Editor’s note: It’s my pleasure to present the following piece by Stacey Gotsulias. Stacey is a senior MLB editor for AerysSports.com and wrote the biography on Mike Schmidt for the BPP All-Time Dream Project. She also writes with blunt honesty about her battles with mental illness, and as we’ve gotten to be friends, I thought a piece from her on this and another subject she knows well, baseball, might be apt. Enjoy.
There are many times when just hearing a sentence can change your life. The one that changed mine on a dreary winter morning back in 2007 was, “You have bipolar disorder.” And as I sat there listening to the doctor explain what that diagnosis meant, I was both relieved and frightened. I know it seems like quite a paradox but I was relieved because I finally knew what was happening to me. After many years of sudden mood swings, numerous panic attacks, long bouts of depression and a few confusing manic episodes, I was finally told what was wrong with me. At the same time, I was also frightened because of everything I knew about bipolar disorder.
The stories that came out about people with the disease were never positive and now, I was one of them. I’d hear about people disappearing for days at a time, or I’d see stories on the news about people who were once famous but who struggled with the disorder. They were usually haggard, sometimes living on the streets. Or even worse, I’d hear about people snapping and going on rampages.
Was that going to be my future? I’ll admit the thought of what could happen to me was pretty disturbing.
In the five years since my diagnosis, the stigma of having a mental illness has lessened a bit, though there are some people who are quick to dismiss it. They act as if the disorder– whatever it may be– is something only in our heads or that it’s something we can just fix ourselves. Believe me, I wish it were that simple. I would love nothing more than to wake up one morning and declare that I no longer have bipolar disorder. Most people who suffer from mental illness would rather be normal, whatever that is. Sadly, that is not a reality.
Having a mental illness is like having diabetes or any other disease. There are meds to be taken, regular visits to the doctor where– in this case– behavior is monitored. Bipolar disorder is a lifelong struggle, and unfortunately, it doesn’t magically go away.
The sport of baseball has seen its share of players who have suffered from various types of mental illnesses. In recent years, stars Dontrelle Willis and Zack Greinke have had well documented struggles with social anxiety disorder. In 2009, when Willis was diagnosed people were pretty callous, joking that his anxiety was because of his high ERA. Willis also didn’t help himself when he returned to Spring Training the following year saying he wasn’t seeking help for his disorder nor taking medication. Willis said that it was in God’s hands.
Two-time All Star Jimmy Piersall struggled with bipolar disorder, known during his career as manic depression. Piersall got into fights with opposing players— a famous brawl occurred in 1952 when he goaded Billy Martin of the New York Yankees into a fight– as well as fans and teammates. Piersall was once ejected from a game but went into the stands to berate the umpires from the upper deck. Piersall spent some time in a facility in 1953 and stated in his autobiography, Fear Strikes Out, “Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Who ever heard of Jimmy Piersall, until that happened?”
And in the early 20th century, poor Charlie Faust who barely played baseball, was used as a joker or jester of sorts, and was institutionalized only to die of tuberculosis the following year. The story on Faust was that in 1911, he was informed by a fortune teller in his hometown in Kansas that he needed to pitch for the New York Giants, in order for them win the pennant. So Faust traveled to St. Louis where the Giants were playing. He had no prior experience playing baseball but he told manager John McGraw of the prophecy. Superstitious as baseball men were and still are, McGraw kept Faust on the bench, paying him out of pocket, and the Giants won the pennant. When the Giants began to lose, Faust was cast aside.
The story of Marty Bergen is darker. He played catcher for the Boston Beaneaters, helping lead them to the National League pennant in 1897 and 1898. Bergen was known primarily for throwing runners out than his prowess as a hitter– his career slash line of .265/.299/.347 doesn’t exactly jump out. But Bergen was also known for something much more sinister:
Even as a teenager, Bergen had showed signs of anxiety and stress. He would become moody, pout, and storm off if he felt that he wasn’t getting his fair share of applause. In 1891, his first professional season, he engaged in a brutal fistfight with one of his teammates. During his time in Boston, Bergen had several run-ins with teammates and opponents. Newspapers commonly referred to his erratic behavior, describing him as “sullen and silent” and highlighting his moodiness, aloofness, and inaccessibility.
Though Bergen had been known to struggle with bouts of depression and had experienced violent mood swings, everything came to a head after his eldest child and namesake Martin, died in 1899.
Marty Bergen began imagining things that weren’t happening. He believed everybody from opposing teams to his own teammates were trying to poison him. He even believed that his own doctor and wife were trying to poison him. Bergen’s doctor was only prescribing bromides, which weren’t a real cure at all, especially for Bergen, they just helped to calm people down when they were anxious.
At first his teammates, when speaking to the media, would mention Bergen’s bouts with violence– he once punched a teammate during a team breakfast– but they also said that once he was on the field, everything was forgotten and that he was fine. Another issue was that as much as Bergen had become a problem within the organization, he was still popular with the fans and in 1898, Bergen had his best season .280/.302/.359 with a 46 percent caught stealing rate.
But by the end of the 1899 season, Bergen’s erratic behavior had become too much for his teammates; so much so that several of them threatened to not return to the team if Bergen were there in 1900.
