A baseball story

It goes without saying – I am a big baseball nerd. Or a geek. One of the two.* Is there really a difference? Anyway, the point is that I like baseball.

*There actually is a subtle difference between geek and nerd, which has been argued about for ages. This post fleshes it out better than I could. Though, even by posing the question, I am both, according to XKCD.

So it is always cool when I hear a new story, something deep in the annals of baseball history that is just coming to my attention. And, well, this story is so wild, so unbelievable, that I had to share it here.

One of my favorite baseball writers is Joe Posnanski, who now works for NBC Sports and also writes an excellent blog. Posnanski always includes some awesome nuggets in his post – and in his most recent one, he brought up the story of Marty Bergen, a story that I had never heard.

Marty Bergen was a catcher for the Boston Beaneaters (yes, that was a real team) from 1896-1899. Bergen was regarded as an excellent defensive player, and he was a key part of two consecutive National League pennants in 1897 and 1898.

But this story isn’t about his success on the baseball diamond. Bergen also suffered from a serious mental illness – and let me just say that the story gets really crazy from here on out, so this is a word of caution for you squeamish readers out there.

Bergen was generally well regarded on the team for his strong work ethic and hustling style of play, but one day, out of nowhere, he slapped teammate Vic Willis while eating breakfast. This did not go over well with the team, as you can imagine.

As time went on, Bergen became more violent and accusatory. He thought his teammates were plotting against him. He had hallucinations that enemies were trying to poison him. One of his teammates was quoted as saying, “He has made trouble with a good many of the boys and we just give him a wide berth. But he’s a ballplayer, and once we get into a game, personal feelings are set aside in admiration of the artist, for such he is.”

In 1899, Bergen’s son died – and things got much worse.

Bergen believed that his teammates were making jokes about the death behind his back. There were many verbal altercations between the catcher and the rest of the team. Soon after, these altercations became more physical. He declared that he would club his teammates to death at the end of the season. The Beaneaters’ president urged the other players to stay away from him.

Bergen also began sitting in particular positions and walking sideways, so that he could spot assassins on both sides of him.

In July 1899, Bergen walked off the team’s train during a road trip, leaving the Beaneaters with just a backup catcher during the middle of a pennant race. A few days later, he returned to the team. The fans loved him and cheered him upon his return. In September, Bergen disappeared again before returning, unannounced, a few minutes before a game. In October, Bergen was removed from a game when he started dodging pitches rather than catching them – he thought that the pitches were knife thrusts from an invisible assailant.

Bergen was aware of his condition and sought help. However, his paranoia prevented him from taking medication, telling his doctor, “I thought someone in the National League had found out that you were my family physician and had arranged to give me some poison. I did not take it from my wife because I didn’t wish hers to be the hand that poisoned me.”

Understandably, his teammates did not want him to return to the team in 1900. They wouldn’t have to worry about that. In January, Bergen killed his family in excruciating fashion before killing himself.

It’s a horrible story, undoubtedly – could you imagine if something like that happened today? It would be one of the most discussed, reported, and well-known stories of our generation. But, because it happened at the turn of the century, no one knows about it. Only the most passionate of baseball fans and historians have heard the story of Marty Bergen.

Incidentally, his brother Bill Bergen is known for another reason – Bill was, quite literally, the worst offensive player in the history of baseball. His career batting average was .170, by far the lowest for any player with over 3,000 plate appearances. He had a negative WAR for 11 consecutive seasons (1901-1911) – no player has had more than five.

For some reason, the story of the Bergens became even more mysterious when Marty Bergen, inexplicably, received votes for the Hall of Fame in 1937. And then received more votes in 1938. And even more in 1939. You would think, especially with the often-discussed character clause, that voters would leave off a player who killed his family. Unless they were confusing him with his brother. Though even that wouldn’t make sense.

**

Sources for this post included Joe Posnanski’s excellent blog post, this SABR post, and, of course,  Wikipedia.

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