Saturday, November 30, 2013

Players Who Struggled With Mental Illness (Part VII-- Jim Eisenreich)

Named after the man who discovered it, Tourette's Syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by two types of tics: motor and vocal. Most sufferers develop an eye tic first. Other tics come afterward with the intensity typically increasing during adolescence. Tics can be embarrassing since they are involuntary and take on a variety of forms from frequent throat-clearing to the utterance of profanity. Many people with Tourette's have other illnesses such as Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder or Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder. Tourette's can also exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Jim Eisenreich grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota. At age 6, he began showing signs of the illness with tics, jerks and eye blinking. Little was known about the disorder at the time and even a hometown doctor didn't understand what was going on with Eisenreich. Kids at school picked on him mercilessly and he spent a lot of time alone wondering about his sanity.

Despite the disorder, Eisenreich was an exceptional ballplayer. Upon graduating from high school, he played for St. Cloud University and ended up getting drafted by the Twins. After hitting over .300 in two consecutive minor league seasons, he was called to Minnesota. In 1982, he began displaying symptoms during games. Though the behaviors were dismissed as "rookie nerves," he was taken out of the lineup for his "twitches and facial grimaces." Before a May game at Fenway Park, a Boston newspaper ran a feature about his on-field troubles and fans in the bleachers heckled him relentlessly. By the third inning, Eisenreich was shaking profusely and experiencing breathing difficulty. He was eventually  removed from the game. His troubles continued shortly afterward during a series at Milwaukee, when he suddenly bolted from the outfield to the dugout, tearing off his uniform and complaining that he couldn't breathe. He ended up on the disabled list.

Eisenreich saw numerous doctors and received multiple diagnoses. He tried medications and self-hypnosis, but nothing seemed to work. He retired more than once, but the Twins talked him into continuing, convinced that he was a "natural ballplayer." In June of '84, he refused a minor league assignment and was released. Interestingly, his replacement was Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett.

Out of the majors for the next three years, Eisenreich worked as a part-time painter and played semi-pro ball for the St. Cloud Saints. He was "rediscovered" by a former college teammate who had become an administrative assistant for the Kansas City Royals. Invited to spring training in '87 as a non-roster player, Eisenreich began to publicly talk about Tourette Syndrome, which he believed was causing his problems (despite a contrary opinion from his personal physician). He began the '87 campaign in the Southern League and was quickly promoted to KC after he hit .382 in 70 games. He would bounce up and down from the majors to the minors before finally attaining full-time status with the Royals in 1989. He was named team MVP that year despite the presence of George Brett and Bo Jackson.

 Eisenreich enjoyed his most productive years from '89-'97, exceeding the .300 mark at the plate five times in that span. With the Phillies in '96, he fashioned a .361 average in 113 games. He would play in two Fall Classics during his career--one with Philly and another with Florida (which earned him a ring). He posted a .294 average with 2 homers and 10 RBI's in World Series play.

Upon retiring, Eisenreich established a foundation for children with Tourette Sydrome. He still tours the country speaking to families and children about his experiences. The mission statement of the foundation is "to build avenues of success for every child with Tourette Syndrome through programs and services which address the needs of families, educators, peers and medical professionals."    

Friday, November 29, 2013

Players Who Struggled With Mental Illness (Part VI-- Chick Stahl)

In the annals of Red Sox history, the story of Chick Stahl is among the more puzzling and tragic. A key contributor to Boston’s first world championship, he would firmly establish himself as one of the top outfielders in the game. But personal problems would drive him to suicide in the prime of his career. More than a hundred years later, his death remains shrouded in mystery.

Stahl grew up in Fort Wayne and got his first big break with the Roanoke Magicians of the Virginia State League in 1895. He doubled as a pitcher but ultimately became a full-time outfielder after accruing a .311 batting average with 49 extra-base hits. Signed by the Buffalo Bisons of the Eastern League the following year, he led the circuit in triples and runs scored.

