Cooperstown Confidential: The tragedies of Wilson, Thomas and Moore

The terrible fate of the recently deceased Hideki Irabu has me thinking of one of society’s most unpleasant topics—suicide. It’s a subject that unfortunately has a long, conjoined history with baseball. A shocking number of ballplayers, both recent and long since retired, have taken their own lives. Baseball, like any other business or way of life, is not immune to the grip that suicide can have.

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In the days after hearing of Irabu’s suicide, I began to think of several other players. One was Don Wilson. Another was Danny Thomas. And then there was Donnie Moore. Thomas was a relatively obscure player who had a short tenure in the major leagues, while Wilson and Moore were well known during their careers. All three were enormously talented, yet all three died long before they should have.

If you were a fan of the Astros in the early 1970s, you remember Wilson. He was one of a flock of talented right-handed pitchers the Astros featured, including Larry Dierker and the blazing J.R. Richard. A smaller version of the 6-foot-8 Richard, Wilson could throw the ball through a wall, and appeared headed for a long career.

With his riding fastball and sharp slider, Wilson dominated National League lineups frequently. He had thrown two no-hitters, come close to pitching a third, compiled an 18-strikeout game, and struck out 235 batters in a season by the end of the 1974 season—before his 30th birthday. He appeared headed for a long career, one that would be made even more prosperous by pitching in the hitter’s dungeon known as the Astrodome.

As talented as Wilson was whenever he took the mound, he was intelligent and soft spoken off the field. He was also an open-minded guy who became good friends with Curt Blefary, one of the Astros’ white players. In fact, the two would become the first regularly paired interracial roommates in the history of the major leagues.

Yet, there were a few warning signs coming from the clubhouse with regard to Wilson. He butted heads with at least two of his Astros managers, Harry Walker and Leo Durocher. At one point, he had to be restrained from throwing a punch at Walker. Of course, Walker had a reputation for having difficult relationships with black players, and Durocher was not exactly “Mr. Congeniality” in and around the Astrodome.

No one considered Wilson a bad guy, but he became increasingly outspoken and bitter as he moved into his late 20s. He could be temperamental at times, unwilling to defer to authority. Still, when the Astros left their clubhouse lockers at the end of the ‘74 season and said their goodbyes to each other, no one knew that they would never see Wilson again.

During that winter, something terrible happened to Wilson. Some have called it an accident; others have said it was something else. Here’s what we know: On Jan. 5, 1975, Wilson’s lifeless body was found in the passenger seat of his Ford Thunderbird, which had been left running in his own garage. Not only did Wilson die from an extreme level of carbon monoxide poisoning, but the gas seeped into Wilson’s Houston home and took the life of his young son, while leaving his daughter in a coma. (She eventually recovered.) His wife was found with strange bruising on her face, the origin of which seemed to change every time she talked to the authorities.

Initially, Wilson’s death was reported as a suicide. Because of those initial reports—and because I was all of 10 years old and not interested in checking facts—I had always assumed that Wilson had taken his own life. I considered him a villain—sort of a tragic villain—because his recklessness had claimed the life of one of his innocent children.

And then, a couple of years ago, I thought about writing something substantial about Wilson and decided to re-visit the story on the Internet. I read that the official coroner’s report listed Wilson’s death as accidental, and not as a suicide. That was news to me. I didn’t quite understand how the coroner came to that conclusion, but if it happened to be accurate, then Wilson fell into a more sympathetic light.

Then I read that Wilson was legally intoxicated at the time of his death. The coroner’s report began to make more sense. Putting two and two together, it appeared that Wilson had been drinking heavily, may have struck his wife (resulting in the bruising), and then fell asleep in his car while the engine was still running. Now I tilted back toward being angry with Wilson, thinking that an irresponsible bout with drinking had contributed to his own son’s death.

Regardless of what anybody thought at the time, the Astros gave Wilson the benefit of the doubt. That season, they retired his No. 40 and wore a memorial patch on their uniform jerseys for the entire summer. And though Wilson has been gone for more than 30 years now, the Astros continue to honor his memory at Minute Maid Park, where his plaque is featured on the franchise’s Wall of Honor.

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of Wilson’s story, even 36 years after the fact. Sometimes I feel sorry for him; at other times, I’m disappointed and upset. I always feel saddened. And I guess I still have my doubts about the coroner’s report. Wilson might not have committed suicide, but it still seems to me he was issuing a cry for help that awful night in Houston.

