The two greatest defensive catchers during the Fin de siècle of the late 19th – early 20th century were the Bergen brothers, Marty and Bill. Both have distinct legacies in the annals of baseball history. Bill Bergen is undoubtedly the worst hitter in the history of the National Pastime. During an 11 year career spanning 1901 – 1911, Bill had a total of 3,028 at bats. His career totals: .170 BA, 2 HR, 193 RBIs, .194 OBP, .201 SLG, and an OPS+ of 21. No other player who has had more than 2,500 career at-bats has hit less than .210. No player is even vaguely similar to Bill Bergen, utilizing Bill James’ Similarity Score formula. The quintessential good field/no hit player, Bill was rated according to Defensive WAR as one of the top ten defensive players in five seasons, a top 3 defensive catcher six times.
Marty Bergen was Bill’s older sibling. He was a much better hitter than Bill, but also a sterling defensive catcher. Marty played for the Boston Beaneaters, the best ball club in baseball in the latter years of the 19th century. His play helped the Beaneaters win two straight National League pennants in 1897-98, as well as a 2nd place finish in 1899. According to a contemporary article from the Sporting News, Bergen had one of the strongest and most accurate throwing arms in the history of the game. His manager, the legendary Frank Selee, was quoted as saying that Bergen was, “… one of the greatest ball players who ever went upon the diamond… however…. I knew Bergen was not in his right mind.”
From the beginning of his career in 1891, Bergen was viewed as moody, prone to confrontations with his teammates, as well as a cause of dissent on the club. During his first professional season, he had a brutal physical altercation with a teammate, for no apparent reason. He had frequent depressions and anxiety attacks; when they increased in severity he would take a leave of absence from his team, at times without consulting his manager. Bergen’s erratic and at times threatening temperament was tolerated by management and his teammates because of his defensive prowess and hustling style of play. However, on one occasion Bergen slapped teammate Vic Willis for no apparent reason during breakfast; after that episode they gave him an increasingly wide berth. Players tended to avoid him, becoming uncomfortable when he frequently walked sideways during ball games. When asked why he did so, he related that he thought that one of his teammates might attempt to attack him. His behavior was often attributed to excessive drinking, but Marty was a teetotaler, a rarity in the Emerald Age of baseball.
In April of 1899, Bergen’s son Martin passed away from diphtheria. His paranoia and delusions escalated. He believed that his teammates were plotting against him, making jokes about his son’s death, and was heard to say on one occasion that he wanted to club his teammates to death. He was having auditory hallucinations telling him that enemies were trying to poison him. He disappeared several times during the season, returning unannounced a few minutes before game time. He was overheard muttering to himself, often giving baleful stares to his teammates. During the course of that season, Bergen broke his hip, and there was speculation that this would be a career-ending injury. He apparently didn’t react well to the anesthesia during the surgery, and his mood swings as well as bouts of melancholia increased, but he was able to return to play sooner than the prognostications of the team physician. On October 8th, Selee had to remove Bergen from the game after he began dodging pitches rather than catching them. He later told his physician that he was avoiding assailants who were attempting to stab him. Bergen had some awareness of his emotional decompensation, as he sought medical advice and solace from the clergy, requesting from the latter that they remove the “demons” that plagued him. However, when offered medication by his physician, Dr. Dionne, he angrily refused to take it, as he believed that an unknown party in the National League was plotting with the doctor as well as his wife, Hattie, in an attempt to poison him. Not that there were medications at that time which could have offered relief for Bergen’s symptoms.
“He is insane. I’ve done everything in my power to get along with him. He is possessed of the insane idea that none of us like him. I will have to get rid of him. He is the greatest catcher in the business, but… there is no use trying to keep him on the team.”
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January 19, 1900, began like any other day in the Bergen household. Marty apparently woke up early, arose, and started preparing for the day. He removed the ashes from the stove, the home’s primary heat source, indicating that the stove had cooled overnight. Bergen then placed paper in the stove for lighting though he hadn’t yet retrieved wood from outside, as the inside pile was depleted. Marty then began preparing breakfast. The Bergen clan would never partake of the family repast. Sometime that morning, the bucolic homestead would be interrupted by one of the most monstrous acts of carnage of the century.
