The Promising Life and Tragic Death of Austin McHenry
Considered one of the best left fielders in the game after his brilliant 1921 season, Cardinals outfielder Austin McHenry saw his career reach a premature end on July 31, 1922 at the age of 26. Tragically, he would lose his life only four months later.
By the time he was 25 years old, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Austin McHenry was considered one of baseball’s best outfielders and hitters, especially after enjoying a 1921 season that saw him finish with a .350 batting average, second only to teammate and future Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. McHenry also finished second to Hornsby in slugging at .531, placed among the top five National League hitters in doubles, home runs, RBIs, total bases, and extra-base hits, and was one of only six N.L. hitters with 200 hits that season.
Combined with a strong arm and an easy gait that was sometimes mistaken for indifference, McHenry was considered not only one of baseball’s best outfielders and hitters after his remarkable 1921 campaign, but one of the ten best left fielders of all time to that point in baseball history. His performance tailed off in 1922 as he battled inconsistency at the plate and in the field, caused mostly by problems with his vision that had McHenry fearing he was going blind. Concerned about his health, Cardinals manager Branch Rickey sent McHenry to his Ohio home to rest, where it was discovered the star outfielder had a brain tumor. Tragically, he would lose his life only four months later.
Austin Bush McHenry was born on September 22, 1895 in Wrightsville, Ohio to Oscar and Hannah (Jones) McHenry. He was the oldest of two children, preceding his sister Alice by two years. He grew up in Jefferson Township in Adams County and played baseball through high school, but it wasn’t until 1914 when he came under the tutelage of scout Billy Doyle, who ran a baseball school for young players in Ohio, that he really began to show off his abilities. McHenry started out as a second baseman but was shifted to the outfield where he found immediate success. “There he shone with brilliancy,” wrote the Portsmouth Daily Times. “It seemed that no one could hit it over his head and he was a genius on coming in for short line-drives over the infield. He had the uncanny intuition of playing for this and that batter and it was not long until Manager Gableman made him a regular. From that day on McHenry by his consistent playing began to make baseball history for himself.”
He signed his first professional contract with Portsmouth of the Class D Ohio State League in 1915 at the age of 19 and helped lead the Cobblers to a pennant. McHenry was gifted but raw, and according to the local newspaper, “was not on speaking terms with the finer points of the national game.” But what he lacked in knowledge he made up for with hustle, eagerness, enthusiasm, and a determination to succeed. Soon he was drawing comparisons to Ed Delahanty and Ty Cobb and was said to have “an arm of steel.” And he could flat out hit, prompting the Portsmouth Daily Times to call him a “veritable demon at the bat” and insist, “his batting was a feature of almost every game.” But he had plenty of help from a roster that included eight players with previous or subsequent major league experience, an amazing total for a Class D team in the Deadball Era. One of those men, catcher Pickles Dillhoefer, would eventually become McHenry’s teammate on the St. Louis Cardinals, and two of them, Dillhoefer and Ralph Sharman, would also suffer premature and tragic deaths.
McHenry’s first season as a pro was a successful one as he batted .297 and slugged .421, and finished second on the team in home runs with four. He began the 1916 season with Portsmouth but was sold to the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers in July for $300. McHenry spent the rest of the season with the Brewers but struggled, hitting only .240 and slugging .326 in 72 games. He was also the victim of a beaning that seemed fairly innocuous at the time, especially since he was able to continue playing after a short rest, but would later be blamed for the tumor that eventually took his life. McHenry was farmed out to Peoria of the Central League in the spring of 1917 and batted .270 with two homers in 22 games, before being recalled to Milwaukee, where he batted .235 with four homers in 102 games.
At first glance it looked like McHenry had another poor season, but only two of his teammates had as many homers, and they had the benefit of 500-at-bat seasons, whereas McHenry recorded only 373 at-bats for the Brewers. In terms of at-bats per home run only Johnny Beall had a better season than McHenry, who was becoming one of the better home run hitters in the high minors. The Cincinnati Reds were clearly impressed and purchased his contract after the 1917 season for $2,500. But after he suffered a broken nose during a spring training game in 1918, he was returned to Milwaukee on March 28.
McHenry made the most of his situation and began depositing balls into the seats at a league-leading rate. He belted five homers in 170 at-bats over 44 games to lead the American Association in home runs through June, which prompted the St. Louis Cardinals to acquire his services on June 12 for utilityman Marty Kavanagh, pitcher Tim Murchison, and a player to be named later. McHenry reported to the Cards on June 20 and made his major league debut on June 22 in the first game of a doubleheader against the very team that released him earlier in the year. He failed to record a hit in two official at-bats (although he reached base when he was hit by a pitch from Reds hurler Pete Schneider), but he showed off his powerful arm and recorded two assists from left field. He also played in the second game and went 1-for-5, rapping out his first major league hit, a double, and scoring his first run.
