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)

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