Marty’s father, who lived with the family but was away for several days, came home and beheld a crime scene more grisly perhaps than the Lizzie Borden murders, which had occurred 8 years previously. The badly shaken father immediately contacted the authorities. According to the Medical Examiner, Hattie was found in her bed bludgeoned repeatedly with the blunt end of an axe. The son was found murdered in his bedroom with his head severed, apparently with one blow from the sharp end of the axe. The daughter was found with her head and body battered in the kitchen; like her mother, the blows were struck with the blunt end. Next to the daughter was Marty, his throat slit with such violence that it almost severed his head from his body. From the discovery of the bodies, the presumption was that Marty Bergen had a psychotic breakdown and in a paranoid delusional state butchered his family.
The events of that day had a profound effect on the baseball world. Perhaps a thousand people from the outlying area came to the farm in order to observe the police and coroner clean up the remains. Only one teammate of Bergen’s, Slidin’ Billy Hamilton, attended the funeral. T.H. Murane, a noted writer of that period, as well as a former ballplayer and friend of Bergen’s, sent flowers to the gravesite with a note which stated:
“May these flowers speak a word of charity for Martin Bergen, who has done this insane deed.”
Marty Bergen, who was only 28 years old at the time of his death, was buried along with his family at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in North Brookfield, Mass. His grave was unmarked for many years afterwards, until Connie Mack, the legendary manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, paid for a headstone. The inscription on the headstone read thusly:
“In memory of Marty Bergen. 1871 – 1900. Member of the Boston National League Club. Erected in appreciation of his contribution to America’s National Game.”
Marty’s behavior had been known by the press, but much of it was suppressed. After the events, there were many reports that Bergen had been subject to “fits of melancholia” and had shown “signs of insanity” in the fall of 1899. Many years afterwards, Dr. Carl Salzman, and renowned psychiatrist from the Harvard Medical School, examined contemporary reports and came to the conclusion that Bergen suffered from paranoid schizophrenia with possibly manic depression. Few, if any, ever questioned the report of the Medical Examiner, who stated there was no doubt that Mr. Bergen had slaughtered his family.
And yet… is this explanation perhaps just a bit too tidy, too obvious? Is it congruent with the facts of the case?
Consider a review of some of those contemporary reports. Marty Bergen had several outbursts against teammates, but there was never any indication that he posed any danger to his own family. Neighbors, friends and visitors all observed Marty interacting with his family on many occasions, and all of them stated that he was always doting towards his children, as well as being an affectionate and attentive husband. His wife had told Dr. Dionne that she had no fear of him. Nor did she fear for her children.
But perhaps more telling is a review of the statements of the press. Consider this entry in the Chicago Tribune:
“On the table was a razor, which explained the implement with which the father and child had met their deaths.”
There was also this statement by the New York Times:
“Bergen’s throat had been cut with a razor and the head was nearly severed.”
One can presume that it would be almost impossible to severe one’s own head with a slash from a razor, and then place the bloody razor on a table.
In April 2008, noted baseball historian Bill Burgess, whose websites include Baseballguru.com and Baseball Fever, shared some of his doubts of the accuracy of the reported events of the Bergen murders in one of his posts at Baseball Fever:
“Originally, I had assumed that Marty had been having a nightmare, and awoke in a delusional state, not being able to distinguish from reality/dream state… But now… it appears that my original assumptions are not supported by the evidence… Is it possible that the Bergen family were all murdered by a homicidal maniac, and the entire scenario was mistaken for a murder/suicide?”… What would have been so strange to assume that the family was murdered by an intruder? If I had been the investigating detective that would have made a lot more sense than to assume a man would take out his own family…. What if an intruder who had a grudge against Marty committed the heinous crime & took out the rest of the family, so as not to leave witnesses… Anyway, I am now not believing it was a suicide at all. That particular scenario is just not the most logical assumption. When in doubt, go with the most logical possibilities before one assumes the less logical…. An ambush killing which turned into a mass murder is the more likely possibility, than what was assumed. The only reason they assumed it was a murder/suicide is because he had had mental issues, which were aggravated by the earlier death of his young son, Martin, the previous summer. “
The “Medical Examiner” in the early 19th century was typically the local coroner, with literally no training in gathering and interpreting forensic evidence. The use of fingerprinting for identification of criminals was not introduced until 1902. The crime scene had been compromised by Bergen’s father, and likely the police as well, who were typically as ignorant as the coroner. The presumption that Marty Bergen murdered his family was most likely completely circumstantial, due to the myriad reports of his emotional instability. If Bergen’s history was devoid of any indicators of instability, the presumption would have certainly been that the family was murdered by an intruder. It can also be stated that the statements attributed to Dr. Dionne were made after the murder, and there is a natural tendency to make observations that are congruent with events. Police were, then as well as now, under pressure to solve heinous crimes as quickly as possible, and thus one could presume that there was little if any investigative work concerning the tragedy at Snowball Farm by the authorities.
