Born in 1910, the catcher went to Fullerton High School in California, where he was born and raised in Lemon Cove, CA. After spending his age 20 and 21 years playing in the Independent Arizona State League and Arizona/ Texas Leagues, respectively, he signed a contract to play for the New York Yankees minor league affiliates. His six year run in the minors (during which the major league teams won three World Series titles) was capped off by a tremendous 1937 season which saw him hit .325. Additionally, the 1937 Newark Bears finished the season at 109-43 and have been called the 3rd greatest minor league baseball team in history. The Yankees moved Hershberger to the Cincinnati Reds for a guy by the name of Eddie Miller after the 1937 season.
At the time Hershberger was 28 years old and served as the backup for Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi under Hall of Fame manager Bill McKechnie. Lombardi hit .342, 19, 95 in 1938 and won the MVP Award for that season. Hershberger got into 49 games and hit .276, 0, 12 in his first big league campaign. His 1939 season was incredible. In just 63 games and 174 ABs, he hit .345 with 32 RBI and a .803 OPS. He got in 3 games, 2 ABs in the 1939 World Series against the Yankees, where he was 1-2. His one hit tied up game 4 in a game the Yankees would end up winning.
1940 saw Hershberger back up his 1939 breakout season. On July 26, Lombardi sprained his ankle, giving the backup catcher a chance to play everyday. At the time, Hershberger was hitting a whopping .354. However, Hershberger struggled at the plate and made a couple of mistakes defensively. His average dropped to .309 by August 2 and he had seemed to take a couple losses against Boston as well as the New York GIants particularly hard; a game against the Bees where the Reds led 4-1 but lost 5-4 and a double header loss against the Giants where they lost 10-3 and 4-3. They July 31st game against the Bees was something he took the hardest, something he made quite known to others, including manager McKechnie. He stated something along the line that Lombardi would not have let the team lose that game.
He would tell 3B Billy Werber, "If Ernie had been catching, we wouldn't have lost those ballgames." Hershberger also mentioned suicide to McKechnie, but had calmed down and did not seem a threat to himself at the time. Willard's father committed suicide in 1928 when his son was just 18. He fatally shot himself over financial problems. Hershberger's statement, "My father killed himself and I'm gonna do it too." should have been taken more seriously. Regardless of what was said by McKechnie to calm him down, he should have been given a leave of absence from the team and gotten some professional help.
What makes this whole situation a little more eerie is the fact that Hershberger asked out of the lineup of a double header scheduled on August 3rd. While McKechnie did the right thing by letting Hershberger know he was expected to be in the dugout for the games, it seemed there was no watchful eye put on the troubled Reds catcher. It was between games of the doubleheader that McKechnie had Hershberger's friend Dan Cohen go to the hotel to check on him, since he missed the first game. After an employee unlocked the door, Cohen discovered Hershberger's dead body in the bathtub with his throat slit. Cohen informed McKechnie, who kept in what he knew as the team played the second game of the DH.
Reds coach Hank Gowdy, who I have spoken about on by blog as well as my radio show, was told by McKechnie to round up the team after the conclusion of the 2nd game. He told Gowdy, "Willard Hershberger has just destroyed himself." The Reds would dedicate the rest of their season to Hershberger and retire his number 5 for the rest of the year. However, backup catcher Dick West did wear number 5 for the 7 games he played for the Reds that season.
The Reds did something they had never done on their own in 1940- they won the World Series. (Of course, they won the 1919 World Series from the Chicago White Sox but only because the game was not on a level.) They claimed it was all for Hershberger and ended up putting aside some of the World Series earnings for Hershberger's mother Maude, a total of $5,803- clearly a generous sum during a time where the value of the dollar was not watered down. The victory came over the American League Chmapion Detroit Tigers, who had won their first World Series in four tries in 1935. The team would not win another World Series until 1975, where they beat the Boston Red Sox in a classic 7 game series.