Bury My Heart at Cooperstown: Salacious, Sad, and Surreal Deaths in the History of Baseballby Frank Russo, Gene Racz
An entertaining look at how a number of baseball players have left fthe game all too soon, this book covers murders, suicides, accidents and bizarre mishaps, deaths by alcoholism, and even deaths by sexually transmitted diseases. The ever amusing and interesting stories include James Phelps, who made a running catch, was bitten by a poisonous snake, finished the… See more details below
An entertaining look at how a number of baseball players have left fthe game all too soon, this book covers murders, suicides, accidents and bizarre mishaps, deaths by alcoholism, and even deaths by sexually transmitted diseases. The ever amusing and interesting stories include James Phelps, who made a running catch, was bitten by a poisonous snake, finished the game, then promptly died; Harold B. “Rowdy” Elliott, who fell out of an apartment window in San Francisco in 1934 at the age of 33; Gus Sandberg, who’s demise was when he decided to light a match to see how much gas was in the tank of his car; Dernell Stensen, who was shot in the chest and head and run over by his own SUV in 2003 at the age of 25; Len Koenecke, who got his head smashed in by a pilot as he tried to grab controls in the cockpit of a commercial airplane flying from Chicago to Buffalo in 1935; and love-sick, star-stuck Bob Lansford, who poisoned himself to death with a picture of a young actress in front of him in 1907. There are countless offbeat facts, trivia, and even specific locations of where many of the ballplayers are buried such as Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Billy Martin, and many more. The book also provides you with a grave-hunting for dummies chapter with tips on how to find your favorite deceased ballplayer.
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Bury My Heart at Cooperstown
Salacious, Sad, and Surreal Deaths in the History of Baseball
By Frank Russo, Gene Racz
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2006 Frank Russo and Gene Racz
All rights reserved.
What a Way to Go
Flat-out bad luck or god-awful poor judgment. Those are the two major reasons most of the folks in this chapter met their demise.
Take, for example, minor leaguer James Phelps, who made a running catch during a game in Louisiana in 1909 and was bitten by a poisonous snake in the outfield. He finished the game and then died.
Then there's veteran Los Angeles Angels' catcher Gus Sandberg, who made his last earthly decision in 1930 when he decided to light a match to see how much gas was left in the tank of a car.
And how about retired New York Yankee George "Snuffy" Stirnweiss, father of six, who drowned in the Raritan Bay when his New York–bound train plunged into the water after the train's motorman suffered a heart attack?
Car accidents, blood poisoning, falling out of a window — there are plenty of ways to go. Interestingly, there's been only one fatality on the field in the history of major league baseball. That's when Yankees pitcher Carl Mays beaned Ray Chapman at the Polo Grounds in August of 1920.
The amateurs and minor leagues are a different story, with numerous accounts through the years of players and spectators alike getting killed by thrown balls and swung bats. At five ounces of wrapped rubber, string, and horsehide, the baseball makes a lethal projectile either leaving the hand at close to 100 miles per hour or flying out of a huge ballpark in a matter of seconds.
There's no shortage of fatalities occurring on the sandlots and in the stands. Maybe none is so strange as the incident which befell Bernard Lawrence Doyle, who was hit and killed by a stray bullet in the Polo Grounds bleachers. Police think it was fired during a belated Fourth of July celebration.
You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried.
George "Snuffy" Stirnweiss
When George "Snuffy" Stirnweiss boarded a New York–bound train on September 18, 1958, little did he know he was on the fast track to an unimaginable death.
An outstanding player for the Yankees during the war years, he led the American League in hits, doubles, and runs scored in 1944 and 1945 and was the AL batting champ in 1945.
Having retired from pro ball at age 33, Stirnweiss' Jersey Central train was headed to New York, where he worked as a businessman. But this would be anything but another day at the office. As fate would have it, the motorman suffered a heart attack, and the train ran through two signals before plunging off an open-lift bridge that connected the port of Elizabeth and Bayonne in New Jersey.
Stirnweiss, father of six, drowned in the Raritan Bay.
Yankees manager Joe McCarthy called the always-hustling Stirnweiss "one of the toughest competitors" he ever saw. Considered a marvelous teammate and friend to those who knew him, Stirnweiss edged out Tony Cuccinello of the Chicago White Sox on the last day of the season for the AL batting crown. He was also an AllStar–caliber second baseman.