 The Boston Beaneaters acquired his contract in 1897. Though Manager Frank Selee intended to use him as a stopgap in the outfield, Slahl quickly earned a full-time position with his reliable bat and smooth fielding. By the end of the year, he had established a franchise record for rookies with an impressive .354 batting average. The Beaneaters won the pennant in ’97 and ’98 as Stahl played marvelously both years.

After the 1900 slate, teammate Jimmy Collins landed a contract to play and manage for a different Boston squad in the newly formed American League. He convinced Stahl to follow him. Stahl put up sturdy numbers for the fledgling ball club in 1901, finishing among the league leaders in numerous statistical categories. 

A leg injury in 1903 limited Stahl to 77 games, but he recovered sufficiently to appear in baseball’s first official World Series. The marquee outfielder played in all eight games against Pittsburgh, collecting 10 hits—4 of them for extra bases—in a Boston win. The following season, he led the league with 19 triples, helping the Americans to another pennant. 

Inexplicably, the entire Boston club fell into a slump in 1905. Catcher Lou Criger hit .198 while four other regulars failed to surpass the .250 mark. Stahl ended up nearly fifty points below his career average as the Americans dropped to fourth place with a mediocre 78-74 record. Stahl got back on track the following year, but the club played abysmally. Even the great Cy Young posted a substandard 13-21 record on the mound. With the team floundering in last place during late-August, Manger Jimmy Collins took an unauthorized vacation and was suspended. Stahl was named active manager. He was even less successful than his predecessor, guiding the club to a pitiful 9-21 September record. In what would prove to be the last game of his career, he homered off of New York Highlanders’ pitcher Tom Hughes. 

In November of ’06, Stahl married Julia Harmon, whom he had met at a church function. He also accepted the manager’s position for ’07 at the urging of owner John Taylor. Even with the endorsement of his good friend Jimmy Collins, he took the job with reluctance.  Well-liked by teammates, Stahl’s kind-hearted personality made him ill-suited to run a baseball club. Before the team had even finished spring training, he resigned from his post, explaining that the release of players (a frequent occurrence that time of year) made him “sick at heart.” He agreed to serve as temporary acting manager until a replacement was secured.   

Stahl sent a telegram to his wife, telling her he felt good about his decision. He added that, with managerial distractions aside, he could now go out and play to the best of his abilities. But it was not to be. According to some sources, he developed a wound that was slow to heal at some point during the spring and was given carbolic acid—a widely used antiseptic—to clean it with. On March 28th, he ate breakfast, checked the state of the practice field and returned to his hotel suite, which he shared with Jimmy Collins. Collins witnessed Stahl disappear into an adjacent room then stagger back toward his bed shortly afterward. Having consumed a lethal dose of carbolic acid, he collapsed in a heap.

Several accounts of Stahl’s final words exist. The most widely accepted is as follows: “I couldn’t help it. I did it, Jim. It was killing me and I couldn’t stand it...” Stahl writhed in agony and died within fifteen minutes of ingesting the poison. Since his death was listed as a suicide, he was denied a Catholic burial. His funeral was attended by thousands nevertheless with the eulogy being delivered by Congressman James Robinson.  

The reasons for Stahl’s suicide and the nature of his dying words would be debated for many years. A reputable source claimed that Stahl had a “dark secret,” but it was never revealed to the public. Several notable historians believe that, in March of 1907, Stahl was threatened with blackmail by a woman who claimed to be carrying his child. The impending scandal theoretically drove him to suicide. Valuable insight was provided in a news story published shortly after Stahl’s death. In it, several close associates confided that the popular star had been suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts for years. Predisposed to feelings of hopelessness, the stress of managing a slumping major league club must have been quite difficult to bear. 

In a racy theory based on circumstantial evidence, it has also been suggested that Stahl was having a homosexual affair with a man named David Murphy, a railroad engineer. Murphy, described as an “intimate friend” of Stahl’s, took his own life with carbolic acid and left a note requesting that he be buried next to the fallen ballplayer. Some researchers believe that this may have been Stahl’s previously mentioned “dark secret.”

