Tragedy In Cincinnati: Willard Hershberger And The 1940 Reds Pennant

Dan Tylicki@DanTylickiAnalyst IAugust 3, 2010

With under two months to go, the Cincinnati Reds are neck-and-neck with the St. Louis Cardinals in hopes of making the playoffs and winning the division. They have just finished a series with the Atlanta Braves, and are facing the bottom of the win barrel in the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are 36-68.

Rewind to 70 years ago, where the Reds are running away with the conference, six games in front of the Chicago Cubs. They had just faced the lowly (that season anyway) New York Giants and were facing the Atlanta Braves, who at the time were known as the Boston Bees. They were also, at that time, dead last in the league.

While the Reds are working as a unit, knowing who can perform and what to expect, the Reds in 1940 under Bill McKechnie were facing a problem. Their star catcher, Ernie Lombardi, was injured, so the Reds turned to backup catcher Willard Hershberger as they had done in previous instances.

In 63 games, Hershberger hit .345 for the Reds in 1939, and he was again serving well as Lombardi's backup in 1940. On July 31, in a match against the Giants, the Reds lost 5-4 after they scored four runs in the ninth.

Hershberger, who had recently lost 15 pounds as the result of the summer heat, felt that he was being attributed the blame for the loss to New York and that they would have won had Lombardi been catching the game. McKechnie told him it was nonsense but the signs pointed to Hershberger reaching rock bottom in his life.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

The Reds had a day off on August 1, and on August 2 they had a doubleheader with the Boston Bees. Third-string catcher Bill Baker caught the first game, and Hershberger caught the second. The Reds again blew a late lead and lost the game, 4-3 in 12 innings as Hershberger went hitless in five at-bats.

Again, he took the blame for the loss, telling McKechnie how his father had committed suicide and threatening to do it himself. McKechnie calmed him down and after meeting for an hour Hershberger went to his hotel room.

Before the first game on August 3, Hershberger failed to show for pregame activities. Presuming that he was still troubled, McKechnie had Reds publicist Gabe Paul talk to him, telling him he didn't have to suit up but at least wanted him in the stands in street clothes.

He had still not shown during the first game and Paul went up to his hotel room, finding it locked. He talked with hotel management and forced his way in. Upon reaching the bathroom the sad truth unveiled himself.

Willard Hershberger had committed suicide that day, the only major league player to do so, at the age of 30. The Reds learned of his death after the second game of their doubleheader.

While the Reds finished the season 38-21 and won the World Series that season, it was a bittersweet celebration as they won it without Hershberger. Black bands were worn on the Reds uniforms for the duration of the season and they later retired his #5 jersey in honor of him, though it was later worn by fellow Reds catcher Johnny Bench. August 3 remains a sad day in baseball history, especially Reds history.

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!