Tragedies and Shortened Careers, Part 5
Repeating my intro to Part 1: 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.
Alcohol and Drugs
It is impossible to put a number on the baseball careers shortened or adversely affected by the excessive use of alcohol. In at least four cases (Delahanty, Koenecke, Morris, and Wilson), dealt with elsewhere in this chapter, fatalities resulted. Countless players of the game’s early years were lushes. Liquor was readily available to them, often on the house, and there was plenty of time for carousing, especially when on the road. Some of the worst offenders were quietly blacklisted and faded from the game. Others who were heavy drinkers continued in uniform, because they were star players and the owners winked at their alcoholic escapades. Future Hall of Famer Michael “King” Kelly, for example, drank as hard as he played; yet in 1887 Boston paid an unheard of $10,000 to Chicago for his contract. Toward the end of his career, he opened a saloon in New York, which was like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. His performance level deteriorated rapidly, and by 1894 he was in the minors. That fall he developed pneumonia, and on November 8 he died at the age of thirty-six.
Terry Larkin, who won 29 games for Hartford in 1877, and 29 and 31, respectively, for Chicago in 1878 and 1879, was another nineteenth-century player whose career self-destructed from the ravages of strong drink. In 1883, while drunk, he shot his wife (she recovered) and then tried to commit suicide in jail. In 1886, while employed as a bartender in Brooklyn, he showed up for work with two pistols and challenged his employer to a duel. Police were called and he was thrown into jail until he sobered up. He died in Brooklyn in 1894.
Equally melancholy is the story of James (The Troy Terrier) Egan, who pitched, caught and played the outfield for Troy (NL) in 1882 and then was blacklisted for drunkenness. Supposedly rehabilitated, he was given a chance with Brooklyn (AA) in 1884, but before he played a game he was arrested for theft and jailed. He died of what was described as “brain fever” in a New Haven, Connecticut, jail, September 26, 1884.
Few players have come to the majors with more raw talent than Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Old Towne, Maine. He played college baseball at both Holy Cross and Notre Dame. While at the latter school in 1897, he and a companion broke up an establishment run by a certain “Popcorn Jennie” and threw the furniture out the windows. When the good fathers who ran Notre Dame read about this caper in the South Bend Tribune, they promptly threw him out. Future major league catcher Mike Powers, who had been instrumental in getting Sockalexis into both Holy Cross and Notre Dame, wired the Cleveland Club, with whom the Indian had signed a contract to take effect at the end of the school year, and suggested it send someone to South Bend to bail him out. Manager Patsy Tebeau caught the next train west, and in a few days Sockalexis was in a Cleveland uniform. He impressed with his strength, speed, and magnificent arm. In later years, both John McGraw and Hughie Jennings said he was the greatest natural talent they had ever seen. Even allowing for the hyperbole that often accompanies such reminiscence, it is apparent that he was a player of exceptional ability. But just as exceptional was his appetite for strong drink. Frequently interrupted by binges and injuries (once he jumped from a second-floor window and severely injured an ankle), his major league career was limited to 94 games in three seasons.
Sockalexis died in Burlington, Maine, on December 24, 1913, at the age of forty-two. His baseball monument is not his .313 batting average but the Cleveland Indians baseball club, which was nicknamed after him.
Hall of Famer Rube Waddell gained almost as much notoriety for his drinking as he did recognition for his pitching. Lowell Reidenbaugh, in his Cooperstown, tells how Waddell would come into a bar, penniless, and whisper to the bartender, “Give me a drink, and I will give you the ball I used to defeat Cy Young in twenty innings.” According to Reidenbaugh, hundreds of bartenders “displayed what they considered to be the historic souvenir.”
Despite the abuse he gave his body, the Rube lasted for thirteen major league seasons and won 191 games. But his indiscretions led to tuberculosis and he died in San Antonio, Texas, on April Fool’s Day, 1914, at the age of thirty-seven.
Waddell contemporary Arthur (Bugs) Raymond was not the pitcher the Rube was, but he was his equal in the drinking department. The efforts of Giant manager John McGraw to rein him in are a part of the lore and legend of baseball. Raymond finally became so uncontrollable that the Giants let him go in the spring of 1912. Later that year Raymond, while drunk, was watching a sandlot game in Chicago when a spectator picked up a broken piece of pottery and threw it, hitting Raymond in the face. A fight ensued in which Raymond was badly beaten up. He went back to his hotel room, where six days later he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, caused by a skull fracture. He was only thirty years old. One former teammate said of him, “Bugs paid too much too soon for too many drinks.”
The problem of alcoholism continues in the modern game, but added to it is an affliction even more virulent–the use of illegal drugs. Careers are being shortened or interrupted by excessive drinking or the ingestion of drugs, or by a combination of both. In the old days, when a player drank too much, he was either shunted aside or his problem was swept under the rug. Now, the usual pattern is a confession of the problem, or exposure, followed by treatment, rehabilitation, sometimes suspension, but then a return to the game.
