Tragedies and Shortened Careers
My dear departed friend Joe Overfield wrote this wonderful essay for the first edition of Total Baseball, published in 1989. Of course we have had tragedies since–early deaths, shattered dreams–but I will not step in to update for Cory Lidle, Nick Adenhart, or Oscar Taveras. (A complete list of players who died mid-career may be viewed here: https://goo.gl/uFLbRC.) The article is learned, with a light hand, and comprehensive, though today’s reader might make some allowance for its vintage–no talk of PEDs here, no rehash of those sitting in limbo waiting for the call from the Hall of Fame that may never come. These are baseball’s tearful tales, may of such ancient vintage as to have been forgotten; bring on the weeps.
If, of all words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are, “It might have been,”
More sad are these we daily see:
“It is, but hadn’t ought to be.”
In the eleventh century in the reign of William the Conqueror, detailed information about the landowners of England and their assets was gathered and then recorded in what were called Domesday Books. Much of what is known of the demographics of early England is derived from these books.
Baseball also has its Domesday Books, but they are called Encyclopedias. They list the name, vital statistics, and records of every player who ever appeared in a major league game, beginning with the formation of the National Association in 1871. So assiduously have baseball’s Domesday Books been corrected, refined, and updated, it is safe to say that detailed information is more readily available about ballplayers, even the most obscure, than it is for statesmen, authors, artists, poets, or captains of industry.
Informative as they are, the Encyclopedias still leave much unsaid. For example, why did Bert Shepard play but a single game, while Jim McGuire played for twenty-six seasons? Short careers, like Shepard’s, usually mean a lack of ability or, perhaps, the failure to receive a fair opportunity; but often they are short for other reasons–death, illness, injury, accident, suicide, or even murder. It is with such tragically shortened careers that this chapter will deal. Although the subject was carefully researched, no assertion of 100 percent completeness is proffered.
Since baseball’s Domesday Books are limited to major league players and managers, no listing will be found there for minor leaguers like Bill Thomas of the 1906 Buffalo Bisons or Ralph Worrell of the 1918 Baltimore Orioles or Jeff Hoffman of the 1992 Albany-Colonie Yankees.
James Creighton was the star pitcher of the Excelsior Club, a famous Brooklyn amateur nine of the 1850s and 1860s. Before Creighton’s day, it was customary for pitchers to toss the ball gently to the plate. Creighton changed all this by developing a snap throw that gave speed and spin to the ball. In addition, he was one of the most powerful hitters of his day. It is said that he completed one entire season without being put out. On October 14, 1862, the Excelsiors were playing the Union Club of Morrisania in their final match of the season. Creighton, at bat for the Excelsiors, swung mightily and sent the ball beyond the reach of the outfielders. As he crossed first base, he collapsed, obviously in great pain. Legend has it that he staggered around the bases for a home run. He was immediately taken home by his teammates. Four days later, the twenty-one-year-old pitcher was dead. According to an account in the Brooklyn Eagle, headlined “Obsequies of a Celebrated Ballplayer,” Creighton had ruptured his bladder with the force of his final swing and died from internal bleeding. [Later reassessments of Creighton’s cause of death point to an inguinal hernia.–jt]
A. G. Spalding, in his book Baseball, America’s National Game, devoted two pages to Creighton, with his picture and a view of the towering granite monument his teammates erected in his memory on Tulip Hill in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. The monument is embossed with crossed bats, a cap, a base, and a scorebook.
The circumstances of the death of Bill Thomas, a twenty-five-year-old Buffalo pitcher, in April 1906, are still a mystery. Thomas had been a big winner in the Pacific Coast League, and manager George Stallings of Buffalo had brought him east to test his mettle in the stronger Eastern League. He was successful in his first start at Baltimore. The Bisons then finished a series at Providence and took a train to New Bedford, Massachusetts, from which point they boarded the night boat Richard Peck, en route to New York City. Thomas had left word with the porter and with his roommate, pitcher Joe Galaski, that he wanted an early call so he could see the New York skyline at sunrise. In the morning, when the porter came into the stateroom, the Thomas bunk, which had been slept in, was empty. Thomas was never seen again.
