Friday, September 17, 2010

The strange, sordid death of a ballplayer

On the 75th anniversary of Len Koenecke's death, we reprint a 2005 article from The Globe and Mail looking at one of the oddest deaths in the annals of baseball.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 17, 2005

A small aircraft landed with a hard bounce on an unlit field one night outside Toronto.

The pilot, who had no idea where he was in the darkness, heard barking. He thought he was being set upon by wolves, only to realize these were dogs belonging to the caretaker of the Long Branch racetrack. The craft had landed in suburban Toronto, not the woods of northern Ontario.

Three men had boarded the plane in Detroit, but only two walked off. One had a torn shirt daubed with blood, while the left leg of his trousers was smeared with gore.

Police were called. Constable W.R. Weatherup opened the cabin door of the Stinson Detroiter monoplane. He leaned over a body crumpled on the floor behind the rear seat. He could find no pulse. The body was still warm.

“If he's dead,” the pilot said, “I'm the one that killed him.”

News of the death caused a sensation in the New York newspapers. The dead man was Len Koenecke, who had begun his last day of life as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball club and ended it with a brain hemorrhage in the black night skies above Ontario.

Seventy years ago today, around 2 a.m. on Sept. 17, 1935, a ballplayer with a reputation for eccentricity died in suspicious circumstances. In short order, the two other men aboard the plane would be charged with manslaughter and just as quickly found innocent.

They told a fantastic tale about a frantic life-and-death struggle aboard a plane so small the hand-to-hand combat caused it to rock in the sky.

The two men also hinted in court about an untoward proposition, which few newspapers in 1935 dared report.

A case emblazoned across the front page of The New York Times was dropped from its pages after just a few days. The case has since faded into obscurity.

“There are a lot of bizarre pieces in this incident,” said William Humber, a baseball historian and author of Diamonds of the North.

What happened on board remains uncertain to this day. In a recent search, the Ontario archives could not find documents associated with the case. In its day, the case was a cause célèbre; the province's attorney-general was involved.

Leonard George Koenecke was the second son of Herman Koenecke, a locomotive engineer living in Baraboo, Wis. As a young man, Len Koenecke honed his muscular 5-foot-11, 180-pound physique by working as a fireman for the Chicago & North Western Railway.

He played minor-league baseball for the likes of the Moline (Ill.) Plowboys before becoming a star outfielder with the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association. Scouts described the slugger as “a fence-buster and highly capable ball hawk.” In the summer of 1931, John McGraw of the New York Giants paid a princely $75,000 (U.S.) for Mr. Koenecke. His batting average was an eye-popping .375 at the time.

He made his debut with the Giants the following spring at age 28, but was soon returned to the minors for more seasoning.

The Dodgers then acquired Mr. Koenecke, who became a regular during the 1934 season. He was a bright addition to a mediocre team, batting .320 with 14 home runs. He tied the all-time National League standard for fielding by committing just two errors all season.

His prowess with the glove disappeared the following season, as erratic play led to his making eight errors. He also stopped hitting.

Mr. Koenecke was a character who always seemed to be in the doghouse for disobeying team rules, such as violating curfew, and his position in the majors became tenuous. After 100 games, manager Casey Stengal had had enough. He demoted Mr. Koenecke and two teammates.

The trio flew from St. Louis to Chicago, where they barely caught an American Airlines flight to Detroit.

Once on board, Mr. Koenecke, who had been seen carrying a bottle of liquor, got into a fight with a fellow passenger. In the ensuing scuffle, he knocked over a stewardess.

The co-pilot eventually had to guard the outfielder, who was ordered off the plane at Detroit while his companions continued to Newark.

Mr. Koenecke chartered a private plane to fly him to Buffalo, N.Y.

(Had Mr. Koenecke known the history of the aircraft, he might have had second thoughts. The plane had been owned by Broadway torch singer Libby Holman, who was a suspect in the shooting death of her husband, an heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune.)

The hired pilot was William Mulqueeny, 32, a former university football player, who invited aboard his friend Irwin Davis, a daredevil parachutist billed as the Human Bat. Mr. Davis had developed a bat-wing parachute that allowed him to soar in the sky before making a conventional landing, a costume he wore while thrilling crowds on barnstorming tours.

Hours after the plane landed, the two men were allowed to talk to reporters at Islington jail.

They told a story in which the ballplayer was said to have been rebuffed after asking the pilot to perform stunts, then demanded to fly the plane himself, then tried to kill all aboard by deliberately crashing the craft.

Mr. Davis wrestled with Mr. Koenecke as the pilot fought to maintain control of the small craft.

“While I was doing my utmost to guide the plane with one hand, I tried to ward off Koenecke's wild blows,” the pilot said. “I then seized the fire extinguisher — I don't know how — and struck at Koenecke wildly.”

The pilot later said he could have hit his passenger as many as a dozen times.

When shown the battered fire extinguisher, Mr. Mulqueeny said: “Surely it wasn't pounded into that awful shape by hitting him on the head.”

“I simply didn't know what I was doing. . . . It's too horrible to think of. I want to forget it all.”

Mr. Davis even posed for a photograph in which he displayed a torn sleeve and what he said were bite marks on his left arm.

The Crown's case was presented by Ontario Attorney-General Arthur Roebuck, who insisted on handling what promised to be a sensational trial. The accused were represented by prominent Toronto defence lawyer Edward J. Murphy, who argued they had faced a deranged man.

“Koenecke was deliberately attempting to commit suicide and trying to do it in one grand, glorious finish,” the lawyer said.

A coroner's jury needed only a few minutes to reach a decision — not guilty for reasons of self-defence. The criminal charges were also dismissed.

The wily Mr. Murphy had also introduced evidence ignored by most reporters and impossible to refute under the circumstances — Mr. Koenecke had made a homosexual advance.

And that was it. The story disappeared from the newspapers.

Mr. Humber, the baseball historian, finds the alibi about suggestive behaviour aboard the aircraft suspiciously convenient. “It seems too ridiculous, a little absurd,” he said. “Why not wait until after the plane landed? To do it in mid-air? Come on.”

Mr. Koenecke was buried at Repose Cemetery in Friendship, Wis. The small Norwegian Lutheran church in nearby Adams had been overwhelmed by funeral crowds, so some 250 mourners viewed the body after a mass conducted by the Rev. M.A. Stubjar. Among the floral offerings were pieces sent by the Giants and Dodgers.

For her part, the ballplayer's widow, Gladys Koenecke, who lived in a Brooklyn apartment with their five-year-old daughter Annie, denied her husband had been despondent. She showed a letter posted the day of the demotion in which the outfielder had written to his little girl: “Hurrah, I'll be with you tomorrow.”

All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

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