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Johnny Mostil: From the Hall of Fame Library player files

Johnny Mostil in 1924. (Library of Congress)
Johnny Mostil in 1924. (Library of Congress)

Last week, we looked at what was inside Eddie Cicotte's Hall of Fame Library player file. This week, it's time for Johnny Mostil, White Sox center fielder from 1921-1929 (with a cameo appearance in 1918).

Like Cicotte, it's a career that ended prematurely, but for reasons far sadder and more gruesome.

Why Johnny Mostil?

Mostil was a Chicago native who, according to an item in his file, was lectured by Charles Comiskey after he snuck into White Sox Park as a child. He ended up playing for the Old Roman, and he who was one of a few excellent White Sox players buried in the franchise's slow descent from American League power to a permanent second-division residence. He had a great batting eye, with a lifetime .301 average. He also had plenty of speed, averaging 29 steals a season, and it allowed him to play a fantastic center field, too.

He set the franchise record for runs scored with 135 in 1925, but he peaked in 1926, hitting .328/.415/.467 with 41 doubles, 15 triples and a league-leading 35 steals, which was good for a second-place finish in the AL MVP race behind Cleveland's George Burns.

(It should be noted that Babe Ruth and his .372/.516/.737 line were ineligible because players couldn't win the award twice at that time.)

One year after his runner-up season, it all went downhill. Not in an Adam Dunn way, either. Worse.

Mostil_medium He was a frequent complainer about his health, but not in the way that made Luke Appling endearing. In this case, people didn't know the depths of his despair. He was supposedly dealing with neuralgia when he showed up to spring training in 1927, and to make matters worse, he got nailed in the chest with a ball during batting practice. Pain compounded pain, and some other issues nobody really knew about.

The next day (March 8), Mostil attempted suicide. And it wasn't just that he tried it, but also how he tried it. He let himself into the room of White Sox fan and associate of Comiskey (Pat Prunty) who often traveled with the team. When Prunty came back to his room, he found Mostil in the bathroom after he sliced himself all over -- 13 wounds -- with a razor blade and a pocketknife. Throat, wrist, chest, plus a stabbing attempt above his heart, which suggests some kind of complete breakdown. (You can read the Montreal Gazette's version of the original AP story by clicking on the article to the right.)

Nobody knew why Mostil tried it, although people sought (and manufactured) explanations. Comiskey said it was all the neuritis. The press liked the one about the affair with Red Faber's wife, but there's nothing at all to substantiate it. There's a more realistic affair-related possibility in the link, but whatever the case may be, he never offered an explanation.

That said, the items in Mostil's player file deal mostly with his progress in rehabbing from his self-inflicted wounds, including a couple of sliced tendons on his left hand. He was able to come back in September of 1927, and played one more full season in 1928, but he was never the same.

I was able to dig up a couple of interesting notes, though.

The good

Until Mark Buehrle made history in 2009, the only other White Sox pitcher with a perfect game was Charlie Robertson, who threw his on April 30, 1922.

Mostil played in the game, and he listed it as "his biggest thrill" in a newspaper feature from July 14, 1941.

I made a ninth inning catch that gave Charley Robertson his no-hitter in '22. It was in the old Detroit hat box with Bassler up and rightfielders hugging the foul lines. That's the way we had to play Bassler. I was up against the left foul line only a dozen feet from the crowd that spilled onto the turf. Bassler's line smash was just inches inside the foul line. I made a big dive and stabbed it to end the game. Some fan snatched the ball out of my hand. In the dugout Manager Kid Gleason said: "Where's the ball?' I told him what happened. He said: "Go get a ball, any ball." I grabbed a practice ball and went to the clubhouse where everyone was making a big fuss over Robertson. We all autographed the ball. I guess Charley still has it, and I don't think he knows it was one we used in batting practice. Some fan has the McCoy.

Although Mostil makes it sound like he pulled some kind of Dewayne Wise catch, it might not be his signature moment. A few different articles made mention of a play Mostil made during an exhibition game -- one article said it happened in Nashville in 1925, but Richard Lindberg's Total White Sox says it was in Birmingham in 1924. Whichever date is correct, the story is the same. He caught a flyball in foul territory down the left field line, which normally wouldn't be that big of a deal. The kicker is that Bibb Falk was playing left at the time. Mostil was in center.

The attempt

As everybody tried to cut through the shock of Mostil's suicide attempt to figure out why he did it, a reporter asked teammates what they knew:

[Mostil] visited a physician this week, they said, and underwent a physical examination. The physician told him he had high blood pressure and bad teeth, neither of which was regarded as serious.

"High blood pressure and bad teeth" stopped me -- I guess for its odd combination of being both harmlessly general and strikingly personal. And that made me think of the whole Boston Globe-spawned controversy with Terry Francona and his painkiller use, which made me wonder how somebody like Mostil would be treated/covered in 2011. I hope we never find out.

The end of his career

I had seen in previous reading that a broken ankle had ended Mostil's career in 1929, but never knew exactly how. As it turns out, it was the last of a cluster of injuries that forced Mostil out of the game.

Mostil was injured three times in the spring. He developed an infection in his right foot, then broke a thumb, then snapped a bone in his ankle sliding into the plate.

I wonder if it made Bill Cissell throw up in the dugout.