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Hard loss: Reds catcher Hershberger took life in '40 flag race

By Sean Keeler, Post staff reporter

The Reds' No. 1 catcher slit his own throat on Aug. 3, 1940, one of the grisliest moments in team history. Even grislier was that, like many victims of depression, Willard Hershberger telegraphed that he wanted to die.

Hershberger had hinted for days to teammate Lew Riggs and manager Bill McKechnie that he was at rock bottom. With the Reds in a pennant race, Hershberger blamed himself for a 5-4 loss to the New York Giants on July 31.

The Reds had blown a 4-1 lead in the ninth. With two outs, Bucky Walters surrendered a walk, a homer, a walk and the winning homer to the Giants' Hank Danning.

The team moved on to Boston, but Hershberger's head seemed stuck in the Polo Grounds, recycling the agony and helplessness.

Hershberger even told McKechnie and teammates he'd called the wrong pitches. The blame was his. McKechnie, a fatherly type, told him it was nonsense. Hershberger was 30, a wiry hitter (5 feet 10, 167 pounds) who, while a backup, was coming into his own.

He was also the Reds' best option at catcher. All-Star Ernie Lombardi was in and out of the lineup with injuries. Hershberger, nicknamed 'Hershie,' had been a good replacement.

Lonny Frey, the Reds' second baseman, said many teammates were puzzled by Hershberger's malaise. It was one inning. One game. One loss.

'He figured he'd lost that game,' said Frey, 88, now living in Idaho. 'I just didn't understand. Then, of course, that we got beat in that tough ballgame, that put the clincher on Hershie. He just couldn't handle it.'

On Aug. 3, with the Reds in Boston for a doubleheader, Hershberger failed to show before the first game. McKechnie asked friend Dan Collier to call him in his hotel room.

Hershberger reportedly told him, 'I'm sick.'

McKechnie ordered Hershberger to come to the ballpark and sit in the stands in street clothes. When he still was not there by the seventh inning of the first game, McKechnie sent Dan Cohen, a Cincinnati shoe store owner who had made the trip with the team, to check.

Cohen and a maid went to Hershie's room. Empty.

They opened the door to the bathroom, where they found him dead, awash in red. Towels were laid about the floor to absorb the blood. Police ruled the death a suicide. The coroner's report said the death was an 'incised wound of the neck.'

A report in The Post that afternoon said Hershberger was 'a moody individual, given to fits of depression.'

Frey said McKechnie knew about Hershberger during the second ballgame but didn't tell the team until afterward.

'He said somebody gave him the message during the game while he was on the bench.' Hershberger, traded from the Yankees in 1939, hit .345 in 63 games with the Reds that year as a backup to Lombardi.

Hershberger was hitting .309 in 48 games the season he committed suicide.

The Reds still managed to win their second straight National League pennant. McKechnie coaxed Reds coach Jimmy Wilson out of retirement to back up Lombardi.

Designated as an emergency catcher, Wilson, 40, played most of the 1940 World Series after Lombardi suffered an ankle injury. Wilson hit .353 as the Reds beat Detroit in seven games.

Publication date: 04-20-99

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