He spent the rest of the 1918 season anchoring left field for the last-place Cardinals and proved to be a promising major leaguer. He batted .261 with a homer and 29 RBIs in 272 at-bats and finished fourth on the team with six triples, and among the regulars only Bob Fisher (136) and Walton Cruise (134) posted a better OPS+ than McHenry’s 109. On defense he was a little shaky, posting a fielding percentage and range factor that were below average, but he made up for it with strong, accurate throws that resulted in 14 assists, placing him among the top 10 outfielders in the National League despite playing in only 80 games. But that year also brought him troubling news when he learned that his former outfield mate at Portsmouth, Ralph Sharman, drowned on May 24 while swimming in the Alabama River at Montgomery near Camp Sheridan. Sharman was only 23 years old and had temporarily left a promising big league career with the Philadelphia Athletics to join the Army.
Although McHenry played well in 1918, he entered the 1919 campaign with little fanfare. Baseball Magazine called him a “capable performer,” which paled in comparison to the glowing review the magazine gave fellow rookie flycatcher Cliff Heathcote, dubbed a “kid collegian who promises to make a real star.” But Cardinals manager Branch Rickey had high hopes for McHenry and ordered his coaches to spend additional time with the youngster hitting him fly balls and throwing him extra batting practice. McHenry began the 1919 season as the team’s fourth outfielder, occasionally spelling starters Heathcote, Burt Shotton, and Jack Smith, but mostly serving as a pinch-hitter and runner. He began to find more time in the starting lineup in late May and eventually unseated the injured Shotton as the starting left fielder.
The extra preseason work paid off as McHenry vastly improved his glove work and committed only three errors, leading the team with a .985 fielding percentage and finishing fourth among National League outfielders, and recorded 20 assists, good for fifth in the N.L. He also improved at the plate, batting .286 and slugging .404, second on the Cards to Rogers Hornsby, and led the team with 11 triples, which placed him among the top 10 in the league.
Others began to take notice. The Reds, realizing their earlier mistake, offered Rickey $25,000 for McHenry in September, but Rickey rejected the offer and insisted his prized outfielder would play for no one but the Cardinals. A newspaper report in early September gushed about McHenry’s play, calling him “a youth of exceptional promise, who can hit, field, and run the bases,” and who was “one of the most talented outfielders to break into fast company in some years.” Sportswriter Frank Menke observed that all of the phenoms that joined the N.L. around the same time as McHenry were back in the minors while the Cardinals outfielder was one of the “reigning sensations of “‘Big Time.'”
New York Giants manager John McGraw coveted McHenry as much as the Reds did and speculation was that the young outfielder might eventually land in New York. But it was doubtful St. Louis would be willing to part with its new young star. The Miami Herald reported on September 9, “the fact that such an offer [by Cincinnati] was unhesitatingly rejected is indicative of the value which Rickey places on the boy’s services.”
McHenry earned a starting nod in 1920 and split his time between left and center field in a makeshift St. Louis outfield that had five players shuttling in and out of the lineup, including Heathcote who had yet to live up to his hype. But his stint in St. Louis almost became short lived when he contemplated a jump to the Agathon Steel team, a Massilon, Ohio semi-pro industrial league team led by former Federal League catcher George Textor. At the time, industrial league teams were luring current and former major leaguers and minor leaguers and those with major league aspirations by offering them jobs and major league level salaries. Textor and “several Agathon scouts” followed the Cardinals to Boston and offered McHenry a contract, but Rickey learned about the negotiations and put a stop to them before he could lose his prized outfielder.
Despite a decrease in his OPS+ and in his fielding percentage in 1920, McHenry enjoyed another productive season, establishing career highs in several categories. He batted .282 with a team-leading 10 home runs and 65 RBIs, and slugged a career-best .423. He also improved his range factor, finishing 10th among N.L. outfielders, and recorded 21 assists, good for sixth in the league. Only Cy Williams, Irish Meusel, and George “Highpockets” Kelly hit more home runs than McHenry in the National League. After belting only two round-trippers in his first 643 major league at-bats, McHenry was suddenly among the top sluggers in baseball.
It helped that a new era in baseball had just begun. The Deadball Era had come to an end in 1920, partly due to the ban on the spitball, and home runs were up 26% across the league and 41% across the majors. The days of “small ball,” in which teams manufactured runs with bunts, steals, and the hit-and-run were giving way to more potent methods of scoring ushered in by Babe Ruth in the American League and Williams, Kelly, Hornsby and McHenry in the National.
