His name was Chick Stahl and he killed himself by drinking carbolic acid on a March day in 1907 in West Baden, IN. He was 34.
At the time I chatted with the team staffers, I was going off hazy recollections of the Stahl case. I’ve since had time to research the story.
Who was Chick Stahl?
Why did he kill himself?
What did people say about him?
What was he doing during spring training in West Baden, IN?
First, there are conflicting theories on what drove Stahl to guzzling carbolic acid.
Did it have something to do with a pregnant woman who wasn’t his wife?
Did he suffer from depression?
Was he gay?
His final words have provoked much speculation from those who have looked into his death.
“Boys, I just couldn’t help it,” Stahl supposedly said as he was dying. “It drove me to it.”
What was it?
Maybe the answer will never be known.
“The reason behind Stahl’s suicide has remained a mystery for over a century,” according to the Wikipedia entry on him.
That belief is echoed at baseball-reference.com: “Chick Stahl’s death has not been satisfactorily explained to this day.”
First, a little background on Chick Stahl.
Stahl was a heck of a player before he started managing the Red Sox. He broke into the majors in 1897 with the Boston Beaneaters (yes, Beaneaters) and hit .354.
He was a swift outfielder who hit three triples in the 1903 World Series and led the American League with 19 triples in 1904.
Baseball statistician, author and historian Bill James, now a Red Sox official, ranked him the 51st-best centerfielder ever in his 2001 book “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.”
Stahl was the sixth of 24 (yes, 24!) children in a German Catholic family and was born in Avilla, Ind.
Stahl had married a woman named Julia Harmon in November of 1906, only five months before his suicide.
She was, according to a book quoted in James’ book, a drug addict who would kill herself only 18 months after Stahl.
Here’s the main headline from the Nov. 16, 1908 headline in the Pittsburgh Press about her suicide:
“Widow of Chick Stahl
Death in Boston.”
The sub-head under that contained more details.
“Richly Clad, She was Found
Dead in Doorway of Tenement
House in the Poorest
Section of City”
The story noted that her body was discovered at No. 7 Ellery Terrace.
Stahl killed himself in Indiana, where the Red Sox had stopped on their way from spring training in Hot Springs, Ark.
Stahl apparently was a well-liked, respected man.
“He was the squarest man I ever knew,” said catcher Lou Criger, as quoted in James’ book. “He had only one fault – he was too generous. He was often bunkoed because he believed in the goodness of all mankind.”
Stahl comes across as a fine fellow, one perhaps too sensitive for early 20th century professional baseball.
“Releasing players grated on my nerves,” Stahl said. “It made me sick at heart.”
Maybe that’s part of what makes his story so intriguing.
The Stahl Case was studied extensively on the website of the Society for American Baseball Research.
A leading theory, Dennis Auger wrote on sabr.org, can be traced to something written by Al Stump in the May 1959 issue of True Magazine.
Stump claimed the manager was being blackmailed by, a “designing women supposedly carrying Stahl’s unborn child.”
This came out more than 50 years after the suicide. Stump also wrote about the case in Baseball Digest.
Auger supplied this quote from that publication: “A visitor from his past, she was a doxie. …”
Stump went on to write, “Now, claiming pregnancy, she demanded money and marriage.”
Auger isn’t buying any of what Stump wrote.
“I have come to the conclusion that Al Stump is responsible for the blackmail story,” Auger wrote.
Auger wrote, though, that the suicide was the “end product of longstanding, chronic depression.”
In 1902, according to Dan Holmes at wahoosam.com, a woman named Lulu Ortmann was carrying a revolver in her waistcoat and set out one day to shoot Stahl.
Cops had been alerted to her intentions and intercepted her in time.
Like many baseball players, he seemed to have a girlfriend in every city. Or was he even interested in women?
What was the “It” that led to his suicide, to drinking that carbolic acid? Carbolic acid, by the way, is not a good way to go.
“The acid went to work quickly, causing his lips to turn color, his skin to turn yellow, his body to sweat and convulse,” Holmes wrote on wahoosam.com. “Finally, his organs failed, his body strangled itself.”
Then there’s the gay theory, one explored by Holmes on wahoosam.com. Stahl had a very close friend named David Murphy, who killed himself two days after Stahl’s suicide.
Were they more than friends?
A note was found next to Murphy’s body with these words, as reported by wahoosam.com: “Bury me beside Chick.”
What’s the truth?
I don’t think we’ll ever know.
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