In Stahl’s absence, four different men managed the Boston club in 1907, including Cy Young. The impact of Stahl’s death was immense and proved to be a major distraction all year as the team finished in seventh place with a 59-90 record. 
(NOTE: A slightly different version of this appears in my book: Baseball's Most Notorious Personalities: A Gallery of Rogues.) 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Players Who Struggled With Mental Illness (Part V--Jimmy Piersall)

During his playing days, Jimmy Piersall suffered from bipolar disorder, a severe and persistent illness marked by extreme highs and lows. The illness can be easily managed with medications, but many sufferers choose to stop taking them over time in the mistaken belief that they have been "cured." In Piersall's time, the illness was known as "manic/depressive disorder." (The name was changed because it was believed to be stigmatizing.) In the "depressive" phase of the illness, patients can become suicidal. In the "manic" phase, they sometimes suffer from delusional thinking and lose touch with reality. Piersall's manic behavior was apparent at several points during his career and he had multiple hospitalizations. His struggles later became the subject of a book and a movie entitled: Fear Strikes Out.

Piersall was a talented outfielder who came up with the Red Sox. Stationed primarily in center field, he posted the highest fielding percentage among his AL peers on five occasions and was recognized with a pair of Gold Gloves. At the plate, he compiled a competent .272 lifetime batting average, leading the league in doubles during the 1956 slate. Though '56 was his best offensive year all around,  he reached a personal high in '61 with a .322 average--third best in the circuit. Traded to Cleveland in '59, he would spend 17 years in the majors with 5 teams, making 2 All-Star appearances. 

But it wasn't an easy road.

During his rookie season, he got into a fist fight with Yankee infielder Billy Martin (who was pretty easy to provoke). After the scrape, Piersall got into another scuffle with one of his teammates in the Boston clubhouse. His sporadically "wild" behavior earned him a trip to the minors in June. While playing for the Birmingham Barons, he was ejected several times in a short span. During one game, he sprayed home plate with a water pistol then reportedly sat on the grandstand roof heckling the umpire. After serving a 3-game suspension, he ended up being hospitalized at the Westborough State Hospital in Massachusetts. He was diagnosed with "nervous exhaustion" and missed the remainder of the season.
Piersall came back strong in '53, finishing ninth in MVP voting. He would remain the BoSox starting center fielder for the next five seasons. When he learned of his trade to Cleveland after the '58 campaign, he was shocked and disheartened. He had just started a business in Boston and purchased a home. He had six children at that point with another on the way. Slumping mightily in '59, he returned to form the following year. But his troubles had begun anew.

In '59, he was ejected from three games, charging pitcher Pedro Ramos with his bat at one point. In May of 1960, he argued balls and strikes with home plate ump Cal Drummond while standing on second base. This led to a physical altercation with the arbiter. Piersall stormed off to the dugout and hurled every piece of equipment he could find onto the field. He earned a stiff fine for his tantrum. Later that day, in the second game of a doubleheader, he caught the last out and whipped the ball into the Comiskey Park scoreboard, shattering several bulbs.

The incidents kept piling up. During a June contest, he threw a pair of balls at pitcher Jim Coates as he was warming up. Later in the game, he threw his glove in the air in protest of a call and made crude gestures at the official scorer after one of his bunt attempts was ruled an error. Two days later, Piersall was sent home to get psychiatric care. He was in denial about it, though he did consult with a doctor and apologize to his teammates. After sitting out six games, he returned to the lineup, landing himself in hot water yet again when he was ejected for repeatedly doing a "war dance" in center field at Fenway Park while Ted Williams was batting. He would later be summoned to the office of the league president (along with his wife) for what has been described as a "fatherly talk." The rest of the season ended somewhat uneventfully, though he was reprimanded for holding up a game at Yankee Stadium when he hid behind the monuments in center field and refused to come out.

