I haven't taken a poll, but I suspect that we harbor a couple of misconceptions about suicides and baseball.
The first is that the phenomenon is fairly modern. The second is that baseball suicides have been fairly rare.
Neither is the case.
Mike Flanagan shot himself to death two weeks ago. Earlier this year, Hideki Irabu hung himself. Both suicides made the headlines. But last year, 56-year-old Keith Drumright's suicide didn't make the headlines because Drumright, a second baseman out of Springfield, Missouri, played just briefly with the Astros in 1978 and the Athletics in 1981. Two years ago, two ex-major leaguers died by their own hands: Craig Stimac and Brian Powell.
According to Baseball Almanac, Flanagan is the 85th major leaguer or ex-major leaguer to commit suicide. Of course the actual figure is higher, as it doesn't include those men who wittingly killed themselves with drink or drugs.
Below, a few of baseball's more notable suicides. A word of warning: These tales are generally not suited for the squeamish. And if you come here solely for baseball news, now's a good time to hit the back button ...
Baseball's most shocking and tragic suicide happened in 1900, shortly into the new century. Marty Bergen was widely considered baseball's premier defensive catcher, and played a key role in the Boston Braves' National League pennants in 1897 and '98. But Bergen had real problems off the field, and after the 1899 season the Braves were trying to trade Bergen. That January, Bergen's father arrived at the house one morning and discovered a gruesome scene. As Sporting Life reported,
Martin Bergen's body and that of the little girl, Florence, 6-1/2 years old, were lying on the kitchen floor, while in the adjoining bedroom, were the bodies of Mrs. Bergen and her 3-year-old son Joseph. Mrs. Bergen was lying on the bed with her feet over the side, while her hands were raised as though in supplication or trying to ward off a blow. The little boy was lying on the floor with his brain oozing from a large wound in the head. Mrs. Bergen's skull was terribly crushed, having evidently been struck more than one blow by the infuriated husband. The appearance of the little girl showed that a number of blows had been scored upon the top and side of her head.
Bergen, by all accounts a devoted family man, had murdered his wife and children with an axe, then slit his throat from ear to ear with a razor.
During spring training in 1907, Boston Americans first baseman and acting manager Chick Stahl -- who'd resigned as manager just a few days earlier -- swallowed carbolic acid and died 15 minutes later, with roommate Jimmy Collins by his side. Stahl's motivation has long inspired speculation, but the best evidence suggests that he had suffered from clinical depression for many years. (In this biographical article, Dennis Auger sifts through the various theories.)
The great majority of suicidal players were ex-players; the great majority of the rest killed themselves in the off-season. Which is what made Willard Hershberger's demise so shocking. With his 1940 Cincinnati Reds in the middle of a pennant race (which they would ultimately win), Hershberger -- an outstanding backup catcher -- skipped a road doubleheader against the last-place Boston Bees. Instead of going to the ballpark with his teammates, Hershberger remained alone in his hotel room, and -- after spreading towels around the bathroom floor to avoid making too awful a mess, Hershberger used a razor to slice his jugular vein and bled to death. Twelve years earlier, Hershberger's father had committed suicide with a shotgun. (The best thing written about Hershberger is William Nack's article in Sports Illustrated, 20 years ago.)
Jake Powell, an outfielder with the Yankees in the 1930s, is today most famous (or infamous, if you prefer) for making a particularly ugly, bigoted statement during a radio interview in 1938. As insensitive as Major League Baseball might have been in those days when it came to such things, Powell was suspended for 10 days by Commissioner Landis. Roughly 10 years later, Powell, his baseball career over, was arrested in Washington, D.C. for passing bad checks. While in the police station, Powell drew a gun and shot himself.
Perhaps Don Wilson's death shouldn't be classified as a suicide. But shortly after a 1974 season in which the one-time power pitcher and author of two no-hitters, by now reliant on off-speed stuff, went 11-13 for the Astros, Wilson was found in his garage, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning after leaving his car engine running. Was it an accident? That was the official verdict. Most tragically, his wife, son and daughter were inside the house, and the carbon monoxide got to them, too. Wilson's son died.
In the 1986 American League Championship Series, Angels reliever Donnie Moore gave up a big home run to Boston's Dave Henderson. Less than three years later, Moore was dead. Beset by a bone spur near his spine, he'd pitched briefly but effectively in 1987. Following a five-hour surgery, he'd pitched briefly and ineffectively in 1988.
In 1989, Moore pitched for the Royals' triple-A farm club -- really ineffectively -- until June, when the Royals released him. Moore's wife left him. She had to. As Mike Sowell writes in One Pitch Away (the best source for Moore's story),
Tonya knew that once Donnie was out of baseball, he would take it out on her. She knew her life would be miserable. Donnie would be drinking more and trying to kick her ass more. So she moved out. After sixteen years of marriage, she got her own apartment nearby. She still did the family laundry, but she and Donnie were separated.
Tonya knew that if she stayed, sooner or later Donnie would end up hurting her. It was bound to happen someday. That was why she left. Tonya still loved Donnie. But she didn't want to be hit anymore.
That winter, Moore, his wife, and their three children -- 17-year-old Dee, 10-year-old Donnie Jr. and eight-year-old Ronnie -- were at their house, which was on the market. Moore picked up his .45-caliber handgun and shot his wife in the neck. She ran. He followed, and shot her twice more. Tonya finally escaped, with her daughter driving her to the hospital (she survived). Meanwhile, back at the house, Moore used the last bullet in the gun -- which had been a gift from his wife, just a few months earlier -- to shoot himself, with his sons still in the house.
For some years after his death, perhaps even today, Tonya Moore would visit Donnie's grave and ask him a simple question. Why?
Why, indeed? If there's a running thread through all these stories, it's that there were warning signs. Usually big red warning signs, outlined in bright neon colors. Which isn't to suggest that anybody could have seen Mike Flanagan's end coming. I don't have any idea. But after the fact, there have been a number of statements suggesting that Flanagan had been suffering from depression since being fired from his front-office job with the Orioles. And it shouldn't be surprising if we eventually discover that Flanagan had been clinically depressed, and perhaps even considered suicide.
These things are usually surprising, but only in their sudden finality.