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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Chick Stahl: A Baseball Suicide
By Chris Christensen

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
—Albert Camus

Seven times as many major league ballplayers died by their own hands during the first seventy-five years of the National League as American males of the general populace.
—from Diamonds in the Rough: The Untold History of Baseball

 

A Web site called The Deadball Era ("Where Every Player is Safe at Home") lists nearly a hundred baseball suicides—beginning in "1881: Fraley Rogers (31) . . . Gun" and ending in "1995: Ron Luciano (57) . . . Carbon monoxide." The greatest suicide rate occurred during the Dead Ball Era. From 1900 to 1920, twenty-four baseball men took their own lives, more than one killing per year. They employed a variety of tools and methods, from handguns to hanging; from razors to overdosing. Fifteen of them were active or recently active major leaguers. What would prompt ballplayers to kill themselves at such an astonishing rate?

According to one simplistic view of the time (offered by the Police Gazette), "They come up farm-sober, go bad in the big-time, and drink themselves out of the business." Granted, many players back then abused alcohol with a vengeance, but that alone cannot explain the rampant rate of suicide. Like the act itself, alcoholism is a symptom of deeper unrest. Besides, self-destructive angst was not the sole possession of American baseball players. While they may have killed themselves at a rate seven times that of other American males, ballplayers were not alone in the world.

"Men everywhere are becoming more weary of the burden of life," stated an article in the Contemporary Review at the end of the nineteenth century, quoted in Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. The authors report that "in no other epoch had suicides been as widespread; it had become a kind of epidemic. Social disintegration, the emancipation of the individual, poverty, and the influence of certain philosophers—Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard—were among the factors blamed."

Not that American ballplayers of the early twentieth century were steeped in Schopenhauer. A more relevant (if incomplete) clue may be found in this stunning fact: Of all the suicides committed by active major leaguers, only one did himself in during the regular season ("1940: Willard Hershberger (30) . . . Slashed his throat"). And with the exception of a ballplayer who took his life during spring training, all of the others killed themselves during the off-season, suggesting that men already plagued by troubles grow especially melancholic without the game to bolster their spirits.

Some cases offer ready explanations, at least on the surface. Dan McGann, for example, who shot himself in 1910, had a family history of early death and suicide. More recently, Donnie Moore, distraught over giving up a dramatic home run in the 1986 playoffs, killed himself three years later.

Beneath the surface it's not so easy. Indeed, it seems unwise to generalize about a problem unique to each individual, and no attempt will be made here to delve into the psyche. Nonetheless, it's possible to look at the life of a ballplayer and trace developments that may have contributed to a downward spiral; we can search for external causes behind the turmoil and identify probable events that may have triggered the final act.

This is the story of one baseball suicide—Chick Stahl, a star outfielder whose career overlapped the turn of the twentieth century, when "men everywhere were becoming more weary of the burden of life." Stahl played for both Boston teams, leading each to two pennants. By all accounts he was one of the most popular players of his era. Handsome, charming, with a magnetic personality, Stahl won many friends and female admirers and seemingly had everything to live for. But, beset by pressures on the field and off, he took his own life in 1907. He was thirty-four.


To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2003 issue.

—EFQ

 

CHRIS CHRISTENSEN lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Bobbie Savitz, and their cat, Gretta.

© 2003 Chris Christensen

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