There are differing versions as to how he got the nickname "Snuffy." The first one has the moniker originating from his nasal condition brought on by hay fever. The other has it that he was named after the comic book character Snuffy Smith due to his colorful personality. Former major leaguer Hank Majeski supposedly hung the name on him, and it stuck.
The son of a New York City police officer, he played halfback at North Carolina, becoming a star football player during his tenure there. He joined the Yankees from the Newark Bears in 1943, taking over the second base duties from Joe Gordon the next year when Gordon left for military service. Stirnweiss had 4F status because of chronic ulcers.
Traded in June 1950 as part of a multiplayer deal with the St. Louis Browns, he spent 1951 and 1952 with Cleveland before retiring. He managed in the minor leagues before entering the business world.
Stirnweiss was only 40 years old at the time of the tragedy. When his body was found inside the train, he was clutching a rosary. His funeral was a sad affair, attended by former teammates Phil Rizzuto and Jerry Coleman. who both remembered him as a great teammate and good man. He left his wife, Jane, and six children ranging in ages from 17 months to 15 years.
He was buried at the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Middletown, New Jersey (Section 29 of the Old Division, Lot 157, Grave 10). Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi is buried just a scant few yards away.
Bizarre postscript: the number of the train Stirnweiss was riding when he died, 932, was played by literally hundreds of people the next day in the illegal pick-3 numbers games that were being run at the time. (The New Jersey lottery was not instituted until 1970). When they all hit the number, a report at the time said the only bookie with enough cash in reserve to pay it all out was a gent by the name of Newsboy Moriarty.
The other bettors got taken for a bad ride, so to speak.
Gus Sandberg's Blowout Loss
Considered one of the smartest catchers in the Pacific Coast League, Sandberg made a mental error in February 1930 that cost him his life. His tools of ignorance that day were a gas tank and a lighted match.
Sandberg's former manager Marty Krug was visiting him and noticed his car's needle was on empty. Sandberg volunteered to drain the gas from the tank of his car and put it in Krug's car so he could drive home. After draining the gasoline, Gus lit a match to see if it was empty.
Krug was standing by Sandberg's side and watched in horror as Sandberg took a blast of flame square in the face. Krug suffered burns on his hands trying to put the fire out. Sandberg suffered first-, second, and third-degree burns on his face, neck, back, and shoulders. He died in the hospital that evening, leaving a widow and two young sons.
Sandberg was a veteran catcher at the time who had been traded from the Cincinnati Reds in 1925 to the Los Angeles Angels. He was wellliked and respected by teammates and rivals alike and was said to not have an enemy in the game.
Who needs a hung jury when you have a beaned witness?
How miffed must the prosecutor have been when his star witness was killed by a stray baseball while on break at a local park in Dallas on April 12, 1903?
Aaron Sokolowski, a witness in a murder case that was being tried in Orange, Texas, was waiting his turn on the witness stand when the judge permitted witnesses who were not needed for a considerable time to go watch a baseball game.
Sokolowski's testimony was considered important to the prosecution, which wound up without it when Sokolowski died that afternoon. He was fatally struck by a ball as he leaned back against a low fence behind home plate. The wild pitch caught him in the right temple, and he passed away two hours later.
Playing outfield for the Ralleyville nine in Monroe, Louisiana, on July 24, 1909, James Phelps made a running catch on a long fly ball. He backed into a bog after hauling it in and felt a sharp pain in his leg. He had been bitten by a water snake.
Incredibly, he opted to finish the game, playing through the last inning as his leg began to balloon from the venom. Twenty-four hours later, he was dead.
The newspaper account reported that another player was bitten on the same grounds a few years before and also died soon afterward.
Country merchant Benjamin Nolan was taking in a ballgame on June 5, 1895, in Eckerty, Indiana, when a full-grown rattlesnake took his life. Nolan was bitten several times before the serpent locked its fangs onto him. It had to be pried off of him and killed — all three feet of it, including eight rattles and a baton.
Ralph "Socks" Seybold
It was an ordinary car accident in 1921 that took the life of one of the most extraordinary players of his day — Ralph "Socks" Seybold.