In one of the most infamous moments of his career, two men jumped out of the stands at Yankee Stadium during a 1961 game and came after Piersall, shouting "You crazy bastard! We're going to get you!" Defending himself, Piersall knocked one of the men down with a punch to the face. When the other retreated, Piersall administered a swift kick to his rear end. The altercation was captured in a series of famous photos. Both attackers were arrested and Piersall was absolved of any wrong doing. He dealt with the insensitive heckling of fans throughout his career.

Even when he was not manic, Piersall was fond of  playing practical jokes. He once came to bat wearing a Beatles' wig. On the occasion of his 100th career homer, he ran the bases backward. He remained in the spotlight after his retirement, appearing in numerous commercials and television programs. He also hosted his own radio show for awhile. While working for A's owner Charlie Finley in group sales, he had another breakdown and was hospitalized. He later worked alongside Harry Caray broadcasting White Sox games. He was married and divorced multiple times. As of 2009, he was still making public appearances and appearing on various talk shows. He once commented that his illness was the best thing that ever happened to him because it made him famous.   


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Players Who Struggled With Mental Illness (Part IV--Roger Moret)

For years, no one understood Roger Moret's odd behavior. Depending on who was asked, his troubles were blamed on loneliness, a language barrier or drug use. The riddle was finally answered when he was diagnosed with chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia--a debilitating illness characterized by delusions and hallucinations (both auditory and visual). Some patients become incoherent or catatonic.

Among the greatest left-handed prospects to come out of Puerto Rico, Moret grew up in an economically depressed area of Guayama. He worked his way out of poverty playing ball. He was nicknamed "The Whip" for the sound his pitches allegedly made when they crossed the plate. Signed by the Red Sox in 1968, he spent several seasons bouncing up and down from the majors to the minors. He played winter ball back home and, in '71-'72, he compiled a 14-1 record with a 1.81 ERA for the Santurce Crabbers of the Puerto Rican League. His breakthrough season with the Red Sox came in 1973, when he won 13 games while losing only 2. Though he was not as effective the following year, he returned to form in '75, leading the league with a remarkable .824 winning percentage.

Moret demonstrated erratic behavior while playing for Boston. He once took a car out for a test drive and kept it until police came to Fenway Park looking for it several days later. On another occasion, he crashed his vehicle into the back of a stalled truck while traveling from New York City on the day of a scheduled start. The Red Sox brass resented the publicity the incident generated and despite Moret's vast potential, traded him to Atlanta before the '76 slate. Club executives maintained that they "couldn't handle" the hurler anymore. 

Moret claimed that Atlanta's "vibrations were no good" and the irregular episodes escalated. To ward off bad luck, he drank an elixir of rum and kerosene. During a road trip to Pittsburgh, he had a psychotic meltdown in his hotel room and spent several weeks at Bellevue Hospital. The Braves dumped him after the '76 campaign.

In 1977, Moret had another mental breakdown before an April game against the Tigers. After behaving peculiarly during batting practice, he wandered to the clubhouse, stripped down to his undershorts and stood like a statue for roughly 90 minutes. Multiple attempts to bring him back to lucidity failed. He was eventually convinced to climb into a waiting ambulance. After several weeks in a psychiatric hospital, he returned but was ineffective on the mound.

He was out of the majors after '78, later failing a tryout with the Indians in 1980. Completing a downward spiral, he was arrested for marijuana possession in Puerto Rico and sentenced to five years in jail, which he never served. He lived in halfway houses and stayed at drug treatment facilities. He collected welfare before his modest disability pension from MLB kicked-in during the late-'80's. Talking to a Sports Illustrated writer in 1992, he said: "I have not been through Hell. Hell has been through me." 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Players Who Struggled With Mental Illness (Part III--Marty Bergen)

           Born to immigrant Irish parents in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, Marty Bergen got his start in organized ball with a local club known as the Brookfields. Hailing from the same community, Connie Mack was also a member of the team. Bergen's eccentricities were apparent early on as he was known to sulk and stalk off the field if he felt he wasn't receiving adequate fan support. He argued with peers often and, in 1891, he got into a nasty fist fight with a teammate.
          When Bergen’s contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates was nullified, the Kansas City Blues acquired his services. Not only did he play stellar defense for the Blues, but his .372 batting average landed him among the top hitters in the Western League. Still, he was considered a detriment to the club by owner Jimmy Manning, who grew tired of Bergen’s incessant griping and foul disposition. The exasperated executive was more than happy to transfer Bergen’s contract to the Boston Beaneaters (later known as the Braves) in 1896.