In 1983 the baseball world was rocked by the news that four players on the Kansas City Royals–Willie Wilson, Willie Aikens, Jerry Martin, and Vida Blue (no longer with the team)–had been involved with illegal drugs. All were suspended for one year by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, although later an arbitrator reduced the suspensions, except for Blue’s. Meanwhile, indictments were handed down and all were convicted and sentenced to one year in jail, with the last nine months suspended. Eventually Wilson returned to the Royals. Aikens was traded to Toronto but then went to the minors. Martin and Blue are out of baseball.
Pitcher Steve Howe of the Los Angeles Dodgers was suspended for the 1984 season for alleged drug use and did not challenge it. After at least two relapses, he was signed by the Texas Rangers and appeared for them late in the 1987 season. He was out of baseball in ’88 and ’89, but made a comeback in 1991 and eventually worked himself up to a prominent place in the New York Yankee bullpen. After his conviction in 1992 in Kalispell, Montana, for drug possession, he was barred from baseball “for life” by Commissioner Fay Vincent, but was given yet another chance to play in 1993, by virtue of a ruling by an arbitrator. He pitched the entire season for the Yankees, with spotty results, and presumably passed all his required blood tests. In 1994 he became the ace of the Yankee bullpen.
Atlanta pitcher Pascual Perez spent three months in a Dominican Republic jail on drug charges during the 1983·1984 off-season and was also suspended by Commissioner Kuhn. Arbitrator Richard I. Bloch, who had also ruled in the Willie Wilson et al. cases, subsequently threw out the Perez suspension because of lack of evidence.
Also in 1983, pitcher Dickie Noles of the Cubs spent time in jail after a drunken brawl in Cincinnati. Outfielder Ron LeFlore was arrested on drug and weapons charges in 1982 while with the Chicago White Sox. Although found not guilty, he was released by the Sox in April 1983.
Bob Welch, talented righthanded pitcher of the Dodgers, best remembered for his classic confrontation with Reggie Jackson of the Yankees in the 1978 World Series, revealed that he had been an alcoholic for many years. After rehabilitation and relegation to the minors, he returned to the Dodgers in 1986 and Oakland two years later. He has written a book about his experiences, Five O’Clock Comes Early.
A much-publicized drug trial that began in Pittsburgh on September 5, 1985, exposed the drug involvement of numerous players, including Keith Hernandez of the Mets (formerly with the Cardinals) and Dave Parker of the Reds (formerly with the Pirates). After the trial, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth meted out penalties to twenty-one players, ranging from heavy fines to be paid to drug prevention programs, orders to participate in random drug testing, and the performance of drug-related community service.
The shocking disclosures of widespread drug use that came out of the 1985 trial and the severe penalties that followed seemed to have a favorable impact on the drug problem, but did not eliminate it entirely. In 1986 San Diego pitcher LaMarr Hoyt, a Cy Young Award winner in 1983 when he was with the White Sox, was arrested three times on drug-related charges, and after the third was sentenced to forty-five days in federal prison. Hoyt’s suspension from baseball was later overturned, and he was ordered reinstated with back pay, much to the dismay of the baseball hierarchy.
Hoyt then signed with his old club, the Chicago White Sox, but his troubles were far from over. He tested positive for cocaine three times in October 1987, and then on December 4 he was arrested in his Columbia, S.C., apartment and charged with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana. He was convicted the following year and sentenced to one year in prison. How widespread has been the use of illegal drugs by major league players? In a recent book, Baseball Babylon, author Dan Gutman lists eighty-three players who have been so involved, including such superstars as Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, whose problems surfaced again in 1994.
The list of tragedies and shortened careers has been a long one and sad. It has included paragons and playboys, teetotalers and tosspots, the great, the near-great, and the never-were; some who self-destructed and many more who were simply the victims of the cruelest of bad luck. However classified, for each player the hypothetical question remains: Had his tragedy not occurred, what might have been?
Careers Shortened by Blacklisting or Expulsion
Listed below, but not discussed in this chapter, are players blacklisted or expelled from baseball for gambling, dishonest play (or knowledge of same), criminal activity, or, in one case–that of Ray Fisher–violation of a contract. The players involved in the 1877 Louisville and 1919 Chicago White Sox scandals, all of whom were barred for life, are grouped; the others are listed alphabetically:
1877 Louisville players: Bill Craver, Jim Devlin, George Hall, Al Nichols.
1919 Chicago White Sox players: Eddie Cicotte, Oscar Felsch, Chick Gandil, Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver, Claude Williams.
Others: George Bechtel, Rube Benton (who was later reinstated and returned to the majors), Hal Chase, Cozy Dolan, Phil Douglas, Jean Dubuc (who returned as a coach with Detroit in 1931), Ray Fisher, Joe Gedeon, Claude Hendrix, Richard Higham (umpire), Benny Kauff, Hubert Leonard, Lee Magee, Jimmy O’Connell, Eugene Paulette, Pete Rose, Heinie Zimmerman. (Former major leaguers banned from baseball for their activities in the minor leagues include Babe Borton, Gene Dale, Jess Levan, Harl Maggert, Tom Seaton and Joe Tipton.) [Note that man, many other players, especially before 1900, were placed on indefinite suspension–and thus banned or blacklisted–for a variety of offenses ranging from on-field inebriation to contract jumping. Most of these individuals were welcomed back to the big leagues, eventually.–jt]