Fraley Rogers, Baseball’s First Suicide

I’ve always been fascinated by the macabre. I talked about the roots of my fascination in my post about “Dude” Esterbrook. Since I was young, finding out how and why a pro athlete died has always been a fascination for me. I can divide my fascination into a few categories:

The player who died while still active.

Example 1. Terry Sawchuk, the great goalie in hockey history, died at age 41 after a scuffle with teammate Ron Stewart over rent on an apartment they shared. My Ur-weird death. Reading about Sawchuk and his cause of death when I was seven years old changed the course of my life and stoked my fascination with dead athletes and the macabre.

Example 2. Harry Agganis, “the Golden Greek” and promising Red Sox first baseman, died at age 26 of a massive pulmonary embolism in 1955. The poetry of the phrase “massive pulmonary embolism” has not been lost on me since I first encountered it in the 1991 Neft Cohen Baseball Encyclopedia when I was 10.

The promising player who died too young.

Example 1. Jim Creighton, baseball’s first superstar, died at age 21 after his groin exploded (aka ruptured his abdominal hernia) while hitting a home run in a game in October 1862. What’s not to love about someone’s exploding groin? Except for the groin exploding part.

Example 2. Len Bias, the first next Michael Jordan, died at age 23 after his heart exploded while doing cocaine in June 1986. That Len Bias 30 for 30 doc is so good, but such a bummer though.

The weird cause of death.

Example 1. Bo Diaz, former major league all-star catcher, died at age 37 after he was crushed by a satellite dish he was adjusting in 1990. Death by satellite dish is one of those things that couldn’t have happened like 10 years earlier.

Example 2. Danny Frisella, cromulent major league relief pitcher, died at age 30 in a dune buggy accident on New Year’s Day, 1977. Dune buggies, the blight of our nation.

Suicide.

Example 1. Chick Stahl, Red Sox star and manager, who drank carbolic acid at age 34 in spring training of 1907. Debate has swirled about the reason why a popular baseball star and manager committed suicide. The notoriously unreliable Al Stump (aka the reason you believe Ty Cobb was a maniac racist) put forth a story that Stahl was being blackmailed by a mistress. SABR’s Dennis Auger notes that Stahl was likely clinically depressed and cites that as a cause. Here’s a nicely researched article by Auger on Stahl and the circumstances about his death.

Example 2. Marty Bergen, baseball’s best catcher, who axe murdered his wife and children before slitting his own throat at age 28 in January 1900. Bergen’s story has always fascinated me and normally would the kind of thing I would write about at length, but William Nack wrote the definitive article on Bergen for Sports Illustrated in 2001, so I would encourage you to read that if you want your Marty Bergen fix.

For whatever reason, the suicides of famous peoples suicide has always piqued my interest even more than tragic or weird deaths. I think part of it is because it speaks to the frailty of human nature. That even though someone reaches the height of their field or achieves great success in life, it is still not enough to quell feelings of emptiness, insecurity and despair.

In the movie Cool Runnings, Disney’s Jamaican bobsledding epic, John Candy plays a disgraced former Olympic bobsled champion who lost his medals and credibility and as penance must coach the upstart Jamaican bobsled team. Hilarity ensues. Candy’s character has this one line that has stuck with me since I first heard it around the time I was 12.

The bobsledder played by Leon (a personal favorite for his star turns in Above the Rim and as a sculpture come to life in Madonna’s Like a Prayer video) asks Candy why he cheated to win the gold medal.

Candy responds, “If you’re not enough without the gold medal, you will never be enough with it.”

Cultural appropriation is totally fine as long as it’s for a good cause.

The line resonates because it speaks to me about the idea of trying to find validation in external things, be they gold medals, money, relationships, etc.

Suicide then becomes an existential question that I can’t really answer. What is enough? What does it mean to be happy?

So when I come across a list of baseball suicides, what draws me in, is the simple question, “Why?”

Why did Fraley Rogers become the first major league baseball player to commit suicide at 31? Was it a girl? Was it money? Was it the fact that his career was over? Some crippling secret?

Nope.

It was probably because of a mosquito.

A mosquito bite most likely led to the eventual suicide of Fraley W. Rogers.

This is what happened.

Rogers was one of the baseball’s pioneers. He was born in New York in 1850 and by the late 1860’s, he was one of the finest amateur players in New York, as an outfielder for the Brooklyn Stars and the Resolutes. His older brother Mort was also a good ballplayer and would later serve on the rules committee of the National Association, baseball’s first professional league.

In 1872, Fraley made his professional debut as the right fielder for the Boston Red Stockings, whose predecessors the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first truly professional baseball team. Fraley his .275 for Boston, who were the best team in baseball and would win the pennant. At age 22, Rogers was a budding star, but chose to retire instead to take a professional position.

He moved to New York in the late 1870’s, where to took a position as a clerk and salesman for a fruit magnate named Leopold Schepp. (I miss the days when fruit magnate was a career path). While the position was a good one, it would have a direct impact on his ensuing suicide.

As part of his job, he traveled the country (and possibly overseas) selling fruit. Sometime in 1880, he contracted malaria. Since the most common method of transmission is due to a mosquito bite, it seems likely that this is how Rogers acquired the disease.

Rogers came down with a malaria induced fever. He also became depressed and was described as having a “deranged mind.”

On the fateful day of May 10, 1881, Fraley W. Rogers woke up from his bed, stood in front of his mirror of his reception room, and shot himself in the head.

When I looked up newspapers accounts of the suicide, what stood out to me was how varied the tone of each account was. The New York Sun account was delicate and titled like a Victorian morality play: “A Trusted Clerk’s Suicide.”

New York Sun May 11, 1881

Meanwhile, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle countered with the Heavy Metal sounding: “Victims of Self Destruction.” Pretty sure that’s a Sepultura B-side. The phrase “shot himself through the head this morning” is strangely explicit.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle May 11, 1881

The Baltimore Sun commented on Rogers’ passing under the title: “Suicides and Robbery in New York.” It’s also pretty solid late-70’s No Wave compilation.

Baltimore Sun May 11, 1881

Meanwhile, the Wilmington Morning News pulled no punches, going all in on the gore:

Wilmington Morning News May 14, 1881

Tell us how you really feel Delaware. Say what you want about Delaware, and really their is so much to say about Delaware:

But they love their blood and guts sensationalism.

It’s quite jarring to read the phrase “blew his brains out on Tuesday” in a newspaper from 1881. Whatever happened to that Victorian civility I always heard about?

Sadly, Fraley’s older brother Mort passed away three days later, reportedly in shock due to his brother’s suicide. Their mother is believed to have died later that year as well.

According to Bill Deane’s study of baseball suicides, the suicide death of Fraley W. Rogers by gunshot in a malarial fever induced depression, is the earliest known example of a professional baseball player committing suicide.

There is always a first. Even when it comes to suicide.

Fraley in his salad days