The case of Danny Thomas was more clear-cut than that of Wilson, but no less somber. A highly touted prospect in the Brewers’ system, Thomas had more obvious emotional concerns than Wilson and required psychiatric care. After spending some time in therapy at the conclusion of the 1976 season, he decided to join a religious group known as the Worldwide Church of God. According to the group’s religious beliefs, it was not appropriate to work from sundown on Friday to sundown on Sunday. As a result, when Thomas reported to spring training in 1977, he informed the Brewers that he would have to miss a number of weekend games. Thomas became known as “The Sundown Kid.”

Thomas had enormous power and hit well in two stints with the Brewers, but his refusal to play on weekends and further disciplinary infractions curtailed his career. He seemed to have legitimate mental health problems, but they came at a time when neither Major League Baseball nor the Players Association really knew how to treat the situation. Ultimately, the Brewers felt Thomas was too much trouble and demoted him to Double-A; when he refused the assignment, the Brewers gave him his release.

In 1979, he attempted a comeback, playing minor league ball for the Miami Amigos of the ill-fated Inter-American League. Thomas played well for Davey Johnson, who was managing for the first time in his young career, but the financially strapped league folded in the middle of its first season, leaving Thomas and dozens of other players without jobs.

The following June, his playing days over, Thomas hit rock-bottom. He was arrested on charges of rape and sodomy, a situation made even more complicated because he was married with two young children. On June 12, as he sat in jail awaiting trial, Thomas cut strips from his jeans, tied them to his jail cell, and hanged himself. Like Wilson, Thomas was only 29 years old. To make matters worse, Thomas’ family was so poor that it could not afford to pay for a funeral.

I vividly remember following Thomas’ story through the pages of The Sporting News, from his status as The Sundown Kid to his stint in the Inter-American League. So when I read that he had committed suicide, it hit me hard. I just couldn’t think of anything worse: taking your own life by hanging yourself from torn strips of your own clothing, all while sitting in a dirty jail cell.

The stories of Thomas and Wilson are somewhat forgotten today. In contrast, the story of Donnie Moore is more vivid. In fact, I cannot think of a more publicized baseball suicide in the last 40 years.

Unlike Wilson, Moore started his career in mediocrity. He struggled to find his niche in early career stops with the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers and Braves. It was not until 1984, when the journeyman right hander was 30, that he started to hit his stride. In becoming the Braves’ primary closer, Moore wrestled the job away from Steve Bedrosian and Gene Garber, and saved 16 games on the strength a 2.94 ERA.

He cashed in his career numbers at season’s end, signing a behemoth, four-year contract with the Angels. Unlike some high-priced free agents, Moore did not flop; he pitched even better for California than he had for Atlanta, earning a spot on the American League All-Star team. He continued to pitch well in 1986, establishing a reputation as one of the league’s more reliable relief aces.

Then came Game Five of the 1986 playoffs. With the Angels holding a two-run lead and just one strike away from the first World Series berth in franchise history, Moore gave up a crushing three-run home run to Boston’s Dave Henderson. The Angels would then tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, but Moore surrendered a tie-breaking sacrifice fly to Henderson in the 11th. Not only did the Angels lose that day, but they dropped the next two games, losing the series rather shockingly, four games to three.

Angels fans did not forgive Moore. In addition to blaming him for the collapse against the Red Sox, they repeatedly booed him when he entered games at Anaheim Stadium. The booing gnawed at Moore, whose performance fell from good to bad to worse.

Moore pitched well in 1987, but a back injury limited him to 14 appearances. In 1988, he pitched so poorly, while also drawing criticism for being overweight and out of shape. that he did not even last the season in Anaheim; the Angels released him in August, less than two years removed from his second solid season as the California closer.

The Royals signed him during the winter and gave him a look-see in spring training, but the change in scenery did little to help. Moore started the season on the disabled list and then reported to minor league Omaha, where he pitched briefly and emerged as a loner on a team filled with younger players. Not impressed with his pitching or his attitude, Kansas City released him in June. He was devastated.

Moore returned to his home in Anaheim. Instead of finding a welcoming family, he found an empty house; his wife Tonya had taken their three children and left him. On July 18, 1989, the situation reached a boiling point. During a nasty argument, he took a gun and shot his wife three times, the entire incident witnessed by his three children. Moore’s teenaged daughter, the oldest of the three, took her mother to the hospital. While they received treatment at the emergency room, Moore took the gun and turned it on himself. With one shot to his temple, Moore ended his life at 35 years of age.

After the tragedy made national news, some media and fans attributed the suicide directly to the devastation that came with being blamed for losing the 1986 Championship Series. That’s an overly simplistic connection that is neither logical nor accurate. More likely, the home run to Henderson was just the starting point to Moore’s difficulties.

