Willard Hershberger

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1939 Play Ball #119 Willard Hershberger

Willard McKee Hershberger
(Bill)

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Biographical Information[edit]

Willard Hershberger died in 1940, a victim of suicide. He sliced his jugular vein in the shower at the team hotel. He had been suffering from a long-standing depression after his father killed himself using a shotgun that minutes before Willard set down after a hunting trip. Hershberger, dealing with the loss of his father, was ill-equipped to accept the weight of leadership when starting catcher and Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi was injured late in the season and left the Cincinnati Reds in the middle of a pennant drive without their starting catcher. He was 30 and remains the only player ever to end his career by committing suicide during the season.

He had made it known that he blamed himself for the loss of the July 31, 1940 game. He had been subject to fits of depression, which was not well understood at the time. Manager Bill McKechnie told him it was nonsense to think he was responsible for the loss.

Hershberger had been an excellent hitter, especially for a catcher, hitting .316 lifetime. He may have been inspired by Ernie Lombardi, one of the best-hitting catchers of all time. Hershberger hit .345 in 1939, a year in which the league as a whole hit .272. The next year he hit .309. He didn't hit a home run in the majors, and he didn't get a lot of walks, but he did have 5 triples in his 402 at-bats in the majors.

Unlike Lombardi, whose listed playing weight was 230, Hershberger was listed at 167 pounds. In a photo of him in a Reds uniform he looks quite slender and not tall.

He had previously played for the Newark Bears in the New York Yankees organization, and was on their team in 1937 that won over 100 games, hitting .325. He was 28 when he broke into the majors. He had played in the minors during most of the 1930s, hitting over .300 at most of his stops.

In the 1939 World Series, he pinch-hit for Paul Derringer and drove in a run in the last game of the Series. Sadly, he missed the greatest success of his team - the 1940 Cincinnati Reds continued on, after his death, to win the pennant and then the 1940 World Series.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Brian J. Wigley, Frank B. Ashley and Arnold LeUnes: "Willard Hershberger and the Legacy of Suicide", The National Pastime, SABR, Number 20 (2000), pp. 72-76.

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