Chick Stahl: the Bridge that Collapses, the Bat that Breaks

Chick Stahl’s baseball career and life came to an end far too soon. (via Library of Congress)

On March 28, 1907, Chick Stahl, one of the best center fielders the game had seen to that point, donned his uniform and prepared to play a spring training exhibition despite his extremely depressed state. He possessed a bottle of medicine that could serve equally well as a poison should he choose to misuse it. For a brief moment he weighed his life in the balance and made his decision. A few minutes later, dying in the arms of his best friend, the chemical he had consumed devouring him from the inside, he cried out, “It drove me to it.”

Ever since, baseball historians have speculated as to why a popular, recently married 33-year-old would, in the interstitial minutes between dressing for that day’s game and the umpire shouting, “Play ball,” take his own life. They have relentlessly theorized as to just who or what Stahl meant to indicate with the pronoun “it.” But “it” doesn’t matter. All that does matter is that “it” gave Stahl a chance to value himself versus whatever “it” was, and his life finished in second place.

***

Charles Sylvester “Chick” Stahl was a star ballplayer of the early 20th century. He wasn’t a Honus Wagner or a Nap Lajoie but was comfortably situated on the next tier down. A stocky center fielder from Indiana who was sometimes called, perhaps not altogether flatteringly, “The Husky Hoosier,” Stahl reached the majors with the Boston Braves (then the Beaneaters) in 1897 and was a .305/.369/.416 hitter in a career that lasted 10 seasons before it was truncated by death. The game was so different at the turn of the previous century that it’s hard to translate his performance into a modern idiom; suffice it to say Stahl was a well-above-average hitter who was often listed third in the batting order of a good team, with triples power that would likely have meant home runs in later eras. He also had excellent speed in the field, “and went to first base so fast that he beat out many a hit which would have gone for an out for a less speedy and chance-taking man.” As a person, he was friendly and outgoing.

For much of Stahl’s career he was associated with winning teams. The Braves won the National League pennant in both his rookie and sophomore seasons. When the American League began raiding NL teams for the 1901 season, the Braves’ core jumped to the nascent Red Sox (a name the “Americans,” as they were called for lack of a better appellation, would acquire shortly after Stahl’s exit). Stahl was among the defectors, as was his close friend Jimmy Collins. The Matt Chapman of his day, Collins would be the team’s third baseman and manager. Cy Young quit the St. Louis Cardinals to join them.

The new entry was an instant contender. In 1903, the Americans won the AL pennant and advanced to the first World Series. They defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in eight games to become baseball’s first modern champion. Stahl hit .303 with three triples. The Americans successfully defended their pennant in 1904, but the New York Giants, winners of the NL pennant, refused to play in the World Series. The Americans thus became one of two championship teams in history (the other being the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays) to reign for two years.

The 1900s Red Sox were in the unusual position of being an expansion team with a roster of veteran stars. The club aged quickly and, due to a shifting and dysfunctional ownership, failed to make the necessary adjustments. The Americans fell off to .513 in 1905, and by 1906 they were the worst team in baseball with a record of 49-105. Collins, the player-manager, quit while still on the job. First, he benched himself with a knee injury. Then he stopped putting on his uniform and managed in street clothes. Finally, he stopped showing up altogether. A replacement was urgently needed. Stahl felt he was emotionally unsuited for the job; though he had said of managing, “Not for me. Life is too short. Let somebody else do the worrying.” Still, he accepted the position on an interim basis. The team went 14-26.

That offseason, Stahl married. He was a good Catholic, at least to the point that he broke the rules by killing himself, and he had met Julia Harmon, “a pretty little brunette,” at a church event in Roxbury. He also, though “only after a great deal of persuasion,” agreed to continue as manager, with Collins, the future Hall of Famer, returning to the team as an ordinary player.

***

One of the most ubiquitous poems in the history of American literature is Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” published during Stahl’s rookie year of 1897 when the 24-year-old was impressing the Beaneaters with a .354 batting average. In four brief stanzas it tells the story of the title character, handsome, popular, “richer than a king,” and in all things the envy of those less fortunate souls who knew him. “We thought that he was everything,” says the poem’s narrator, “to make us wish that we were in his place.”