In 1918 Ralph Worrell, only nineteen, won 25 games for Jack Dunn’s Baltimore Orioles, but he never pitched again. Instead of becoming another Lefty Grove (also a Jack Dunn discovery), Worrell failed to survive the winter, dying in the terrible World War One flu epidemic.
Just as tragic was the death of twenty-nine-year-old Yankee farmhand Jeff Hoffman of the Albany-Colonie Yankees, August 29, 1992. The young righthanded pitcher collapsed in his Binghamton (N.Y.) hotel room and died later that day in a local hospital. There was no evidence of foul play or drug or alcohol use. After several days it was determined he had died from a heart deficiency, previously undetected. He left his wife Teresa, who was expecting their first child.
The deaths of young, vigorous, and supposedly healthy athletes like Creighton, Thomas, Worrell, and Hoffman are sad and decidedly against the odds, but in the muster rolls of major league players in baseball’s Domesday Books, such cases are far from rare.
Fatal Illnesses of Players and Managers
Elmer White was long thought to be a brother of James “Deacon” White and Will White. The early encyclopedias listed him as playing 15 games for the Forest Cities of Cleveland in 1872, but nothing more. A trip by the writer to the village of Caton in New York’s southern tier and to the cemetery behind the Methodist Church there resulted in the finding of Elmer White’s grave. The inscription on the tombstone, which showed he was Jim’s and Will’s cousin, not a brother, told with great economy of words the story of a short life and a short baseball career: “Born December 7, 1850. Died March 17, 1873.”
Of all the deaths of active major leaguers to be recounted here, significantly, only one–that of Ray Chapman, who was killed by a Carl Mays pitch–resulted directly from activity on the diamond. Many of the deaths, especially those in the first fifty years, were from illnesses routinely controlled today. Typhoid fever, for example, killed first baseman Alex McKinnon of Pittsburgh (NL) on July 24, 1887. He played in the July 4 game, complained of not feeling well, and was taken home. He died twenty days later at the age of thirty. Less than a year later, on April 29, 1888, Charlie Ferguson, an outstanding young pitcher who had won 21, 26, 30, and 22 games for Philadelphia (NL) from 1884 through 1887 and was a strong hitter as well (.288 in four seasons), died from the same disease, twelve days after his twenty-fifth birthday.
On May 14, 1892 in a game at Boston, twenty-eight-old Brooklyn outfielder Hub Collins, who had played in the major leagues since 1886 and had led the American Association in doubles in 1888 and the National League in 1890, was pinch hit for because he was not feeling well. Five days later he died in Brooklyn, a victim of typhoid fever.
Edward “Sy” Sutcliffe, a catcher for most of his career, had shifted to first base for Baltimore (NL) in 1892 and had done quite well, batting .279 in 66 games. In the off-season, the twenty-nine-year-old native of Wheaton, Illinois, developed Bright’s disease. He died February 13, 1893.
Joe Cassidy, an infielder for the Washington Senators in 1904 and 1905, was a fourth victim of the deadly typhoid. He was only twenty-three when he died at his home in Chester, Pennsylvania, March 25, 1906. Just a year and four days later, March 29, 1907, Patrick Henry “Cozy” Dolan, a nine-year outfielder in the majors, most recently with Boston (NL), also died of typhoid. He took ill during Boston’s spring training trip, and died in a Louisville hospital, at age thirty-four. News of his death was overshadowed in the Boston papers by the extensive coverage given to the sensational suicide of manager Chick Stahl of the other Boston club, the day before in West Baden, Indiana.
