Cheap Seats

Austin McHenry, an earlier day Oscar Taveras

It seems there is nothing we can do to keep history from repeating itself.

Unfortunately, Oscar Tavares isn't the first St. Louis Cardinals outfielder to tragically lose his life at a far too young age.

Nearly 100 years ago, the Redbirds had another 22-year-old outfielder who seemed destined to be a great player -- only to have his life cut short. Austin McHenry, a left handed swinger with a productive bat much like Taveras, crashed onto the big league scene in 1918. The similarities are eerie:

McHenry was a guy who had a huge amount of natural talent that showed through even though his game wasn't as polished as some would like. When he played Class D ball for the Portsmouth Cobblers in the Ohio State League one newspaper described his defensive play by saying McHenry "wasn't on speaking terms with the finer points of the National Game." But of his offense, the Portsmouth Daily Times wrote he was "a veritable demon at the bat."

Despite his raw state, McHenry was appreciated as an enthusiastic young kid was was eager to learn. He often made up for technical shortcomings with pure talent.

The Cardinals quickly became enamored with McHenry who passed more highly-touted prospects in the Cardinals food chain to earn a starting job in the St. Louis outfield in 1919. By 1921 McHenry graduated to superstar status, hitting .350 in the big leagues with 17 homers, an extremely respectable total in those days and 102 RBIs.

Like with Tavares was the last two years, McHenry became a target of competitors who sought to steal him away in trade or by outright purchase. The Cincinnati Reds offered St. Louis general manager Branch Rickey $25,000 for McHenry while John McGraw's New York Giants offered $50,000.

Rickey insisted McHenry wasn't available at any cost.

It seemed that St. Louis legend Rogers Hornsby had some competition on his hands as the Cardinals' best player and McHenry might finally be the piece that St. Louis needed to get over the hump to move from a second division club to a legitimate contender.

But in the middle part of the 1922 season, with McHenry hitting .303 through 64 games, McHenry told Rickey that he was having problems with his vision.

McHenry was sent home to Ohio to rest. But it was eventually determined that he had a brain tumor and just a few months later he was dead. The biggest Cardinals prospect since Hornsby, McHenry played in only 543 MLB games. But he was claimed to be one of the best left fielders of all-time by sports writers of his day.

Unfortunately, McHenry's death wasn't the only tragedy for the Redbirds of the 1920s. His teammate, catcher William "Pickles" Dillhoefer, contracted Typhoid fever in 1922 and died shortly before the start of the baseball season. Two major league players dead in the prime of their lives in the span of less than a year.

  Comments