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

The concluding irony gets at something basic about the causes of suicide—it’s a versatile disease that is not cured by status or other externalities. It also might not be caused by them. Sometimes, perhaps very often, there’s an underlying psychological issue such as a mood disorder at work. In other cases, the cause is environmental, which is to say that transiently adverse circumstances can drive one who might not ordinarily suffer from a mood disorder into a sufficiently depressed state that they seek the imagined nepenthe of death. Sometimes it’s both, or neither. As Jesse Bering wrote in Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves, “Not everyone who commits suicide is depressed. According to one estimate, around five percent of depressed people will die by suicide, but about half a percent of the non-depressed population will end up taking their own lives too.”

In the case of the latter, a heaping dose of public shame, or the threat thereof, makes a strong motivator. The renaissance physician-poet Annibale Pocaterra, in what is perhaps the earliest consideration of shame as a psychological condition, wrote that when we are ashamed, we, “would like nothing better than to hide from the eyes of the world.” When that feels impossible, when we start to believe that our shame is justified, that we cannot hide or amend our mistakes, depression combines with a sense of powerlessness. It is in such moments that even the strongest people can give in to the dark urge. And make no mistake: Although we deride suicide as “the coward’s way out,” the suicidal urge is in part akin to the strain that is felt while attempting to lift a great weight. Whether that weight is biochemical or created by circumstance—a failed relationship, a lost job, a public humiliation—the suicidal individual is attempting to bear up under a tremendously heavy load. As well-engineered bridges sometimes collapse under such circumstances, so do some people.

None of this is to endorse suicide or to make it sound heroic. It is, in so many ways, a selfish act, and a shortsighted one. Rather, it’s an attempt both at empathy and to demonstrate that the specifics of Chick Stahl’s “it” should be less important to us now, once we push aside morbid, prurient curiosity, than the general circumstances that must have created his mental state. In the aftermath of Stahl’s death, 112 years ago, knowledge of “it” might have helped his bereaved mother, his widow, his devastated teammates, become more reconciled to his loss. For us, it should suffice to know that he suffered from a great, internalized sadness, and that he found himself incapable of withstanding it.
If we can accept that about Stahl, then we might learn to focus on root causes rather than surface details when it comes to those who might be contemplating taking Stahl’s exit. There is no universal theory of suicide but were we able to transform Stahl’s sense of incapability into a feeling of capability, many might be saved, and his negative example thereby transformed into a positive one.

On Baseball, Game Design, and Output Randomness
Considering baseball through the lens of game design.

***

On the morning of March 28, 1907, Stahl arose in West Baden Springs, Indiana. The soon-to-be Red Sox were staying at the massive hotel there prior to playing a spring exhibition. A few days earlier, with the team in Louisville, he had abruptly resigned as manager, but agreed to serve until a replacement could be located. As such, after a brief breakfast with teammate John Hoey at which he consumed only coffee, he left to inspect the field where the game was to be played (the hotel had its own baseball grounds). He “saw they were fit to play ball on and ordered the boys out for practice.” At some point that morning, Stahl sent a telegram to his wife. “Cheer up, little girl, and be happy. I am all right now and able to play the game of my life.”

By 9:50 he was in his half of the adjoining rooms he shared with Collins. After changing into his uniform, he picked up a four-ounce bottle of carbolic acid which, depending on the account, had been given to him earlier in spring training by a doctor to treat a bruise (the chemical was an early antiseptic) or he had purchased it that morning “as soon as the drug store was open.” Stahl drank three of the four ounces; one ounce constitutes a fatal dose. He staggered into Collins’ room and collapsed onto the bed. Collins and teammate Bob Unglaub did what they could to keep him alive, but by 10:10 Stahl was dead.

“I couldn’t help it, Jim,” Stahl moaned to Collins in his final moments. “I did it. It was killing me, and I couldn’t stand it.” Alternatively, he might have said, simply, “It drove me to it.”