Mike Powers, who caught in the majors from 1898 to 1909, mainly with the Philadelphia Athletics, was an anomaly in those hard-bitten days of the game’s history, in that he held a degree from Holy Cross College and had also attended Notre Dame Medical School. Powers, incidentally, recruited the legendary Louis “Chief” Sockalexis for both of his alma maters, as shall be seen later. Powers was not a strong hitter (.216 lifetime), but he was considered a fine defensive catcher. He was behind the plate in an early season game in 1909, when he complained of nausea and asked to be taken to a hospital. He underwent three stomach operations, and then gangrene set in. “Doc” Powers died April 26, 1909, at the age of thirty-eight.
Alan Storke was an infielder for Pittsburgh and St. Louis (NL) from 1906 through 1909. He never made it to spring training in 1910. He was a mere twenty-five when he died in Newton, Massachusetts, March 18, 1910, following a lung operation. Less than two years later, February 1, 1912, another National League infielder, thirty-year-old Jimmy Doyle, who had batted .282 for the Cubs in 1911, died in Syracuse, New York, after an appendicitis operation.
Addie Joss pitched in the majors only eight seasons and part of a ninth, but his record was so extraordinary that he was elected to the Hall of Fame (in 1978), despite his short tenure. With Cleveland from 1902 to 1910, he won 160 games, lost 97, and compiled an ERA of 1.88 (second on the all-time list). He pitched a perfect game on October 2, 1908, defeating Big Ed Walsh, 1·0, with first place on the line. Joss had another no-hitter on April 20, 1910, also against the White Sox, just before his health began to fail.
Joss made only 13 appearances in 1910, and still felt weak when he went south in 1911. He collapsed on the bench during an exhibition game at Chattanooga, Tennessee, then became ill again when the team reached Cincinnati. Doctors said it was pleurisy and sent him home to Toledo. On April 14, 1911, two days after his team had opened the season in St. Louis, he died at the age of thirty-one. The cause of his death was given as tubercular meningitis. Famed ballplayer-preacher Billy Sunday presided at his funeral, said to have been the biggest ever seen in Toledo.
Leonard “King” Cole, a righthanded pitcher who had won 20 games for the Cubs in 1910 and 18 the following season, was, like Charlie Ferguson, to have a brilliant career nipped in the bud by a fatal illness. During the 1915 season, when Cole was with the Yankees, it was discovered that he had been suffering from tuberculosis. He returned to his home in Bay City, Michigan, where he died on January 6, 1916, at twenty-nine. He left a splendid 56-27 (.675) won-lost record.
Joe Leonard, a twenty-five-year-old infielder who began with Pittsburgh in 1914 and played for Washington in 1916, 1917, and 1919, appeared in only one game for the Senators in 1920, became ill, and was taken to George Washington Hospital. He died there on May 1, following an appendicitis operation.
In 1922, the St. Louis Cardinals lost two young ballplayers within nine months. First to go was William “Pickles” Dillhoefer, who had caught in the majors since 1917, usually in a backup role. He was twenty-seven when he died in a St. Louis hospital, February 22, 1922, of that old bugaboo, typhoid fever. Outfielder Austin McHenry had started with the Cardinals in 1918, but had not really blossomed until 1921, when he batted .350 and hit 37 doubles, 8 triples, and 17 home runs. The following year he began to have difficulties in judging fly balls. Manager Branch Rickey sent him to a doctor, who diagnosed his problem as a brain tumor. An operation proved unsuccessful, and he died at Jefferson Township, Ohio, November 27, 1922. He was twenty-seven, the same age as Dillhoefer.
