There’s a lot of players who had ugly gaps in their careers due to World War II, but far fewer who were affected by its predecessor. This is largely due to timing: the US didn’t join WWI until April 2, 1917, by which time the 1917 season was already underway, and while there was talk of curtailing the season nothing ever came of it. Likewise, while everyone expected the war to continue into 1919 until it suddenly didn’t, the rapid collapse of the Germans on the Western Front had the conflict over shortly after the end of the 1918 season, and while the season was two weeks late to start in April, most ballplayers who’d been called up or had shifted over to steel mills and ship building were back on the field by Opening Day.
1918 was affected though, as the so-called “Work or Fight” rule for draft-eligible men was introduced mid-summer. Baseball managed to negotiate an extension but even so the season ended the day before Labor Day, a month early, leading to the shortest non-strike season in modern baseball history: the NL champion Cubs played only 129 games, and the first place Red Sox over in the AL just 126. It’s with that in mind that a peculiar number makes more sense: the National League’s leader in hits had only 161, and the same player was the only one to have more than 200 total bases1.
That wizard with the bat was not one of the several top sluggers then in the NL (which included Zack Wheat and Rogers Hornsby) but the rookie shortstop of the league champion Cubs: Charlie Hollocher. Hollocher was typical of middle infielders at the time in that he was a small man, just 5′ 7″ and 154 pounds according to the usual references, but he had some pop in his bat: bearing in mind that 1918 was at the tail end of a very low period in offense, his .397 slugging percentage that season was good for sixth in the league. As a 22-year old he was a very valuable property, enough that the Cubs reportedly dangled him and cash as a package for the aforementioned Hornsby without the proposed deal being obviously laughable to commentators.
Though he would never top the 134 OPS+ that he rang up as a rookie, Hollocher played quite well for the rest of his career, abbreviated as it was. Not only was he a pretty good hitter for a shortstop (twice hitting .340, once in a full season and once in a half-year), he was a pretty good shortstop, regularly putting up a win and a half or more of defensive WAR if you go by Baseball Reference’s version of the stat. He did have a bit of trouble staying in the field, three times playing 80 or fewer games in his seven seasons, but he was arguably the top player at his position in the league, or at least top two. Then at age 27 he not only played less than half a season for the second year in a row, his numbers plummeted to just .245/.292/.336. By this time the Babe Ruth Offensive Explosion™ was well underway and so that translates into a putrid 67 OPS+. Even so, you’d figure his previous prowess would buy him a chance or two more, but in reality that ended his major league career.
If his lack of future chances are the first clue that there was more to the story, the fact that he didn’t even continue in the high minors (as was common at the time) is a second. Hollocher’s baseball career just stopped, and it was due to injury—or, to be more exact, illness.
The first serious break in Hollocher’s playing time came in his third season, 1920. After a down year in 1919 (.270/.347/.347, still good for an OPS+ of 109), he had rebounded to .319/.406/.389 through July 25th. A week into the previous month he’d gone down with “ptomaine poisoning”2 that kept him in and out of the lineup for a few days. Then, ten days before his final game of the season, it was reported that he’d had a recurrence, which seems a bit unlucky. Who gets food poisoning twice in five weeks? Recovering again he was back for two games before coming out of the lineup for good. It was three weeks after that before the Cubs announced that he’d been hospitalized, and they pointedly didn’t say why.
Hollocher was back next spring training and was fine for the next two seasons. Granted, he didn’t play very well in 1921 (just 91 OPS+, the only time he was below league average in offense until his final season) but in 1922, now 26, he put it all together with a .340/.403/.444 line. A large part of that was the great change in the offensive environment in just the previous few years—these numbers were good for “just” a WAR of 4.9, as opposed to the superficially poorer numbers of his rookie season’s producing a 5.0 WAR—but he looked to be cementing his place as one of the best players in the game3.
Then came the good half-year alluded to earlier. In 1923 he picked up right where he’d left off in ’22, and after 66 games was hitting .342/.410/.423. Hollocher had already made a late start to this season, not playing until May 11th, after two bouts of “stomach flu” in January and then March. Note the similarity of that diagnosis to his supposed ptomaine poisoning in 1920. Now the stomach troubles were back for a third time, or that was the presumption at least. He missed the first game of a homestand on Friday, July 26th, and then a double-header on the following Sunday. On the Friday following, the Cubs announced nebulously that he was “ailing”, but that he’d be back for the double-header the coming Sunday.
Instead, Hollocher jumped the team, leaving a strange note for the team’s manager, Bill Killefer (one of those who’d made it to the front in 1918), the meat of which was: “Tried to see you at the clubhouse this afternoon but guess I missed you. Feeling pretty rotten so made up my mind to go home and take a rest and forget baseball for the rest of the year. No hard feelings, just didn’t feel like playing anymore.”
By August 11th, Hollocher had asked to be placed on the voluntarily retired list, which request was granted him by Commissioner Landis. This put him in good standing with the league from a legal standpoint4, but over the winter he weirdly held out for some of the salary he lost while he sat out the remainder of 1923. He didn’t sign a new contract, a two-year deal, until well into spring training of 1924.
He made it another half-season and that was it. Before we get to tackling what was going wrong with Charlie Hollocher, let’s address our more usual question: given what he’d done on the field, what might he have done if all were right? Unlike most of the players we look at, there are three possible points from which we can project forward. One is to take his career up to the stage we’ve discussed, prior to the disastrous half season to come; this gives us the advantage of a larger sample of his talent at work. The next is to go for the end of 1922—after all, he did lose a half season in ’23, as well as he played, so that will skew things in a direction we don’t want. Finally, as he was already running into difficulty halfway through 1920, hitting well (usually) but missing many games, you could argue that his sporadic great play after is unrepresentative of what he could have done and stump for a projection based on just his first season and a half.