***

There have been five serious theories of Stahl’s motive for killing himself. All but one of them, in attempting to compress complex psychological urges into linear storytelling—Stahl had committed some sort of crime and suicide was the punishment—provides an “explanation” that is also an excuse to misorder adversity and depression in the hierarchy of causation.

1. Stahl had been promiscuous before and perhaps during his brief marriage and had impregnated a baseball groupie who was now blackmailing him. He committed suicide rather than be exposed. There is some evidence of Stahl’s premarital dalliances, including a public incident in which an ex-girlfriend named Lulu Ortman held him at gunpoint. The existence of the pregnant woman remains speculative.

2. Stahl had been promiscuous and had given his wife syphilis, which is indicated by an unexplained separation soon after their marriage. There is a great deal of speculation here as well, unsupported by witness testimony or documentary evidence.

3. Julia Stahl died under suspicious circumstances in November 1908. She must have been a drunk, a drug addict, or a prostitute, and therefore [handwaving] Stahl committed suicide. The laws of cause and effect are bent here and require casting aspersions on Mrs. Stahl to retroactively shame Chick into killing himself. Julia’s death was odd; she went out dressed very finely in a mink coat, was seen drinking with four men, and was soon after found dead in a tenement hallway. The coroner, however, found no evidence of foul play, and the jewelry she was supposedly robbed of proved to have been left in her bureau drawer.

4. Chick Stahl had a male lover, and since homosexuality was, in that immediately post-Victorian age, “the love that dare not speak its name,” he must have been despondent over that. As per Stahl’s SABR biography, two days after Stahl’s death, “an intimate friend” of Stahl’s, David Murphy of Fort Wayne, also killed himself by drinking carbolic acid. He left a note saying, “Bury me beside Chick.” While it’s entirely possible that Stahl was, off the field, open to switch-hitting, absent letters between him and Murphy any conclusion about their relationship is impossible. One irony of this period is that mainstream taboo on gay relationships was so strong it made “romantic friendship” possible. Men could express deep feelings about men or women about women because it was presumed that sex wasn’t on the menu. Thus, a society closed in its sexuality could be more open in its emotions. In truth, sometimes sex was part of such relationships and sometimes it wasn’t, but we don’t have the slightest clue which was the case with Stahl (or even if there was that sort of emotional relationship), and even then, it might not have been the reason for his suicide.

5. Chick Stahl suffered from depression, experienced suicidal ideation, and talked about both frequently. In the days after Stahl’s death, both the Globe and the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette published articles quoting Stahl’s friends and teammates as saying that he had been fine at the outset of spring training, but his mood had darkened as the exhibition season had progressed. “MEDITATED SELF-SLAYING,” the Journal-Gazette headline stated. “‘Chick’ Stahl Had Often Talked About Suicide; Base Ball Player Had Entertained Dangerous Ideas About Self-Destruction.”

Close friends of Chick Stahl were not surprised at his suicide… ‘I looked for it when I heard he was worrying about the management of his team,’ said a city official who was a friend of Stahl’s since his boyhood. ‘Chick talked about killing himself several times when he was discouraged about his affairs, and I recall one time when he was in a barber’s chair, about five years ago, I heard him tell the barber who was shaving him that it would be a good thing for him to put the razor through his neck.

‘If you would just push that blade in and cut my head about half off, so I would never feel it I’d be rid of my troubles,’ said Stahl to the barber. That was about five years ago. But more than once before that time and more than once afterwards he was heard to say things that indicated a suicidal tendency.”

Earlier that spring, Stahl had contemplated another bottle of carbolic acid in front of pitcher Bill Dineen. “I wonder,” he said, “if this stuff would kill a man.” When Dineen said that it would, Stahl said, “Then I have a good mind to take a good drink of it.” Dineen deflected Stahl by invoking his mother’s feelings, but added, “I put away a razor, fearing that Chick might harm to himself.” He also told Hoey, who was just trying to make the team, that he would like to “know how to die.” He told another friend that he would shoot himself but for his mother. Friends and teammates also testified that he, “suffered from splitting headaches, and often could not sleep or eat.” They thought he would get better once the pressure of managing was removed, but the mood that had descended on him refused to lift.