The 1924 season saw the deaths of two veterans of the Cincinnati Reds within eight months. Pat Moran was a catcher in the majors from 1901 to 1914 and then a highly successful manager, first with the Phillies and then with the Reds. In nine managerial seasons, he compiled a record of 748-586 and won a pennant with each team. His 1915 Phillies lost the World Series to the Boston Red Sox, in five games, while his 1919 Reds won the tainted 1919 Series from the White Sox, 5-3. Moran was forty-eight when he died of Bright’s disease at Orlando, Florida, March 7, 1924, while at spring training with the Reds. The second Red to die that year was Jake Daubert, a fancy-fielding first baseman who could hit (.303 in fifteen years with the Dodgers and the Reds). Although forty years old, he played 102 games for the Reds in 1924, batted .281 and fielded .990. He became ill in October and was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, where he died on October 9 following an appendicitis operation, just as Jimmy Doyle and Joe Leonard had before him.
Legendary New York Giants outfielder and future Hall of Famer Ross Youngs was at the height of his career when he was struck down by Bright’s disease, diagnosed during spring training in 1926. Despite his illness, he played 95 games and batted .306. All through the season, he was accompanied by a male nurse hired by manager John McGraw. Youngs was bedridden for the entire 1927 season and died on October 22 at the age of thirty. Despite his relatively short career, nine seasons and part of another, his record was impressive enough to earn him election to the Hall of Fame in 1972. McGraw said he was the greatest outfielder he had ever seen.
Urban Shocker was an outstanding pitcher for the great Yankee teams of the 1925·1927 period. His record was 18-6 for the 1927 Yankees, but illness kept him out of the World Series. His thirteen-year record with the St. Louis Browns and the Yankees is in Hall of Fame country–187-117 (.615)–and he never had a losing season. His health continued to fail in 1928, and he appeared in only one game before being released. On September 9, 1928, in Denver, he died of heart disease and pneumonia. He was thirty-eight.
Shocker’s manager, Miller Huggins, was to survive him little more than a year. On September 20, 1929, Huggins, who had managed the Yankees since 1918 and had won six pennants and three world’s championships, asked coach Art Fletcher to take over for him, so that he could check into a hospital. Five days later, he was dead of erysipelas, a streptococcal skin infection. Huggins, who was of Munchkin size at 5’6″ and 140 pounds, had been in the majors since 1904, batting a career .265, and winning 1,413 games and losing 1,134 as a manager. His showdowns with his rambunctious slugger, Babe Ruth, are part of baseball lore. Huggins was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964.
On May 28, 1930, Hal Carlson, thirty-eight-year-old righthanded pitcher of the Chicago Cubs, and a fourteen-year veteran of the National League, called several of his teammates to his apartment in a Chicago hotel, saying that he was in severe pain. Shortly after the team physician arrived, Carlson was dead from what was described as “an internal hemorrhage.” He left a three-year-old son and his wife, who was expecting another child.
Twenty-nine-year-old infielder Mickey Finn, who had played for the Dodgers from 1930 to 1932 and then for the Phillies, became ill midway through the 1933 season. Owner Gerry Nugent of the Phillies summoned his brother-in-law, Dr. H. P. Boyle, who diagnosed Finn’s trouble as a duodenal ulcer. Surgery was performed in an Allentown, Pennsylvania, hospital. He seemed on the road to recovery, but unforeseen medical problems arose, leading to his death on July 7, 1933.
On August 28, 1949, Ernie Bonham, who had pitched seven seasons for the Yankees and appeared in three World Series, but who was now with the Pirates, pitched his team to an 8-2 win over the Phillies. He had complained of some discomfort during the game, and as a precaution was taken to a Pittsburgh hospital, where appendicitis was diagnosed. The normally routine operation extended for three hours when complications developed. He was very weak when manager Billy Meyer visited him a few days later. “Billy, they are hitting me all over the field, and I can’t get anybody out,” he mumbled. On September 15, minutes before Meyer and coach Goldie Holt arrived for another visit, he passed away. Bonham, who was thirty-six, left an impressive 103-72 record.
Perhaps the closest parallel to the death of James Creighton in the preprofessional era was the shocking and tragic passing of first baseman Harry Agganis of the Boston Red Sox, on June 27, 1955 at the age of twenty-five. Like Creighton, Agganis was young and talented, with a glorious career seemingly assured.