When the American League began play in 1901, legendary manager Connie Mack formed the Philadelphia Athletics and brought Seybold with him from the Western Association. In Mack's eyes, Seybold was "the steadiest and most serviceable of players."
And serve steadily he did. Seybold hit .300 three times, topping 90 RBIs three times. He was consistently among the American League leaders in homers and was second in RBIs in 1907 and fourth in 1902. He also led the league in doubles in 1903 with 45. Not an especially good fielder, he nonetheless had two unassisted double plays from the outfield in 1907.
Seybold strung together a 27-game hitting streak in 1901, bested only by teammate Nap Lajoie, who hit safely in 28 straight.
His best season was 1902, when he batted .316 with 97 RBIs and an American League–leading 16 home runs. The A's won the pennant that year, and his 16 dingers stood as a league record until a young upstart by the name of Babe Ruth shattered it with 29 in 1919.
An injury in 1908 ended his major league career. The accident in 1921, three days before Christmas, ended his life when he lost control of his car and drove over an embankment, breaking his neck. He was 51 years old and was buried at the Brush Creek Cemetery in Irwin, Pennsylvania.
Michael Berchman Donovan was blown away on payday.
It was actually a freak accident that cost the ex-ballplayer his life. He went to pick up a check as an employee for Consolidated Edison on February 3, 1938. He wound up taking a bullet in the neck from a coworker whose gun accidentally discharged.
Shortly after noon that fateful day, Donovan and a fellow security guard and friend, Joseph Courtney, entered the paymaster's office on the ninth floor of the Con Ed building, which was located on 14th Street and Irving Place in New York City. Both men were preparing to draw their pay as they entered a small anteroom when Courtney attempted to pull a handkerchief from his back pocket. Somehow, the handkerchief had become entangled with his semiautomatic pistol, which discharged when Courtney jerked at it.
The bullet struck Donovan in the neck, and he died within a few minutes. When police arrived, they immediately charged Courtney with unlawful possession of a weapon. Even though Courtney had a valid pistol permit, he did not have a permit for the semiautomatic that killed his friend.
Police were suspicious of the far-fetched scenario given by Courtney, who was held on a technical charge of homicide. He posted bail totaling $2,500 — $500 for the gun possession and $2,000 for the homicide charge.
Eventually, the prosecutor's office ruled the shooting purely accidental.
A native New Yorker, Donovan was born on October 18, 1883. Except for seven games at the big league level — two with Cleveland and five with the Highlanders — he was a career minor leaguer.
He debuted against the Chicago White Sox on May 29, 1904. In the 5–4 Naps victory, Donovan replaced Nap Lajoie at shortstop after the Naps' player/manager was tossed from the game for arguing with umpire Frank Dwyer. In his last major league game, Donovan went 2 for 4 and played third base in a 7–5 loss to Cleveland.
Donovan's minor league odyssey included stops at Shreveport, Louisiana; Toledo, Ohio; Troy, Michigan; Fall River, Massachusetts; Johnstown, Lancaster, Reading, Wilkes-Barre, and Williamsport, Pennsylvania; and Elmira, New York.
He was living at 180 Claremont Avenue in Manhattan at the time of his death, and he was survived by his wife, the former Mary Clarke, and two married daughters, Sally and Marjorie. He was buried at the Calvary Cemetery in Woodside Queens (Section 9, Range 181) in the Clarke family plot.
Emil "Hillbilly" Bildilli
Emil Bildilli's best appearance came when he hurled a two-hitter at Yankee Stadium, pitching for the St. Louis Browns on April 30, 1940. His last appearance came when the car he was driving ran off the road and side-swiped a tree just north of Hartford City, Indiana, on September 15, 1946.
Nicknamed "Hillbilly," Emil Bildilli never did quite live up to his reputation as a pitcher with star potential. The left-hander pitched the majority of his career (five seasons) with the Browns and had his best season in 1940, appearing in 28 games with 11 starts. He went 2–4 with a 4.60 ERA.
Bildilli's road to the majors was a slow and rocky one. He began his pro career when he signed with the Monessen, Pennsylvania, team of the Mid-Atlantic League in 1936. He moved on to Terre Haute, Indiana, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, before his contract was sold to St. Louis in 1937.