One of his former teammates, Brian Downing, felt the media were overly and repeatedly cruel to Moore after his postseason failure, keeping up the criticism for the two additional seasons he spent in Southern California. Additionally, Moore’s problems with alcohol, his sudden release by the Royals, some unpublicized financial difficulties, and his abusive relationship with his wife all appear to have played significant roles in the decision to take his own life.

The stories of Moore, Thomas and Wilson are all nightmarish, so it’s hard to know what to make of all this. Perhaps the lessons are two-fold. It may be clichéd, but it still needs to be said: Athletes, no matter how young and talented, are not invincible or immortal. And athletes, no matter how good they are at what they do, have the same kind of emotional problems that many of us face.

Wilson, Thomas, Moore and Irabu were vulnerable. We all are. The key is to seek help for the problems, which these men were unable to do. Everyone, no matter how rich or talented or athletic, needs a hand from time to time.

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Comments

  1. BlftBucco said...

    You never really know what’s going on in the background of people’s lives.

    The one that always surprised me was the suicide of umpire Ron Luciano. From watching him on the field and reading some of his books, he always seemed to be a jovial sort of person that enjoyed life.

  2. Bruce Markusen said...

    Luciano’s suicide was a major surprise to the general public. He had such an outgoing and enthusiastic personality; I wonder what happened in the later years of his life.

    Show and Rod Scurry were two of the saddest stories of players from the 1980s. Both were done in by drugs, which apparently led them to have delusional states of mind. When I hear about players (or anybody) whose lives are essentially ended by drugs, it convinces me that drugs are still one of the great scourges of American life.

  3. Anon said...

    IN the Thurman Munson 1971 card piece you said Reggie Jackson and Chuck DObson were the 1st two interracial roommates in 1968. Here you say Wilson and Blefary (who played together only in 1969).

    I’m genuinely curious: which is it?

  4. Bruce Markusen said...

    Anon, Jackson and Dobson were the first in the majors, beginning in 1968. Wilson and Blefary roomed in 1969, as you mentioned. I should have written that Wilson and Blefary were the first in National League history.

  5. Jim C said...

    Didn’t Willard Harshberger, Cincinnati catcher in the late 30’s, also kill himself? I think it was during the season, in a hotel room when the team was on the road.

  6. Bruce Markusen said...

    Jim, you are right. Hershberger is the only major leaguer to commit suicide during the season. An extremely sensitive sort, he blamed himself for the Reds losing games. (He was filling in for an injured Ernie Lombardi.) The Reds’ manager found him in his hotel room the next day, with his throat cut. Just an awful story.

  7. Steve Treder said...

    A sad, but nonetheless important topic.  Bruce, very skillfully handled as usual.

    Hugh Casey was another case, I believe.

  8. Hank G said...

    Coincidently, Hershberger’s teammate Ernie Lombardi attempted suicide by cutting his throat with a razor, but was found before he bled to death and was saved.

  9. Mitch said...

    I always noted the Moore suicide since I was a Dave Henderson fan as a small child in ‘86 (I think liked his teeth) and it is one of my earliest memories of baseball. I remember feeling guilty after hearing about Moore since I cheered so hard for that homerun. I never knew he had shot his wife until I read this.

  10. Hank G said...

    ‘They died “by suicide”. You can not commit suicide.’

    I’ve never heard that one before. Who says?

    You can commit murder, and suicide is self-murder, so why can’t you commit suicide?

  11. Joe Pilla said...

    Thanks, Bruce, for this very thoughtful piece.
    With so much sports journalism a simple relating of scores, game highlights, winners and losers—not to mention a cascade of numbersnumbersnumbers—we lose sight of the human stories behind these players we think we know so well.
    Your efforts in your “baseball card series,” as I think of it, remind us—and it is sad that we NEED reminding—that this game involves actual human beings.
    Roger Kahn, in THE BOYS OF SUMMER, wrote about sitting in a Florida movie house with Dodger pitcher Clem Labine, who at the time was bedeviled by what was then simply dubbed a “sore arm,” which could prove a career ender. Kahn mused how, as a beat writer driven by deadlines, he casually overlooked the flesh-and-blood reality of someone like Labine. He had been bloodlessly writing about how Labine’s injury would affect the Dodgers’ fortunes, with no thought given to how the situation affected Labine’s personal life.
    Just a thought for the next time we dismissively curse a player for his inadequate WaR…

  12. the Flint Bomber said...

    I read that Ron Luciano learned he had terminal cancer, which probably gave him motivation.  Luciano was an ump a little bit before my generation, but he wrote a few hilarious books! RIP.

  13. ajnrules said...

    It’s incredibly eerie that only five days after this article, we lost another former player to suicide.

    RIP Mike Flanagan
    (1951-2011)

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