Top 100 Baseball Blog

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Remembering Charlie Hollocher and His Tragically Shortened Life and Baseball Career

There have been many talented baseball players during the 150-plus year existence of the game. Some have achieved glory and legendary status, while others have had circumstances impede their efforts. Shortstop Charlie Hollocher is a perfect example of this, as he was a star as a rookie in 1918, but out of the game by the age of 28, and dead not long after.

Charles Jacob Hollocher was born on June 11, 1896 in St. Louis, Missouri. A talented baseball player, he began his professional career in 1915, playing several seasons in the minors, including 1916-17 with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. After hitting .276 in 1917, the 21-year-old left-handed hitter was purchased by the Chicago Cubs, and he broke spring training the following year as their starting shortstop.

The 1918 major league season was unusual in that it was prematurely cut short because of the United States’ involvement in World War I. Draft-eligible players were expected to do their part like the rest of the country. However, none of this prevented “Holly” from having a marvelous rookie campaign. He appeared in a National League-leading 131 games, hitting .316 with two home runs, 38 RBIs and 26 stolen bases. He also led the league in base hits (161) and total bases (202). The Cubs went an impressive 84-45 and won the pennant before succumbing to the Boston Red Sox four games to two in the World Series.

The Cubs’ offense went silent during the Series, scoring just 10 total runs in the six games. Their struggles at the plate were personified by Hollocher, who had just three singles and a triple in 24 plate appearances.

It appeared Hollocher’s career hit a major roadblock when he was drafted into the Army after the 1918 season. However, he contracted influenza, and was only well enough to report to duty on November 11, which just happened to be the day that the Armistice was signed and the war officially ended. He joked to the Chicago Eagle that it “Seems harder to break into the army than it did to break into the big league.”
Reprieved from going to war, he had a strong sophomore campaign, hitting .270, but the Cubs slipped to third place.

Despite the strong start to his career, Hollocher began experiencing stomach troubles. In 1920, while on a train trip to play the Philadelphia Phillies, he took ill with what was diagnosed as food poisoning. Similar symptoms returned later in the season, and by mid August he was hospitalized with an unknown ailment that ultimately brought a premature end to his season. Playing in just 80 games, he hit an impressive .319 and stole 20 bases.

He bounced back much healthier the next two seasons, hitting .289 in 140 games in 1921, and posting his season as a pro in 1922 with a .340 batting average (The highest batting average by a shortstop since Honus Wagner hit .354 for the 1908 Pittsburgh Pirates.), 201 base hits and 69 RBIs in 152 games. He was also one of the best defenders in the game, leading the league both years in fielding percentage—all factors to being made the team captain.

More stomach trouble plagued Hollocher prior to the 1923 season. It seemed as soon as he started to feel better, he would relapse, including while at spring training on Catalina Island in California. He didn’t see the field in the regular season until mid-May but was hot out of the gate. He was so well-regarded as a player that The Daily Illini reported rumors the Cubs were contemplating including him in a package of players to try and lure star second baseman Rogers Hornsby from the St. Louis Cardinals.

Hollocher was playing through something that neither he nor those around him understood. He did not feel well but his malady went undiagnosed, which many construed as making it up. Finally, on July 26th, after hitting .342 in 66 games, he had enough and left a note for his manager, Bill Killefer, and went home for the year. The message read in part, “…feeling pretty rotten so made up my mind to go home and take a rest and forget about baseball for the rest of the year. No hard feelings, just didn’t feel like playing anymore.”

Showing that he was trying to get better instead of giving up on the game, Hollocher applied for temporary retirement for the remainder of 1923 so he could remain in good standing. His application was approved by commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis.
Interestingly, his early departure in 1923 didn’t prevent Hollocher from holding out that offseason. The Cubs understandably didn’t exactly rush to give their erstwhile dependable shortstop a big payday. However, they ultimately agreed on a two-year deal worth $12,000.

He started out strong in 1924, hitting .288 in 16 May games. The Daily Illini even reported on May 29th that a trade sending him to the Brooklyn Dodgers in exchange for pitchers Dutch Ruether and Leo Dickerman, and outfielder Andy High was imminent. However, from that point forward, Hollocher batted just .215 before finally deciding to go home again because of recurring stomach troubles.

Hollocher’s final major league appearance came on August 20, 1924 in the second game of a double header against the Boston Braves. Batting third, he was hitless in four at-bats, as his team was shut out on the strength of a three-run home run by Boston outfielder Casey Stengel, and the six hits pitcher Jesse Barnes scattered over his complete-game shutout.