This would never come to pass because on the morning of January 19, 1900, Bergen woke up, took an axe, and killed his two children and his wife before slitting his throat with a razor so violently that he nearly decapitated himself.
The little boy (Bergen’s 3-year-old son) was lying on the floor with a large wound in the head. Mrs. Bergen’s skull was terribly crushed, having evidently been struck more than one blow by the infuriated husband. The appearance of the little girl (his 6-year-old daughter found on the kitchen floor next to Bergen) also showed that a number of savage blows had been rained upon the top and side of her head. Bergen’s throat had been cut with a razor, and the head was nearly severed.
After his death, his own doctor called Bergen insane and a maniac. The doctor also claimed that Bergen was beyond help.
Bergen knew he wasn’t right but he was so paranoid that he couldn’t help himself. He’d disappear from his team for days at a time, usually retreating to his farm in Massachusetts to be with his family and then would show up to play like nothing had happened.
During one game in 1898, Bergen was behind the plate and envisioning the pitcher was throwing knives at him. The visions were so real; he was dodging out of the way of the knives. Needless to say, Bergen was removed from that game.
If Marty Bergen were living in 1999 as opposed to 1899, he could have gotten the help he needed, instead of being turned away by his friends and his doctor. That’s not to say that murder-suicides don’t happen now– they most certainly do– but mental illness is understood much better now than it was over 100 years ago. Bergen would have been diagnosed early, would have been given medication, and wouldn’t have been left to his own devices.
In 2001, Sports Illustrated published an article about Bergen called ‘Collision At Home.’ In that article, the last day of his life is examined and a doctor from Harvard Medical School attempted to diagnose Bergen from what had been written about him.
In addition to paranoia, Martin Bergen most likely suffered from schizophrenia with a touch of manic depression. “If I had to make a diagnosis, that would be it,” says Dr. Carl Salzman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who examined various contemporary accounts of Bergen’s behavior. Schizophrenia, Salzman says, can be marked by delusions such as Bergen experienced: “a belief that something is happening that isn’t, and it’s usually threatening. Other symptoms are withdrawal, inability to socialize, or fear of socializing; flat or dull feelings, not the usual range of expression of emotion; and difficulty thinking and controlling one’s thoughts. It’s a brain disease that causes the person to be more vulnerable to the usual stresses of life.”
The game of baseball should be an escape, whether for spectators or for players. I am grateful to be able to watch games and write about them. I’m grateful that for a few hours, my everyday struggles are put on the back burner. For men like Greinke, Willis, Piersall, Faust, and Bergen, even playing the game they love was a struggle.
And though I sometimes feel like I’ve been given a raw deal because my life has been forever altered by my bipolar diagnosis, I also realize my circumstances could be far more dire. I’m lucky because I wasn’t thrown into a mental institution during one of my manic phases. If I had lived a century ago, I easily could have been.
I think about Charlie Faust and Marty Bergen, who didn’t have the same options as I do, and I feel a mixture of sadness and anger. Poor Faust was laughed at and thought of as a clown. His delusions were fodder for everyone else. And poor Marty Bergen, even while he was crying out for help, he was ultimately ignored, and his family paid the price.
13 Replies to “Manicball: A history of mental illness in baseball”
What a wonderful article: well written, interesting and I believe- essential.
Very well written and so informative. My 25 year old don suffers from bi-polar and he refuses to get help. It’s sad to see that people don’t see this as a real disease.
I was thinking about Babe Ruth while reading this. I’m sure he suffered from bi-polar. Don’t ya think?
Good story. Don’t forget about the players with actual, legitimate AD/HD, e.g. Derek Lowe and others.
very well researched as well as moving. thanks for sharing
Great piece, Stacey … I can’t imagine this kind of thing is easy to share with the world. I never knew the Marty Bergen story…. I’m very glad you live in this century 🙂
I’m a firm believer that there’s no such thing as normal. So, quit wanting something that doesn’t exist! – Great read, Stace. As always, your honesty and brutal truth are refreshing to read.
Stacey thanks so much for this insightful blog. I really appreciate you sharing your own personal experiences as well. Thank God we live in a time where mental illness is understood as just that; an illness that needs humane and compassionate treatment..
I hope we’ll see more of your writing here soon. Thanks again.
Thanks for writing this. You did a good job of weaving you own personal story into the sketches of the players you wrote about. I hope all goes well for you.
Your list is short and underestimates the number of folks who have problems.
One in ten might be a good place to start. However many will not make it to the majors. Good point and subject. Thanks
Sometimes we forget that athletes are just like us, subject to the same mental disorders, physical illnesses, etc. Great article
Thanks for the research and the interesting link between mental illness and sport. I recall comments from the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell in the “third inning” of Ken Burns’s baseball series about baseball’s natural attraction for those with mental instability. I confess that, as my depression, anxiety disorder, and borderline schizophrenia have worsened over the years, baseball’s lure increases. From February to October, for most of a person’s waking hours, he or she can tune in to baseball games and become lost in this repetitive world of strikeouts, pickoff attempts, base knocks and visits to the mound. I don’t know if the game is my salvation or another means of avoiding the pain I have not yet mustered the courage to face.