Over a hundred years later, you would still be hard pressed to find a sports tale as depressing as this one…
The Pirates finished with the best record in the National League in 1900.
The World Series had not started yet, but a newspaper decided to give the Chronicle-Telegraph Cup to the winner of a best-of-5-game AL-NL championship. The Pirates lost the Cup, but you have probably heard of the Chronicle-Telegraph, which was eventually bought by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Midway through the next year, in 1901, the Bucs traded for a 27-year old pitcher with a good curveball named Edward Doheny. The southpaw’s hook was apparently so good he led the league in hit batsmen and wild pitches a few years earlier. Basically the kind of guy you would expect the Bucs to sign today. He had at least managed to keep his ERA under 6.66 since his rookie season though.
Doheny pitched well for the rest of the summer and into the next. He managed a 2.53 ERA over 188.1 innings in 1902, making him one of the top pitchers on the team. Unfortunately, the Chronicle-Telegraph Cup was not held in 1901 or 1902 because teams from a third league—the Western League—had started buying off players from American League teams. The WL was so successful that it essentially put the AL out of business, and then promptly changed its name from the Western League to the American League. If they were trying to confuse everyone, it worked, but it created enough of a mess to end any hopes of a real championship.
(After the Bucs finished with the best record in 1902, their owner Barney Dreyfuss challenged a group of AL All-Stars to a series of exhibition games. Doheny hurt his ankle and never got to pitch, but the Pirates won.)
The (new) AL and NL worked out some issues before the 1903 season, but in July something happened: Doheny developed a ‘dead arm.’ His curveball stopped working, and he stopped being such a nice guy. He started drinking. He argued with teammates. “Convinced he was being followed by detectives” he up and left the team in the middle of the season without a word to anyone.
Even without his curveball, Doheny was good enough to make a comeback. But when told he would not be pitching in the World Series, Doheny instantly became erratic and started punching his teammates. The police were called and they took Doheny directly to an Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
It seems strange now, but insane asylums and spending time in them were much more common during that period. Doheny rejoined the team after a few weeks off, but his paranoia eventually drove him back home to Massachusetts where he was put under constant care of a doctor.
A few weeks later, Doheny received a package in the mail containing his jersey. He took it as a sign that he was being welcomed back to pitch. Unfortunately the jersey was misinterpreted, as a few teammates had sent it merely thinking it would cheer Doheny up to see it.
Soon after Cy Young defeated the Pirates in the seventh game of the best-of-9-game World Series, bringing the Bucs within one game of elimination. Upon learning of the loss, Doheny informed his doctor that his services would no longer be needed. The doctor thought he was joking—until Doheny whacked his nurse upside the head with a fire iron. After the nurse had lost consciousness, Doheny destroyed much of his house and threatened to kill the next man who tried to stop him. Armed with the fire iron, he held the police at bay for an hour.
Doheny was immediately taken back to the Asylum, where he died 13 years later.