.272 EqA).
Hollocher felt better in the spring of 1924 and, arguing with the Cubs about both how much of his salary he should have been paid while disabled and how much he should get to play, held out. He and the Cubs couldn’t come to an agreement until May. "Holly" played well at first once he did get on the field in the middle of the month, hitting an inside-the-park home run in his first plate appearance (the ball rolled under the stands). Ominously, he missed his third game back so he could get a stomach X-ray. Shortly thereafter, he stopped hitting. In August, the Cubs sent him home, saying it was for his own good. He had hit .245/.292/.336.
There would be no return, though from time to time Hollocher would report he was feeling somewhat better. It was reported that the chief obstacle to his return was hotel food. On another occasion, Hollocher said that he had been advised by doctors not to play at all in 1923 and had permanently ruined his healthy by giving in to the Cubs and rejoining the club. "I miss baseball," he said in 1933, by then 36 years old. "When I quit, some writers hindered that there must have been other reasons besides my health. One story was that I had trouble with other players, another that I had made and invested enough money to enable me to retire. All of which is the bunk. If I had my health I would be playing baseball even if I had a million dollars. I love the game."
What he didn’t love was going through life with the intense stomach pain that had destroyed his career, pain that no one, in fact, believed existed. On August 14, 1940, Hollocher got into his car, aimed a shotgun at his throat, and pulled the trigger.
Would Hollocher have made the Hall of Fame had he been healthy? Obviously there is no way of knowing for sure, but he retired a .304/.370/.392 hitter (.264 EqA). Among contemporary shortstops, only Joe Sewell out-hit him by a large margin, and he was roughly comparable with future NL Hall of Famers Maranville and Dave Bancroft during the time that the three were in the league—and neither of them hit .340. He was also five years younger than each, meaning he would have had more prime seasons in the lively ball era than either of them. Further, of the 10 retired shortstops who did hit .340 or better in a season, seven of them are in the Hall of Fame. The only exceptions are Cecil Travis, who very likely would have gone in had World War II not cut his career off in its prime, Alan Trammell, who has been inexplicably snubbed, and Hollocher himself (the Hall of Famers are Luke Appling, Lou Boudreau, Joe Cronin, Joe Sewell, Arky Vaughan, and Honus Wagner).
Unfortunately, baseball at the time was limited in what it could offer Hollocher to keep him on the field. Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with his stomach, but there was clearly something happening. Whether or not pain is physically or psychologically inspired, it feels real. His treatment at a dead end, a player in Hollocher’s position could either attempt to soldier on or go home. He went home. Today, a player like Joey Votto who develops depression or anxiety can get appropriate treatment, which may include medication, and can return to the field.
Votto, a career .310/.388/.536 hitter at 25, might or might not make the Hall of Fame one day. Thanks to his being born at the right time, if he does not make it, it probably will be because his career did not deserve it on its merits, rather than because he was forced into an early decline or retirement because his brain chemistry betrayed him. Those that would condemn a player for resorting to a medical solution to stay on the field would plainly rather have it the other way—Hollocher’s way.