(This is the third in a series on infamous or controversial historical figures who also had a notable association with baseball. For the first installment on John Dillinger, click here, and for the second installment on Billy Sunday, click here.)
Martin Bergen’s childhood dream was to play major league baseball, but soon after realizing that goal, his career and life ended in a nightmare. In what is likely the most heinous act ever committed by a major leaguer, the former catcher awoke on the morning of January 19, 1900 and brutally murdered his wife and children with an axe before cutting his own throat with a razor. Just a stone’s throw from where he had been born, Bergen, and his entire family, lay dead amid a gruesome scene that defied description.
Bergen was born in North Brookfield, Massachusetts in 1871. Just five years later, professional baseball came within 60 miles of the town when the Boston Red Caps (today’s Atlanta Braves) were inaugurated as a charter member of the brand new National League. The proximity to the town and the game’s growing popularity in the region must have had an impact on the Bergen family because Marty and his younger brother Billy became absolutely enthralled by the sport.
Both brothers exhibited considerable aptitude for the game, so it wasn’t a surprise when Marty embarked on a professional career in 1892. The elder Bergen bounced around various leagues in New England before ending up playing for the Kansas City Blues of the Western League. In addition to being an outstanding defender, Bergen also exhibited impressive ability as a hitter, so not before too long, the now firmly established National League came calling.
In the 1890s, the Beaneaters emerged as of one of the National League’s best teams. In the first five years of the decade, they finished first or second in every season. After the 1893 season, however, the team lost star catcher Charlie Bennett to a train accident that resulted in the amputation of both his legs. Since the tragedy, the Beaneaters had been unable to find a suitable replacement, so the early reports about Bergen were very encouraging. After receiving a positive scouting report, the team reportedly paid over $1,000 to the Blues for the rights to Bergen. The only problem, however, was the suspicious catcher didn’t want to come. Instead of being excited about the chance to play for his hometown team, Bergen felted unfairly treated and insisted that he be compensated as well. Only after Beaneaters’ manager Frank Selee made personal assurances that he would be treated well did Bergen decide to return home.
Bergen was the Boston Beaneaters’ primary catcher from 1896 to 1899, a period during which the team won two additional pennants. Although his batting statistics never lived up to the advanced billing, he was widely considered to be the best defensive catcher in the game. Even the immortal Cap Anson referred to him as one of the game’s best backstops, and, in its May 29, 1898 “Current Baseball News” column, the New York Times concurred, calling Bergen the equal of Deacon McGuire and “a better man than Bennett was in his best days”.
While Robinson and Clarke of Baltimore are good catchers, old Ganzel and young Bergen of Boston can have my money.” – Cap Anson, The New York Sun, June 16, 1897
Despite enjoying a fine reputation as a player, Bergen was also widely regarded as somewhat strange. From his very first days in Boston, the talented catcher exhibited erratic behavior, which included unexplained absences, mood swings, and bouts of paranoia. Most in the organization and the media attributed his behavior to eccentricity, and looked the other way in favor of his great talent…an early day version of “Marty being Marty”. So, despite the numerous trade rumors that swirled around him, the Beaneaters were never really tempted to part with their elite backstop.
During the 1898 season, Bergen’s worst tendencies offered an early glimpse at his potential for violence. First, in the middle of the season, the catcher struck rookie pitcher and future Hall of Famer Vic Willis in the head during breakfast. Then, after an altercation on the bench toward the end of the season, the catcher expressed the desire to bludgeon some of his teammates with a bat. It was hardly the reaction you’d expect from a sane man…even one still angered by a fight. After the incident, the whispers about Bergen’s mental state grew louder. However, the Beaneaters won their second consecutive pennant in 1898, so even these drastic incidents were overlooked.
When the 1899 season rolled around, the growing divide between Bergen and his teammates had not abated. As a result, Bergen’s feelings of paranoia were exacerbated, and his behavior became even more erratic. Then, when his son Willie died of diphtheria at the start of the season, and he missed the funeral because he was on the road, Bergen’s demeanor became even more morose.
Finally, in July, everything came to a head while the team was traveling from Boston to Cincinnati. Earlier in the month, the weary catcher had requested a leave of absence from Selee, but was turned down. So, when the train came to a stop in Washington D.C., Bergen simply hopped off.
Despite pleas from club president Arthur Soden and demands from manager Selee to immediately rejoin the club, Bergen remained on his North Brookfield farm until the team returned to Boston on August 4. In the interim, the weary catcher gave a scathing interview to former Beaneaters’ player and current Boston Globe sportswriter Tim Murnane. In the exchange, Bergen talked about being mistreated by his teammates and threatened with fines by Selee whenever he would request time off.
Upon the team’s return to Boston, the desperate Beaneaters immediately placed Bergen back into the lineup, and, to everyone’s surprise, the hometown crowd greeted him like a conquering hero. When Bergen knocked in the game winning run, the cheers were even wilder. Apparently, Bergen’s interview had won the sympathy of the crowd. Needless to say, his teammates were not impressed.
Catcher Bergen got out of a row with the Boston players by claiming that Tim Murnane ‘incorrectly’ quoted him. That’s an old dodge, resorted to by all shades of men when reflection brings for things that had better be left unsaid. But will Murnane stand for being made out a prevaricator and news fakir?” – Deseret Evening News, August 23, 1899
In order to avert a strike by the rest of the team, Bergen claimed that he was misquoted, but the writing was already the wall. Over the final months of the season, there would be more unexplained absences, louder whispers from disgruntled teammates and increasing examples of bizarre behavior. Finally, in October, Bergen suffered from a mental breakdown during a game. According to reports at the time, the troubled catcher feared that someone was trying to stab him as each pitch was thrown, causing him to move out of the way after each delivery. After numerous passed balls, Bergen was lifted from the game and then derided by the Boston press.
After the crazy events of 1899, there was little doubt that Bergen would be traded. The Cincinnati Reds were rumored to be in hot pursuit that December, but no deal had been reached as of January 19. According to the press accounts, Bergen awoke before dawn on that fateful morning and committed the three grizzly murders. In what can only be assumed was a psychotic stupor, Bergen struck down his wife Hattie and three-year old son Joseph with the forceful blows of an axe before cutting the throat of his six year old daughter Florence and then doing the same to himself. When Bergen’s father Michael discovered the bodies that afternoon, the house was covered with blood. Before much longer, the newspapers were filled with ink.
Unlike many other incidents of extreme violence, everyone who had known Bergen didn’t seem that surprised. “Tragedy Explains All” blared The Boston Globe’s banner. The signs of impending tragedy were everywhere. Bergen knew it; his family knew it; and his teammates knew it. For some reason, however, no one was able to do anything about it.
Almost the entire town of North Brookfield bid farewell to the Bergen family at the funeral on January 21, but only one teammate, Billy Hamilton, attended. In a sad touch of irony, Bergen’s feelings of abandonment by his teammates, which in life were born of paranoia, were finally confirmed by his death.
At the time of the tragedy, Marty’s brother Bill Bergen was on the verge of making it to the majors. Although he spent 11 years playing for the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Superbas, one wonders if Billy would have traded it all in for just one more game with his older brother?