In both 1938 and 1939, Bergen received one vote for induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
It does look pretty conclusive that the poor man did it, but considering that his wife was sleeping with a shot gun because of Marty’s father’s drunkeness and that they had had rows, I can’t help but wonder about him. The saddest thing of all is that no one took Bergen’s insanity seriously or tried to help him despite his reaching out to many different sources – doctors, priests, reporters, and who knows else. As awful as the places were, he would have been better off in an asylum. At least his family would have been safe. We still don’t do enough when we know someone has obvious mental problems so I’m not sure how much we’ve learned.
@Joan, Unfortunately, many ballplayers passed in an asylum. There were a number of great and not so great players that suffered from various mental conditions, as well as progressions of physical ailments, which left untreated, resulted in mental illness. There are enough questions in the case to make it interesting speculation.
Actually, the most logical explanation here is that the guy killed his family. Multiple witnesses say he is delusional and paranoid. There are no other suspects, no one else with a verifiable motive. It would be great to rescue a great ballplayer from historical infamy, but this doesn’t look like the right case. Insert unfortunate Ockham’s Razor pun.
@Jake, That, of course, was the reason no one questioned what had occurred at the time. However, there are many crimes committed where Occam’s Razor doesn’t apply.
Thanks for the article, Paulie. It was a sad one, but a good read.
@Chris, Thanks. Very sad story indeed.
Hey Bro….what a story. Maybe a push to get him into the Hall.
@the rat bastard, Marty got one or two votes, but his career probably wasn’t long enough and hitting not quite good enough to warrent consideration, even if it were somehow to be found that he was not-guilty. Thanks, Rico
Interesting article. Thanks.
@Ed Ruane, Thanks!
@Paulie Allnuts: What about actor Tom Hardy in a starring role…? If you’ve ever seen his work in “Bronson”, you’ll note that he’s particularly skilled at portraying the less-than-stable.
@Daniel, Sounds like a great choice! Maybe I should take a try at writing a screen play; did a bit of that in the past, but nothing all that serious.
The whole thing makes one wonder if he was not delusional but was actually receiving threats. When I read that his head was nearly cut off I had no doubt that he did not kill himself.
I do wonder if he was dabbling in something he should not have even approached and he gave power to a demon that turned on him. hmmm…
Where is Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy when you need them?
@Mennonite Sports guy, Ha! Never considered that side of the story.
There was a Sports Illustrated story about this in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Some readers may want to check out the SI Vault for it
Fantastic article, Paulie. I came to the site this evening figuring to just catch up on Grey’s news post of the day and then check out the football section, but a couple sentences of your article caught my eye and then I couldn’t stop reading. Great stuff; compelling and interesting.
@Rabbit, Thanks, Rabbit!
Wonder what Marty’s brother Bill thought happened.
@Chappy, Thats a great question, and I haven’t found any information on Bill’s reaction at all. I may contact Cooperstown and see if they have any material that I am not yet aware of. This could make a great book as well as movie.If Heath Ledger was alive, he could have played Marty. Nicholson is a bit too long in the tooth.
Wow, never heard that story before. Really interesting.
Billy Hamilton was a fast mofo. Off the top of my head, I think he’s top 5 in career SBs. Figured he could make a quick getaway if things went haywire…
@Rudy Gamble, Thanks, Rudy. Thats high praise! And now we have a new Billy Hamilton on the scene, who might be the superior baserunner of this generation.
How bad ass is Billy Hamilton?
@Killer Joe, As B.A. as they get!
@Justin, Thanks much!
Beautiful and tragic story. Thanks for this. Great stuff.
@jaywrong, Thanks! One of my favorite stories that I have had published at Razzball.