Interestingly, it doesn’t make much difference. Going backwards from the order above: ff we start with the end of 1920, his three most successful comps are Barry Larkin (70.0 career WAR), Tony Fernandez (45.0) and the improbably named Hughie “Ee-Yah” Jennings (42.3). On the other hand, picking the start his 1922 season as the cutoff gives you Larkin, Fernandez, and Phil Rizzuto (40.8 WAR) instead of Jennings. Using the end of 1923 brings you back to the 1920. This is a very good sign, as it suggests that there’s a “type” of player in play here, and that Hollocher is quite comparable to it. There are, in fact, six players common to both of his comparable lists, the others being Rafael Furcal, and modern Diamondback Jean Segura.
As the three possible sets of comps are so similar, let’s go with the one that occurs twice, as it produces the better projection (marginally):
The homers are too high, and the caught stealing too low, plus if we’re assuming that Hollocher stayed healthy then he’s not getting quite the break that he should: all three of these guys were hampered by injuries, if not to the catastrophic extent that Hollocher was. Even so, this is basically Joe Sewell‘s career, a low-end Hall of Famer more or less. It’s an interesting match since Sewell was also a shortstop, was an exact contemporary of Hollocher’s within just two years, and had the same penchant for not striking out: the only season better for that than the one of Hollocher’s I footnoted earlier is Sewell’s 1925. I do say Hall-of-Famer for the same reason that Sewell is in: though a bit marginal, the Veteran’s Committee was forgiving of players from the 20s and 30s, which would have worked to Hollocher’s advantage too. Really the only reason Sewell doesn’t show up on Hollocher’s comp lists is because Charlie had a couple of seasons played before offense really picked up, and that depressed his raw numbers as compared to Joe. A more recent player of about the same value and position (but with a very different shape to his career than this hypothetical one) would be Ian Kinsler.
But of course instead of having either of these two hypothetical careers, Hollocher had only half a season left after his 1923, and it was pretty terrible: .245/.292/.336, below replacement value at -0.2 WAR with the bat, though his usual good defense dragged that back up into positive territory as a whole. He was absent from the Cub lineup after the game on August 20, 1924, and the team manager told the press two weeks later that he’d given his shortstop permission to return home again for the remainder of the season, Hollocher did return for one game, as a defensive sub in an exhibition against the White Sox on October 3rd, but after that he never went between the lines as a player again, not even in the minor leagues.
Hollocher drifted after retiring, announcing that he was coming back a few times between 1925 and 1930 (but never doing so), and working as a scout for the Cubs in 19315. He ran a bar, then worked as an investigator and night watchman in St. Louis, divorced his wife in 1939, and soon remarried.
On August 14, 1940, a police constable was dispatched to investigate a car parked unexpectedly on Lindbergh Boulevard, a bypass road in the suburbs of St. Louis. Within he found the body of Charlie Hollocher, aged 44, and a short suicide note giving his home address and asking that his new wife be informed. He had died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound. Charlie’s former teammates apparently expressed little surprise, and in the aftermath it was noted that his death followed just 11 days after the suicide of Willard Hershberger, the only active player in history to have died by his own hand during the season.
Modern commentators tend to try and come to an either/or answer on whether or not Hollocher had a real, undiagnosed stomach illness or if he was suffering from mental illness, probably the common combination of anxiety and depression. It seems to me that it’s just as likely to be both, with the physical ailment feeding into the mental one. It’s the nature of anxiety disorders to pick on something in a person’s life that is bad—and who doesn’t have something worrying happening in their life?—and then blow it into a problem that feels impossible to face. I’m also struck by the coincidental similarity between Hollocher’s death and that of an icon of my generation: Kurt Cobain. At the risk of a glib comparison, he too had chronic stomach issues and committed suicide by shotgun, most definitely because of depression that had focused around that medical problem. It’s no great stretch to see the same chain of consequence in Hollocher’s life.
Unlike Cobain, Hollocher lived in a time when the mentally ill could expect sympathy, but not much else. The medicines and psychotherapeutic treatments preferred today didn’t exist in 1920, or even 1940, and unless obviously insane or dangerous to others, those afflicted with mental illness had no option but to try and get on with their lives. Like many others, Hollocher could do that for only so long, and as a result Cubs fans lost a player who could have been, if not mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, at least mentioned not long after them. Just another thing that damned billy goat has to answer for, I suppose.
We’ve wandered around the early days of baseball enough the past little while, though we’ll certainly return. Next up is a visit to the 70s, so pack your bell bottoms and mustache wax for a trip to New York!
“The Tragic Saga of Charlie Hollocher“, Arthur Ahrens. The Baseball Research Journal 15, 1985. Much of what we know about Hollocher’s illness and life outside of baseball come from this worthy writer’s work here; most of the other sources you’ll find (including the James below) rely on it and just add a detail here and there.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James. Simon and Schuster, 2010.
From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball during the Great War, Jim Leeke. University of Nebraska Press, 2017.
- By contrast, Babe Ruth set the all-time record with 457 just a few years later, and someone’s put up over 350 total bases in a season 246 times as of this writing.
- A then-current fancy way to say food poisoning, based on a misunderstanding of what exactly was making you sick when you ate bad food.
- He also put up a dumbfounding number by modern standards: in 691 plate appearances he struck out 5 times. Sammy Sosa struck out five times in a game four times. Of course Sosa did have 595 more career homers than Charlie Hollocher.
- Then, as now, going AWOL from your team resulted in a suspension.
- Researcher Arthur Ahrens speculates this was to round out the two-year contract he’d signed in 1924.