MLB Forgotten Stars: Remembering Marty Bergen

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 26: The mask and glove of catcher Jason Varitek
BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 26: The mask and glove of catcher Jason Varitek /

Marty Bergen was considered the greatest of any MLB catcher during his playing days. However, his demons led to great tragedy, and an early end to his career and life.

Over the course of MLB history, there may not be a player with a stranger story than Marty Bergen. Born on this day in 1871, Bergen began his professional career with a minor league team in Salem, Massachusetts in 1892, and played on amateur teams with Connie Mack. He came to the majors in 1896, becoming the Boston Beaneaters’ primary catcher as a rookie.

Bergen quickly developed a reputation as a stellar defensive player. He was referred to as the “kingpin of catchers” in 1898, known for his quickness behind the plate and strong throwing arm. He was also a solid hitter, posting a .265/.299/.347 batting line during his four seasons, production that was far better than expected from most catchers. It was not a surprise that the Beaneaters won the National League pennant in 1897 and 1898 with Bergen behind the dish.

However, his production belied personal trouble. The relationship between the catcher and his team took a turn for the worse when he suddenly slapped star pitcher Vic Willis during a team breakfast. Yet, his hustle, and brilliance behind the plate still earned him respect in the clubhouse.

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His problems began to get progressively worse. After his young son died, Bergen began to suspect his teammates of secretly laughing at him. He would often ask to take leaves of absence from the team, and disappear back home anyway if they were denied. Bergen once disappeared in the middle of a road trip, only to reappear minutes before a home game, and put on his uniform. The fans loved the Beaneaters catcher, and gave him a hero’s welcome when he stepped on the field.

Bergen’s erratic behavior became worse as time went on. He would sit in strange positions, and walked sideways to avoid assassins. During one game on October 9, 1899, he needed to be pulled from the lineup as he was too busy dodging knife thrusts from an invisible assassin instead of paying attention to the action on the field. The team president ordered other players to avoid Bergen, hoping to keep him from lashing out, as his talent was still far more valuable than any possible clubhouse issues.

For his part, Bergen knew something was wrong. He sought help from doctors and the clergy, but refused to take his medication. Although his morning dosages were prepared by his wife, he was convinced that his medicine was poisoned en route, and he did not want her hand to be the one that killed him. His mental problems got to the point where other members of the Beaneaters threatened to leave the team if he was with the franchise in 1900.

Atlanta Braves
Atlanta Braves /

Atlanta Braves

Unfortunately, Bergen’s tenure with the Beaneaters ended in tragedy. He had suffered a broken hip in 1899, which led many to think that his career may be over. Strangely, he was in great spirits, with his neighbors saying that he was unusually cheerful and pleasant in their conversations. However, he snapped on January 19, 1900. That morning, he killed his wife and two children, aged three and six, with an axe. He then committed suicide, slitting his throat with a straight razor. He used enough force to nearly decapitate himself.

It has been thought that Bergen was suffering from schizophrenia and manic depression. His mental illness was known to the press of the time, but they sought to protect the beloved Bergen. After his death, he was said to have displayed some symptoms of melancholy or insanity during the fall of 1899, but little was said of his earlier issues.

Bergen’s ties to the game did not end with his tragic passing. In 1934, Mack was part of a group to had a granite tombstone erected at his grave, in appreciation for his contributions to MLB, and the game at large. Bergen even earned Hall of Fame votes from 1937 through 1939, as his legendary defense was still noteworthy in the game.

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Marty Bergen was considered one of the great catchers of his time. His tale was a tragic one, however, as his personal demons could not be kept at bay.