In his major league debut on August 24, 1937, he got shelled by the Washington Senators — lasting only four innings in the Browns' 9–6 loss, which included surrendering a home run to Buddy Lewis in the third inning. He made only four appearances that year, giving up 12 runs before the Browns' management sent him back to the minors. In 1938 he appeared in five games for St. Louis, going 1–2. In between, he made some minor league stops in Johnstown; San Antonio,Texas; and Springfield, Illinois. He pitched again for San Antonio in 1939 before being called back up to the Browns where he went 1–1 in two games.
After being sent down to the minors — in Toledo, Ohio — once again in 1941, Bildilli decided to quit baseball and take a job with the Muncie, Indiana, fire department. He continued to pitch semi-pro ball.
Bildilli was returning home from a game at Fort Wayne on the fateful night when he apparently fell asleep at the wheel. He suffered multiple injuries in the accident, including a skull fracture. He turned 34 the next day. He left a wife and daughter.
Johnny Scalzi's major league career with the Boston Braves lasted all of two games with only one at-bat. He struck out. He was then forced to retire when his old college football back injury flared up.
His career as a scout for the newly formed New York Mets had a similarly short life — stopped dead in its tracks soon after it began when he crashed into an oncoming car near Port Chester, New York, on September 27, 1962.
Considered one of the all-time best football players in Georgetown history, Scalzi might have turned to a career in the NFL if not for his injury. But he was also an outstanding infielder for the Hoyas and, as graduation neared, he mulled over offers for both football and baseball. With the advice of his family, he signed a contract with Boston.
Scalzi remained in baseball after hanging up the cleats and eventually became president of the Colonial League before landing his job with the Mets. He had just finished supervising a tryout camp at the Polo Grounds and was driving to his home in Stamford, Connecticut, when his car went out of control and crashed.
He died from his injuries a short time later. He was 55 years old and was buried at St. John Cemetery in Darien, Connecticut.
Harold B. "Rowdy" Elliott
Indiana native Harold B. "Rowdy" Elliott made his major league debut with the Braves on September 24, 1910. He came to bat only twice, with no hits in three games that season. He did not return to the majors until the 1916 season when called up by the Chicago Cubs. Elliott appeared in 23 games in 1916 and 85 in 1917. After just five games in 1918, he joined the service. After his return in 1919, he played in the Pacific Coast League with the Oakland Oaks. In 1920 he was called back to the majors, where he played one more season for the Brooklyn Robins, hitting .241 in 41 games.
He died on February 12, 1934, at the age of 33, when he fell out of an apartment window in San Francisco. No one knows why or how he fell. He was laid to rest at the San Francisco National Cemetery, in the Presidio (Plot C, Grave 768).
Harry Wolverton was a solid third baseman with a .278 lifetime average. He batted over .300 for the Phillies in 1901 and 1903, and once rapped out three triples in a July 13, 1900, game.
But his real claim to fame, or infamy, was managing the Yankees to the worst record in team history, a 50–102 record in 1912. He had built a solid reputation in the minor leagues as manager, piloting teams in the Tri-State, Eastern, and Pacific Coast leagues before he came to New York to guide the Yankees in their last season at Hilltop Park. That season, the team was so beset by injuries that he frequently used himself as a pinch-hitter.
Known as a free spirit, he was noted for wearing a sombrero and was a cartoon-like figure as he puffed cigars in the dugout. After his career, he settled in Oakland, California, where he had managed in the Pacific Coast League. He died when he was run over by a hit-and-run driver there on February 4, 1937.
Wolverton is buried at the Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California.
Going off the deep end is not always such a bad thing — especially when it comes to unlit swimming pools.
In July 1932 while playing for the Knoxville Smokies of the Southern Association, Freigau decided to go for a late-night swim to cool off from the severe summer heat. In the sweltering darkness, the talented utility player plunged headlong into the shallow end, breaking his neck and drowning. He was only 32 years old.
Excerpted from Bury My Heart at Cooperstown by Frank Russo, Gene Racz. Copyright © 2006 Frank Russo and Gene Racz. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Frank Russo is a former radio announcer and the operator of the website www.thedeadballera.com. He is a nationally recognized baseball researcher and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. Gene Racz is a journalist. They both live in East Brunswick, New Jersey.
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