We are rapidly approaching the 79th anniversary of one of baseball’s most unfortunate tragedies. On August 3, 1940, Cincinnati Reds backup catcher Willard McKee Hershberger killed himself in his hotel bathtub at the Copley Square Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts. Playing a doubleheader against the Boston Bees, Hershberger was despondent over having a rough game after the team had lost some of their previous games against the Giants and the Bees. Now, with the 79th anniversary (and the more important 80th anniversary approaching) of his passing, it’s time to rehonor Hershberger at Great American Ball Park.
Willard McKee Hershberger was born on May 28, 1910 in Lemon Cove, Tulare County, California. His father Claude was an oil worker who moved the family to Fullerton (a suburb of Los Angeles) when he attained a new position. It was at Fullerton Union High School where Hershberger became a star in baseball. Besides playing alongside Hall of Famer and 9x All-Star Arky Vaughan, one of his teammates was Richard Milhous Nixon, who of course would go on to become infamous himself.
Unfortunately, on November 21, 1928, Claude E. Hershberger killed himself at 2:30 am with a shotgun blast to the chest. The elder Hershberger, despondent over financial problems, sat down in his bathtub, using his cane to push the trigger delivering the final blow. Unfortunately, as a local star, Willard’s name appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Willard, only age 18 at this point, found the body after the fatal blow.
Meanwhile, in 1930, scouts from the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates came out to Fullerton. They were here to visit Hershberger and Vaughan. Bill Essick, the scout for the Yankees, drove the wrong way and Pirates scout Art Griggs signed Vaughan. As a result, Essick signed Hershberger to a contract to play for the Yankees. Unfortunately, the Yankees would find by 1937, with the success of Bill Dickey that they had no room for Hershberger. The Yankees traded Hershberger to the Cincinnati Reds for $40,000 and shortstop Eddie Miller.
In Cincinnati, Hershberger played well in Spring Training 1938, resulting in him making the roster. He served as the backup to Ernie Lombardi (known as the “Big Slug”), gaining Willard the nickname “Little Slug.” However, in 1940, Hershberger’s perfectionism attitude hurt him. With his average falling to .309 with that rough series against the Giants and Bees, Hershberger became upset. Manager Bill McKechnie calmed him down. Traveling secretary Gabe Paul convinced him to come to National League Park for the second game in street clothes.
Unfortunately, Dan Cohen, a friend of the catcher, got an employee to open his hotel room door, finding Hershberger deceased in the bathtub. Unlike his father’s suicide, Hershberger just sliced his own throat. Hank Gowdy, a coach under McKechnie, told the team what happened that afternoon. The Reds retired his #5 on the spot and dedicated a World Series run in 1940 in his honor. When they defeated the Tigers in the 7th game of the 1940 World Series, they gave $5,803 to his mother Maude.
Johns Hopkins University performed a study in April 2010 about the rate of parental/children suicide. The study noted that children and teenagers who had a parent take their own life were more likely to develop factors leading them to do the same thing. While the study found that the rate for those who were 18 or older when this happened were less likely, they found it likely to be depressed in their lives by a rate of 30-40 more percent. While it is hard to take a 2010 study for a 1928/1940 suicide that seriously, the similarity is there.
The #5 which was unretired by the Reds in 1942, has since been retired again for Hall Of Fame catcher Johhny Bench. While we may only know some of what bothered Hershberger, his dedication to his team and his constant drive for perfection cannot be denied. Now with the 80th anniversary of his death approaching, the Cincinnati Reds need to do something. This writer’s idea is to put up a statue behind home plate at Great American Ball Park in his honor. It is only right.
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