Monday, March 07, 2011

Sully Baseball Salutes... Jimmie Wilson

Jimmie Wilson was a two sport star who became a World Series hero because of bizarre and tragic circumstances.

Chances are you never heard of Jimmie Wilson, the former Cardinals and Phillies catcher. I never heard of him until I stumbled across his story while compiling my latest 25 Man Roster. But he lived a unique albeit brief life that is worth a salute here at Sully Baseball.

The player who was nicknamed "Ace" was a native of Philadelphia and the son of Scottish immigrants. He dropped out of high school to work and by 19 went pro... in soccer.

When I read that, I had the same reaction that you probably had. "They had pro soccer teams in America in the 1910s and 1920s?" Yup, evidently they did.

And here I was thinking that they never played the game in America until Pele joined the Cosmos!

He excelled in soccer, playing for several different leagues, mainly for Philadelphia teams. In 1922, he played in the National Challenge Cup but failed to make it to the Quarterfinals. The tournament is now called The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. I had no idea that playoff is nearly 100 years old.

(Man, soccer sure is taking its sweet time catching on in America!)

He was a two sport player, playing minor league baseball as well. By 1923, the 23 year old Wilson focused solely on baseball and began playing for his hometown Phillies.

The 1923 Phillies were a 104 loss dog of a team who drew less than 3,000 a game. Not 30,000... 3,000.

The Phillies remained terrible between 1923 and 1928. But Wilson hit well his first year and by 1925, had developed into a .328 hitting part time catcher.

During the 1928 season, he was paroled from the purgatory of The Baker Bowl and the Phillies and was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals. The trade occured during a game between the two teams. He supposedly started the game as a Phillie, was taken out and watched the rest in the St. Louis dugout in his new uniform.

As a Cardinal, he became teammates with future Hall of Famers Rabbit Maranville, Jesse Haines, Chick Hafey, Jim Bottomley, Frankie Frisch and Grover Cleveland Alexander.

He was no longer on a team tumbling towards 100 losses. Now he was on a contender who would go on to win the pennant by 2 games over the Giants.

In the 1928 World Series, the Cardinals were manhandled by the Yankees. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined for 7 home runs in the 4 game sweep.

Wilson was held to a 1-11 series. He did get an RBI double in game 2, but the Cardinals were overmatched. But Wilson was now on a contender.

He developed into one of the best all around catchers in the National League, finishing 6th in the 1931 MVP vote and being selected to the 1933 All Star team.

And he played in the 1930 and 1931 World Series for St. Louis. In the '31 Series, he helped defeat the other home town team of his youth, the Philadelphia A's, as the Cardinals won the World Series.

After the 1933 season, he returned home to Philadelphia to be the player and manager of the Phillies. It was a disaster. The Phillies finished either last or just out of last place each year he was manager, losing 100 games in 1936. He lasted 5 seasons in control of the Phillies before being let go.

In 1939 Bill McKechnie, his former manager in St. Louis, brought him to Cincinnati where he became a player coach. Wilson only appeared in 4 games as a player as future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi was the catcher. The Reds won the 1939 pennant but were swept by the Yankees in the World Series.

In 1940, Wilson's playing days looked to be over as he became a full time coach.

Lombardi had an good backup named Willard Hershberger, a former Yankee farmhand who developed into a solid, if light hitting catcher.

Hershberger was a star football player in high school making him, like Wilson, a two sport star. He also seemed to have deep emotional issues stemming from a family tragedy. His father went broke in 1928, predating the crash, and shot himself in the head. An 18 year old Willard discovered the body shortly before he began his professional career.

It took Hershberger 8 years to make the majors but made himself a .300 batter. He was stuck behind a Hall of Famer in Bill Dickey while in the Yankee system and behind Lombardi with the Reds. A finger injury kept Lombardi out of the lineup for a stretch in 1940. Hershberger stepped in ably.

However when the Reds went on a 3 game losing streak in late July, Hershberger put the blame on himself. He felt like his team was blaming him as well and spoke to manager Bill McKechnie about killing himself like his father did.

The two had a private meeting after a game in Boston against the Bees (aka the Braves.) McKechnie seemed to have calmed his fragile catcher down and gave him the day off to collect himself. On August 3rd, Hershberger said he was going to go to the park even if he didn't play, but he never showed up to Braves Field.

Gabe Paul, the Reds' traveling secretary who would later build the great Yankee teams of the 1970s, went to the hotel to check if Hershberger was alright. He found Hershberger dead in his bathtub, having slashed his own throat.

Willard Hershberger became the first, and so far only, major leaguer to commit suicide during the season.

The death stunned the Reds emotionally and put them in a bind in terms of personnel. Third string catcher Bill Baker filled in and Ernie Lombardi came back quickly from his injury.

Jimmie Wilson stepped down as a coach and was activated to catch less than two weeks after Hershberger's death. He started 8 games down the stretch but needed to spell Lombardi in the 1940 World Series against the Tigers.

He started 6 of the 7 games of the World Series, batting .353 in the process.

Wilson singled and scored in the Reds Game 2 win. In game 6 with the Reds on the verge of elimination, Wilson singled and scored a critical insurance run in the 4-0 victory. And in the come from behind 2-1 Game 7 triumph, Wilson collected 2 hits and caught Paul Derringer's complete game victory.

The Reds won the 1940 World Series, their first title since the 1919 Series, the same one where the White Sox took a dive.

It was the last game Wilson ever played in. The team dedicated the World Series victory to "Hershie" and gave Willard Hersberger's mother a World Series share.

The next year Wilson took over the Cubs as manager but had little success. He began growing oranges in Florida when he dropped dead of a heart attack in 1947 at the age of 46.

About a decade later, Ernie Lombardi suffered from intense depression and harbored thoughts of suicide. But unlike his backup, he recovered and lived another two decades.

The 1940 Reds were the only Cincinnati team to win the World Series between the Black Sox scandal and the rise of The Big Red Machine. And Jimmie Wilson coming off of the bench to help heal a great tragedy was a big part of that title.

That's worth a salute.

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