***

In the aftermath of Stahl’s death, T.H. Murnane of the Globe wrote, “There was something gnawing at his very heart night and day, and the laugh that once rang out every time you met the good-natured ballplayer had fled.” That “something” was also the “it” that drove Stahl to pick up the bottle of carbolic acid and put it to his lips. The 1907 season was just under two weeks away, and Stahl had wished for it to start sooner so that he might be distracted. But not even the roar of the crowd or the crack of the bat, of his bat, could serve as a panacea. The weight of the inexorable “it” was so great that the bat broke before it could even be swung.

“It” wasn’t his wife’s illicit activities. “It” wasn’t his suppressed gay desire. If true, they may have fed into the true “it,” but if we concentrate on these surface details, it’s as if we travel through time and become Stahl’s dumbfounded teammates, hearing but not listening as he spoke of taking his own life. His suicide wasn’t impulsive, but the climactic moment of a long-term struggle that was possibly exacerbated, but not caused by, marital problems, a stressful job, a melodramatic blackmail plot. The fatal weight came from inside.

The reductionism inherent in searching for external forces at work on Stahl is apparent if we return to David Murphy, the hypothetically mournful male lover who committed suicide two days after Stahl did. At about the same time, one Stanley Kennison, a shoemaker of Lynn, Massachusetts, momentarily excused himself from a conversation he had been having in a Democratic clubhouse, went into another room, and downed a dose of carbolic acid. When he returned, he said, “I’ve done what Chick Stahl did.” He expired soon afterward. Not long after that, one Earl L. Appleby of Riceville, Iowa, was drinking in a saloon in Grand Forks, North Dakota when he spotted a newspaper headline about Stahl’s suicide. “I think that is what I will do one of these days.” Two days later, he lay back in his hotel room bed with a pillow over his face and fired a bullet into his forehead.

One account of the foregoing concluded, “That the detailing of reports of suicides, murders and other crimes in newspapers often influences weak minded persons to commit like crimes cannot be doubted.” It is inarguable that many of us are suggestible, but we can no more charge Stahl with providing the impetus for these three additional deaths than we can the burden of releasing players in spring training or a case of venereal disease for his own demise. At most, his act legitimated a feeling of incapability they already had, as his own outward difficulties exaggerated and liberated his interior turmoil. Appleby left two notes, one which spoke of his “inability in every way… and my inability to escape liquors.” The key word is “inability,” the two propositional phrases mere details.

Seen in this light, if Stahl truly had some dark secret, it was a jejune thing compared to his sense that “it” was inescapable and unconquerable. He wasn’t “weak-minded,” but he was operating under an illusion, a defect of programming. He failed to communicate this because it’s hard to recognize the illusion from the outside. We hear, “I’m very sad,” or even, “I think about hurting myself sometimes,” and think, “He oughta change jobs. He needs to get out of that relationship” instead of, “His brain his sending him bad messages.” That’s what happened to Stahl, and it prevented those around him from giving him the support he needed to survive even as he was signaling, as best he could, his need. The real tragedy of Chick Stahl is not that he took the secret of “it” with him, but that he didn’t give it a name so that someone, anyone, could have told him that this too shall pass.

If you or anyone you know is contemplating self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

References & Resources

Dennis Augur, “Chick Stahl,” SABR Bio Project.
John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You.
John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters.
Angelo J. Louisa and David Cicatello, eds. Mysteries from Baseball’s Past.
Dick Thompson, “In Name Only.” The National Pastime #20 (2000), 54-47.
Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson, Red Sox Century.
John Zoss and John Bowman, Diamonds in the Rough.
The Boston Globe, various issues 1907-1908.
The Fort-Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 30, 1907.
The Grand Forks Evening Times, April 13, 1907.
The Grand Forks Herald, April 5, 1907.
The Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 29, 1907.
The Washington Evening Star, March 28, 1907.


Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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von wilhelm
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von wilhelm

As someone who has dealt with much of the above throughout life, thank you. Touched my heart.

Justinw303
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Justinw303

An article I never expected to read here, but I’m glad I did. Thank you.

StuShea
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StuShea

Thanks for writing this.