Willard Hershberger was a backup catcher for the Cincinnati Reds from 1938 to 1940. He played 160 games, mostly as a defensive caddy for Ernie Lombardi, but he also hit well—.312/.351/.381 for his brief career. Hershberger is a historical footnote; from an on-field perspective he’s no more notable than, say, Mitch Meluskey, and nobody expects casual baseball fans 75 years from now to remember Mitch Meluskey.
Nevertheless, Hershberger is unique in baseball history. That’s why, if the name is familiar to you at all, you almost certainly know why.
Human beings are the most intelligent living thing that we currently know to exist. Of all the billions and billions of organisms that have lived on this planet before, from plankton to fungi to amoebae to flatworms to trees to fish to dogs, none carries the intellectual capacity of the modern human being. It is what sets us apart.
And probably because our intelligence sets us apart, we, as a species, find that living in a state of ignorance to be deeply unsettling. That is the shared origin of both religion and science at their purest—attempts to explain the unknown or unknowable in terms that can be understood by human beings. Until the past few hundred years, religious explanations for the unknowable were valued above all others, but in a post-Enlightenment, post-Scientific Revolution world, we can now explain and understand much of what was previously unknown without looking to a divine source for any of it.
The emergence of a new alternative was necessarily threatening to people who either profited by a monopoly on understanding of the so-called mystery of faith, and discomfiting to people who had no desire to understand their universe in terms other than it being the creation of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God.
The term “the Enlightenment” is itself normative, and as empirical scientific facts become consensus, it’s easy to mock people who aren’t so easily persuaded, or to call them reactionaries or yokels or whatever, but the motivation for anti-science fundamentalists is incredibly easy to understand—for them, religion is of immense importance to them, and saying there is no God, or their conception of God is wrong is asking them to uproot the entire foundation of their lives. It’s an attack on identity.
Baseball had its own Scientific Revolution a decade ago, and the anti-sabermetric arguments were familiar: True knowledge of the nature of the game comes from tradition and isn’t accessible to everyone. There’s history and mythology to respect, and any attempt to make an end run around decades of established wisdom is worse than foolish—it’s blasphemous.
Willard Hershberger took over as the starting catcher in Cincinnati in 1940, when Lombardi injured his throwing hand. Hershberger was an able defensive replacement, and hit .309/.351/.374 during the 1940 season. Gary Cieradowski wrote extensively about Hershberger in 2013, and said that while Hershberger was quiet and introspective, he was popular with teammates and fans. In a 1991 Sports Illustrated article on Hershberger, William Nack quotes future Reds GM Gabe Paul—then working as the team’s publicist and traveling secretary—as saying, “As good a hitter as I ever saw at getting a man in from third with less than two outs.”
So why did Hershberger, who was well-known and well-liked and a very good player besides, only play 160 games in the majors? Not that that was unusual in 1940—players’ careers were cut short frequently by injury or disease or war, or sometimes, because “organized” baseball is a relative term, for no good reason at all. Certainly a player like Hershberger, who didn’t reach the big leagues until he was almost 28, could have just fallen off the map.
It could have, but it didn’t. Hershberger had always been hard on himself in times of failure, to the point where teammates had called him a perfectionist. By the end of July, Hershberger, weary after catching every day in the summer heat, started to internalize his mistakes—and take blame for others—to the point where manager Bill McKechnie and several teammates started to worry about Hershberger’s well-being. By Aug. 2, Hershberger had been hitless in five of his past six games, and every time he’d failed to record a hit, the Reds had lost. That night, after the second game of a doubleheader in which he’d gone 0-for-5, Hershberger collapsed into tears in McKechnie’s hotel room and announced that he was going to kill himself.
Early the next afternoon, he did.
Willard Hershberger was the first, and so far only, active Major League Baseball player to take his own life during the season.
The problem with empirical study is that it doesn’t satisfy the soul. Information is great, but it’s rarely beautiful for its own sake. I’ve been, at different points in my life, devoutly religious and devoutly not, a professional storyteller and a professional empiricist, and the idea that there is no greater fabric of the universe, no real-life metaphysical foundation for the way things are, is either depressing or terrifying. I’m not sure which yet.
In baseball terms, if the mythology of the 19th and 20th centuries is nothing but bunk, why do we even bother continuing with the game? It’s telling that the original sin of Christianity was, in essence, curiosity, and the punishment for it was that Adam and Eve became aware of their own nakedness.
Without its mythology, baseball is just a worse way to get exercise than soccer or basketball. Is it particularly beautiful, or exciting, for its own sake? Of course not. Baseball’s appeal is inextricable from its history, and its history is inextricable from its mythology.
Willard Hershberger almost certainly didn’t kill himself because he was in a slump. When Hershberger was in high school, his father went into the bathroom with a shotgun and killed himself. That event reportedly—and unsurprisingly—traumatized Hershberger, but more than anything else it’s evidence that depression ran in Hershberger’s family. Hershberger’s cousin told Nack that two other relatives had also taken their own lives.
What we know now, but perhaps didn’t know as well in 1940, is that people who kill themselves don’t always need a reason that makes sense to outside observers. Nothing Bill McKechnie or Gabe Paul (whom McKechnie had check on Hershberger after he failed to report to the ballpark on August 3rd) or Paul Derringer (the last member of the Reds to see Hershberger alive) did could stop Hershberger from feeling the sincere and overpowering desire to die.
It must have been baffling to Hershberger’s teammates and friends in that final week as he finally lost the ability to conceal his own deep despair, because life must have been good on the outside for a 30-year-old pro athlete on his way to the World Series, a man with colleagues who clearly cared for his well-being—Nack described Hershberger as “the only man who ever really wished [Hershberger] ill.”
We have to search for possible reasons for Hershberger to be suicidal—the slump, a defensive error on August 2nd, a bad pitch call on July 31st, the unresolved trauma of his father’s own death—because with a story, the horrifying possibility that a tragedy just happened for no good reason can be kept at bay. That’s the value of mythology.
Paul’s praise of Hershberger as a situational hitter—great at getting men in from third with less than two outs—is the kind of mythology that the modern sabermetric movement loves to laugh at. It almost seems like a parody of old-school baseball hype: oddly specific praise of a skill that might not really be a skill at all, delivered through 50 years of hindsight and subconscious historical revisionism. It cries out to be mocked or debunked.
After all, you wouldn’t expect Hershberger, a player with only 21 career extra-base hits (none of them home runs) and a .055 career ISO, to be the stereotypical run producer.
Though again, it’s easy to see the motivation for this particular piece of mythology—Paul wants to praise the teamwork and determination of a colleague whose death had to be a traumatic experience in Paul’s on life. If it’s a fabrication, it’s a harmless, therapeutic fabrication.
According to Baseball Reference, a total of 917 players took 400 plate appearances or more between 1930 and 1950, including Hershberger. Baseball Prospectus doesn’t have OBI% data going all the way back to 1940, so I sorted all of those 917 players by RBI per plate appearance.
Hershberger is 50th on that list, in the top six percent of all players of his era in RBI per game. Paul’s statement might have been therapeutic, but it wasn’t a fabrication.
The usefulness of mythology lies not in its ability to generate or store information, but in its ability to paint ideas in broad strokes and to connect us with our past. And sometimes, mixed in with the beauty and comfort of mythology, we’ll find a little truth.
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