I do not claim to understand suicide any better than the next person. I do think those of us who have never had suicidal ideation should be very thankful, and those who have probably still should not suggest they understand what any other person is going through. Five active Major Leaguers have committed suicide, none since 1940. In this post, we’ll look at those five players, how they fared on the field, how they ended their lives, and how we can find out more about them.
Willard Hershberger was Ernie Lombardi’s backup behind the plate for the 1938-1940 Cincinnati Reds. He posted 2.0 WAR and died during the 1940 season, his suicide very much tied to his baseball career. With his Reds in first place in July, Lombardi was out. Hershberger replaced him, the Reds began to lose, and Hershberger blamed himself in multiple conversations with teammates and coaches. He told manager Bill McKechnie that he was going to commit suicide, just as his father had. Hershberger didn’t come to the next day’s doubleheader. He had slit his throat with a safety razor, becoming the only player ever to commit suicide during the season. Please check out Charles F. Faber’s biography of Hershberger.
Known for a six hit game, for posting three triples in the first World Series, and for being the second ever manager of the Red Sox, Chick Stahl put up 31.7 WAR in his 10-year career, which lasted from 1897-1906. Bill James called him the 51st best center fielder ever in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, and he was the most successful player on this list. Dennis Auger’s SABR biography discusses theories as to reasons behind his suicide. It could have been stress related to the game. Perhaps it was a woman claiming to be pregnant with his child trying to force marriage upon him. Or maybe, as the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette noted, he had been depressed and suicidal since 1889. Auger seems to suggest that a possible relationship with a man, or lack of such a relationship, could have caused Stahl’s ultimate demise. Whatever the case, drinking carbonic acid ended his life early in 1907.
Win Mercer was a talented pitcher from 1894-1902, posting a total of 28.9 WAR for four teams. He won 20+ games twice and had over 4 WAR three times. Overall, he won 132 games and was still just 28 when he died early in 1903. The outward reason for his suicide is even less clear for this fan favorite than for that of others on this list. Some say there was a suicide note, others disagree. If the note is real, it was said to have included a warning about the dangers of women and gambling. He killed himself by inhaling gas. Check out his SABR biography written by William Akin for more.
The chief backstop for the 1896-1899 Boston Beaneathers, Marty Bergen posted 339 hits and 0.0 WAR over his four seasons. Brian McKenna’s SABR biography of Bergen says that the catcher “ became increasingly despondent and irrational” over the course of his career. His son died in 1899 due to diphtheria. It’s hard to say whether it was the death of his son, what might have been the end of his career because of a hip injury, the hip surgery anesthesia from which his doctor said he never seemed to recover, or something else that ultimately made Bergen snap. He killed his wife and daughter with the blunt end of an axe, his son with the sharp side, and himself with a razor to the throat.
I don’t think Edgar McNabb, the 1893 Oriole pitcher who posted 1.1 WAR, necessarily counts as active since Bill James says he wasn’t asked to return to the team for the 1894 season. But since he was just 27 that season and not terrible, he’s included here. McNabb was having an affair with Louise Kellogg, the wife of R.E. Rockwell, the president of the Pacific and Northwest League. In the Pittsburgh Eiffel hotel on February 28, 1894, McNabb shot Kellogg either two or three times depending on the source. Then he turned the gun on himself. McNabb was found dead. Kellogg died two days later.