It’s important to note that doctors publicly announced they could find nothing medically wrong with the shortstop. According to the Chicago Tribune, “The X-ray plates of Charlie Hollocher’s stomach have definitely determined that there is nothing organically wrong...” To this day it’s a mystery about what his actual affliction was, but after that pronouncement was made he was on his own. Having been medically “cleared,” he was viewed as a head case from instead of a person with a legitimate medical concern that was not being addressed.

Always an outstanding contact hitter, Hollocher struck out just 94 times in his 3,393 career plate appearances, including a total of 17 times over his last three seasons, spanning 1,304 trips to the dish. Done at the age of 28, his .304 career batting average and 23.2 WAR in 760 games over seven seasons is a tantalizing indication of what might have been.

It doesn’t appear Hollocher received much sympathy when he decided to retire for good. This Norman E. Brown article in the February 3, 1925 edition of The Daily Illini was accompanied by a rather unflattering cartoon indicating the player gave up the game merely because of a “nervous stomach.”

 Although he annually tossed around the idea of returning to the diamond as late as 1930, he never did return to the game as a player—but he did work as a Cubs scout for one year in 1931. He also worked as an investigator, a night watchman at a drive-in theater, opened a tavern in St. Louis, and spent much of his free time playing golf.

Hollocher tried to explain his circumstances in a Sporting News article published on January 26, 1933, stating, “My health first broke at Catalina Island in the spring of 1923… They advised me that I would ruin my health if I played ball that season. But Bill Killefer, then manager of the Cubs, came to St. Louis and urged me to join the team, telling me that I didn't have to play when I didn't feel well. I yielded to Bill and, once in uniform, couldn't stay on the bench. I played when I should have been home… Now I realize I made my mistake in playing the 1923 season.”

After leaving baseball for good he was never able to shake his physical maladies and the depression that came with them. Finally, on August 14, 1944 in Frontenac, Missouri, his sad story closed its final chapter when he killed himself with a gunshot to his neck. Just 44, he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Kirkwood, Missouri.

In his obituary in the New York Times, Constable Arthur C. Mosley indicated Hollocher had just bought a shotgun from a mail order store. The weapon with the price tag still attached was found under his arm, next to his automobile; his membership card for the Association of Professional Baseball Players only feet away. He had pulled over from the highway to a driveway leading up to a partially demolished house. A note simply stating, “Call Mrs. Ruth Hollocher” (his wife) was found on the car dashboard. When questioned, she told police that her husband had been complaining of ongoing abdominal pain just before his death.

Even in death, Hollocher’s actions were viewed suspiciously. His suicide wasn’t met with much surprise, and the Chicago Herald-American wrote the former player was known as a “moody, neurotic boy” since first joining the Cubs.

In retrospect, it’s easy to toss out theories as to what afflicted Hollocher. Perhaps it was physical; perhaps it was mental; and perhaps it was both. To this decidedly non-medical professional, it seems plausible he could have suffered from a serious chronic condition like diverticulitis, and then fallen into depression as the ongoing effects continued to ravage his body. Again, that’s a total guess, but one that would make a great deal of sense.

The ideas that Hollocher was a hypochondriac, moody or couldn’t handle nerves ring hollow. He played major league baseball in bustling Chicago for seven years, including captaining his team for a number of seasons. He played in a majority of his team’s games in four of his seasons, and throughout his career, when he was on the field, he played well. That just doesn’t sound like someone who was bothered by pressure or was aloof.

Hollocher’s  cousin, Bob Klinger, pitched for the Pirates and Boston Red Sox for eight seasons in the 1930s and 1940s. Other than that, this one-time star is largely forgotten in the grand scheme of baseball history. The truth may never be known about what ended his career and ultimately his life, but no matter what that was it’s a great shame.

If he played in a later era the outcome would have undoubtedly been different. Unfortunately, his star was knocked from its zenith way too early and he has slipped out of the consciousness of most as yet another footnote of history.

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2 comments:

  1. Hi Andrew - great blog as usual. Keep up the great work! This was a wonderful story about a man I had never heard of... is it possible he just never fully recovered from the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19?
    I wonder if modern science would be able to determine if he had a physical illness?
    Thanks for continuing to present an honest account of baseball history.

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  2. Thanks, Andrew!

    Great theory. I honestly don't know. My best guess is diverticulitis , IBS or Krohns. Something that would have been acute but not well known, if at all. I thought he was a fascinating story.

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