By May 1921, the New York Times railed about a home run “epidemic” sweeping through the majors and warned that records would tumble by season’s end, blaming the onslaught on a new “livelier” ball: “It is true that the restrictions which were imposed upon pitchers, starting with the opening of the 1920 pennant races and still in force, have made hitting easier, but even this does not explain the great advance in home run hitting. The fact that many players who seldom hit for the circuit have branched out as long distance sluggers is not explained satisfactorily by changes in pitching rules. They are no stronger physically than before, yet their drives are carrying far beyond the former limits.”
Complaints about the new ball were met with denials by the manufacturers who insisted they were following the same procedures in manufacturing that they’d always followed, except that they were using a better grade of Australian wool, which could have explained the increase in home runs. In St. Louis the boost in four-baggers was especially obvious in the batting lines of first baseman Jack Fournier, who had five as of May 23, after hitting only three the year before and posting a career-high six in 1914, and McHenry, who had four circuit clouts in only 93 at-bats, putting him on pace to hit 25 over a full season.
McHenry didn’t hit 25 home runs in 1921, but he finished the season with a career-high 17 to go along with a .350 batting average and 102 runs batted in. He also recorded his first 200-hit season (201), and set career highs in runs (92), doubles (37), steals (10), walks (38), on-base percentage (.393), and slugging (.531). It proved to be a special year for the 25-year-old up-and-coming star as he finished second in the batting race to his teammate Hornsby, second in slugging, also to Hornsby, third in RBIs, fourth in home runs, and fifth in doubles. He also fielded at a .965 clip, improving on his 1920 mark, and posted a career-best 2.53 range factor, good for seventh in the N.L. And the team was getting better as well, finishing at 87-66 and in third place, after finishing no higher than fifth over the three previous seasons, and averaging only 60 wins during those seasons.
McHenry’s 1921 campaign was so impressive that he was named one of the 10 best left fielders of all-time by an anonymous source cryptically referred to by The Sporting News as “one of the most highly regarded of Eastern baseball critics.”
“This is interesting, as it shows a growing appreciation of the real worth of this sterling player. He has not in the past received all that is his due. Even in St. Louis the fans, though they would resent any intimation that McHenry is not among the great, probably have not rated him as he deserves. His work is not of the spectacular sort, he does not furnish great thrills. If he makes a shoestring catch that would do credit to a [Tris] Speaker, it’s so neatly done the spectators can’t realize the difficulty of it. If he goes far afield for a long drive he ambles over the ground with a stride that makes it appear he is just out for practice. That’s the McHenry way and before he showed that he was getting results he was even accused by some who did not study him as inclined to be indifferent. McHenry is without a question one of the game’s greatest outfielders. And he is one of the game’s greatest hitters.”
McGraw, who still coveted McHenry, was so impressed with his 1921 showing that he reportedly doubled the previous high offer (Cincinnati’s $25,000) and offered Rickey $50,000 for McHenry over the winter, but the Cards’ exec refused to budge. Hornsby and McHenry were two of the league’s best hitters, and “Spittin’ Bill” Doak anchored an improving pitching staff that also featured future Hall of Famer Jesse Haines and 25-year-old Bill Sherdel. If the Cardinals were to topple the Giants in the upcoming pennant race, they’d need all of their best players to do it.
But tragedy struck the team in late January 1922 when catcher Pickles Dillhoefer contracted typhoid fever and landed in St. John’s Hospital in St. Louis in serious condition. He remained in the hospital for a little more than three weeks but never recovered, dying on February 23 at the age of 28. Dillhoefer’s funeral was held in Mobile, Alabama, where he’d been married only a month before, and was attended by members of both St. Louis teams, including Rickey, Sherdel, Milt Stock, Verne Clemons, and scout Charley Barrett of the Cardinals, and Browns catchers Hank Severeid and Pat Collins.
Spring training had barely just begun when news of Dillhoefer’s death reached camp. It was the second time in four years that McHenry had lost a friend and former Portsmouth teammate. Once he settled back into playing ball, though, McHenry got off to a nice start with a home run on March 7 and was looking to repeat his 1921 performance. When the regular season started he picked up right where he left off the season before, recording hits in each of his first six games and batting .348 with three doubles and three runs scored through April 18. He also recorded two assists in his first two games. By the end of April he was hitting .310 and slugging .483 and had seven extra-base hits in 15 games. He wasn’t quite as good in May, though, batting .290, but slugging only .409, to drop his numbers on the year to .298 and .437, respectively. And after hitting four homers in his first 26 games in 1921, McHenry had only two after 43 games in 1922.