Bergen spent four seasons in the big leagues—all of them with Boston. A lifetime .265-hitter, he enjoyed his finest offensive year in 1898, when he played in 120 games and established career-high marks with a .280 batting average, 60 RBI’s and 24 extra-base hits. He also proved to be one of the best defensive catchers in the league, gunning down a total of 96 would-be base stealers while accruing a range factor (average putouts and assists per game) of 5.17—third best in the National League.

Boston won two pennants with Bergen behind the plate and sportswriters were soon singing his praises. One contemporary referred to him as “the greatest catcher who ever looked through a mask.” His impact would be lasting as Yankee Manager Miller Huggins later ranked him among the top three catchers of all-time behind Roger Bresnahan and Johnny Kling. Huggins knew a thing or two about greatness, having piloted three world championship squads in the Bronx.

Off the field, Bergen is said to have had an amiable relationship with his three children, Martin, Joseph and Florence. He was sometimes spotted by neighbors playing with them contentedly on the family’s North Brookfield property. But on the diamond, Bergen was at war with the entire league. By May of 1896, the troubled star was already having problems with Boston teammates. A reporter described him as “a sullen, sarcastic chap” who avoided peers and was perpetually discontent.

In a long series of unpleasant incidents, Bergen slapped future Hall of Famer Vic Willis in the face after the hurler innocently seated himself at Bergen’s table in the dining room of a St. Louis hotel. He would later threaten the entire club after a scuffle in the dugout. As could only be expected, he was a tremendous detriment to team morale. He was one of the club’s highest paid players, making more than twice the average American salary at the peak of his brief career. 

Injured while sliding into home at the end of the 1898 campaign, Bergen underwent surgery for a hip abscess. He was put under anesthesia for several hours and sources close to him reported that he never fully recovered his faculties afterward. His mental health suffered another serious blow in April of 1899 when his eldest son, Martin, died of diphtheria. Overcome with grief, Bergen hopped off a train carrying players to Cincinnati and returned to his home without permission.

When Boston Globe reporter Tim Murnane showed up at Bergen’s farmhouse to investigate, the anguished catcher made numerous paranoid claims, charging that his teammates were rooting against him. He also expressed outrage at the $300 fine levied by owner Arthur Soden for his desertion. Though he would return to the club after a brief absence, he would pull the same stunt in September, claiming a hand injury. In all, he sat out 80 games during the ’99 slate.

At the end of the season, Bergen voiced concern to his doctor about his deteriorating mental state. He admitted that he sometimes had “strange ideas” and felt as if people were out to get him. The physician—a man named Dionne—prescribed medicine, but Bergen refused to take it unless he mixed it himself. It certainly didn’t improve his condition.

In the early morning hours of January 19th, 1900, Bergen suffered a final psychotic break. He grabbed an axe and used the blunt side to bludgeon his wife to death in their bedroom. From there, he proceeded to his son’s chambers, where he used the sharpened blade to deliver a single fatal blow. After mauling his daughter in the same fashion as his wife, he grabbed a razor and sliced his own throat, nearly severing his head in the process. An article in The Morning Herald stated candidly that Bergen’s “idiosyncrasies on the baseball field were only equaled by his peculiar dealings with the Boston club.” Owner Arthur Soden expressed deep regrets and confessed that he had suspected for quite a while that Bergen “was not of sane mind.

(NOTE: A slightly different version of this biography appears in my book: Baseball's Most Notorious Personalities: A Gallery of Rogues, which is available online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Walmart as well as the Scarecrow Press website)