At 6’2″, 200 pounds, and lefthanded, Agganis was a drawing-board first baseman. “The Golden Greek,” as he was called, was the most publicized athlete to come out of Boston University since Mickey Cochrane in 1923. Such were Agganis’s skills as a quarterback that he was a first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, who offered him $25,000 to sign. When the Boston Red Sox upped this figure by $10,000, he chose baseball. After the 1953 season at Louisville (American Association), where he batted .281, had 23 home runs, 108 RBIs, and played in 155 games, he took over at first base for the parent club in 1954. He batted only .251 his first season. In the early going in 1955, he was over .300 when he developed pneumonia and was hospitalized for ten days. He returned to the lineup, but became ill again in Kansas City. He flew back to Boston and checked into Santa Maria Hospital in nearby Cambridge. He was thought to be recovering nicely, when suddenly on June 27, he died. The cause of his death was given as a massive pulmonary embolism.
Agganis’s body lay in state at St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church in his home town of Lynn, Massachusetts. On the day before the funeral, ten thousand mourners passed the bier.
Righthanded pitcher Jim Umbricht of Houston underwent a cancer operation on March 8, 1963. By May 9 he was back in uniform, and he finished the year with a 4-3 record and an ERA of 2.61 in 35 appearances. He did not make it into the next season. The malignancy spread, and he died on April 8, 1964, at age thirty-three.
On April 13, 1965, twenty-five-year-old righthander Dick Wantz made his major league debut with the California Angels, giving up three hits and two runs in one inning of relief. Exactly one month later, he was dead, following an operation for a brain tumor.
According to present information, two active major leaguers succumbed to leukemia. Both were twenty-nine when they died and both at one time played with Minnesota. The first was giant 6’7″ Walter Bond, who started with Cleveland in 1960, moved to Houston in 1964 and then to Minnesota in 1967, when illness forced him to quit. He died in Houston, September 14, 1967.
The second, infielder Danny Thompson, who broke in with Minnesota in 1970, had played for three years in the majors when he learned he had leukemia. He continued to play, however, and on June 1, 1976, he was involved in one of the big trades of the year, when he was bundled with pitcher Bert Blyleven and shipped to Texas for Roy Smalley, Bill Singer, Mike Cubbage, Jim Gideon, and $250,000. Thompson finished the season with Texas, but it was to be his last. Baseball’s Most Courageous Performer (he was so voted in 1974) was only twenty-nine when he died December 10, 1976, at Rochester, Minnesota.
In a single year, 1966, the Detroit Tigers lost two managers to illness and subsequent death, a tragic sequence not duplicated in major league history. On May 16 Charley Dressen, who had managed in the majors for sixteen seasons, suffered a heart attack and was succeeded by coach Bob Swift. Dressen died three months later at the age of sixty-seven. Swift himself became ill in July and was hospitalized, with another coach, Frank Skaff, taking over. It was found that Swift had an advanced case of lung cancer. He died October 16 at the age of fifty-one.
Quiet, efficient, and soft-spoken Dick Howser was an American League infielder from 1961 to 1968 with Kansas City, Cleveland, and New York. He became manager of the Yankees in 1980 and led them to 103 wins and a division title. After the Yankees lost the league championship series to Kansas City, 0-3, owner George Steinbrenner made things so uncomfortable for Howser that he resigned. He moved to Kansas City in 1981, winning a division title in 1984, then a pennant and a world’s championship in 1985.
Early in the 1986 season, Howser began to suffer from headaches and to experience visual and memory problems. On July 18, he learned he had a malignant brain tumor. Operations followed, and he recovered sufficiently to return to uniform in 1987. But his health continued to deteriorate and he was forced to give up his managerial duties. He was fifty years old when he died, June 17, 1987.
Part 2 tomorrow.