But as the weather heated up in June, so did McHenry’s bat. In the month’s first nine games, McHenry batted .485 with 10 runs, six doubles, and two homers, and he enjoyed a stretch from June 6 to June 12, in which he recorded at least two hits in each game and batted .542. By mid-June, the Cards’ budding superstar had his average up to .332 and was slugging at a .511 clip. For all intents and purposes, it looked like McHenry was on his way to duplicating his breakout 1921 season. But he couldn’t sustain his torrid pace and batted only .191 in his last 11 June contests. At the end of the month, he was batting .306 with five homers, slugging .474, and was on pace to post numbers that would have fallen neatly in between his last two seasons, not as good as 1921 but better than 1920. Regardless most of the Cards’ faithful were unimpressed and began to boo McHenry. Only the kids refrained from razzing the outfielder. “When he got back near the knothole gang, they cheered him as they always had,” recalled Rickey. “Men abandon their friends in the give and take of ordinary industry, but boys are always loyal to their heroes.”
Finally something happened with McHenry in late June that concerned Rickey and proved to be more serious than anyone fathomed. In a game against the Reds on June 26, Rickey noticed McHenry was struggling to catch fly balls and asked his outfielder if he was okay. “Yes, I feel alright,” McHenry assured his manager, “but I can’t see. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’m going blind.” Rickey removed McHenry from the game and replaced him with Les Mann, then ordered McHenry back to his home in Blue Creek, Ohio to rest. According to McHenry’s friend and former mentor, Billy Doyle, the spot above McHenry’s left temple where he’d been hit by a pitch in 1916 had become sore again six years later and had affected McHenry’s eyesight. Doyle would later insist it was the beaning that caused the tumor that resulted in McHenry’s death.
McHenry stayed in Blue Creek until late July when he rejoined the Cardinals in New York for a series against the Giants. He made his last start on July 28 in the first game of a doubleheader, going 0-for-4 and recording a putout in the field. Three days later, on July 31, he made his last major league appearance, pinch hitting for Jack Smith in the seventh inning of St. Louis’ 6-2 victory over Brooklyn. McHenry singled in his final big league at-bat and drove in Milt Stock then left the game for pinch runner Eddie Dyer. Despite his successful turn at the plate, Rickey could see that McHenry was still ill and sent him home again.
On August 10, Hugh Fullerton reported in the Chicago Tribune that McHenry wouldn’t be back with St. Louis in 1922: “Austin McHenry is out of it for the rest of the season” and losing a .330 hitter is not helpful. McHenry after six weeks of idleness due to illness joined the team on the eastern trip, but his health was so bad that he was sent home from New York. Both Rickey and the coach, Joe Sugden, said today that McHenry would not be of any use to the team during the rest of the season.”
At the time of the report, the Cardinals stood in first place and sported a slim one and a half game lead over the second-place New York Giants. But it took only two days for the Giants to claim the lead in the National League, and by the end of August, the Cards found themselves six and a half games off the pace and battling the Chicago Cubs for second place, leaving Rickey lamenting the loss of McHenry.
“[The Cardinals] are a club that needs a lot of runs to win,” Rickey told reporters. “It didn’t get them on the last eastern trip. [Rogers] Hornsby fell off a bit in hitting. [Jack] Fournier’s fielding became so unsteady that I had to get him out of there and McHenry was so ill that I sent him home. Of the three McHenry’s absence I think was the most disastrous.”
McHenry was finally admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati where doctors discovered that the fallen player had a brain tumor and would need a risky operation to remove it. The news was devastating but the God-fearing McHenry seemed resigned to his fate, telling relatives, “It seems hard that so young a man as I must die, but I am ready when the Master summons me.” Prior to surgery, he told Rickey, who had become a good friend, that he felt like he was up to bat with the bases loaded and a 3-2 count, but promised to “hit at the next one.”
McHenry went under the knife on October 19, but the surgeon, Dr. George Heuer, couldn’t remove the whole tumor due to its location. Regardless, the surgeon hoped McHenry would make a full recovery. Less than a month after the operation, however, The Sporting News questioned whether McHenry would ever be well enough to play ball again. The paper soon got its answer when McHenry was sent home from the hospital on November 22 with no hope of recovery.
Less than a week later, McHenry died at his home in Blue Creek on November 27 with his wife Ethel, daughter Leone, and son Bush at his side. Upon hearing the news of McHenry’s death, Rickey issued a statement to the press: “We do not look upon the death of Austin as that of a ballplayer, but as a dear friend. He was one of our most popular players, and was a particular favorite of the younger fans, especially the young boys.”
The Sporting News was equally eloquent. “No ball club ever had a more loyal player and there are few outfielders in the game today who are as good as McHenry was at his best. His death is a distinct loss to baseball.”
McHenry was laid to rest in Moore’s Chapel Cemetery next to a church that overlooked his home. He was only 27 years old.