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.) 

1 comment:

  1. its in the Boston water...Stahl...Bergen...Hershberger...donnie moore...