Accurate or not, it's fair to say that in the popular imagination the Brooklyn Dodgers are remembered as a rag tag bunch of lovable lunks, both object of their zany fanbase's opprobrium as well as affection. What other sports team wore so sour an epithet (dem Bums!) as proudly as the Dodgers? Yet, for all of the organization's sweet buffoonishness, there have been times when an ill-starred pop-up has darkened the outfield. One such instance, and one which is perhaps little known to all but those who bleed blue, occurred in 1935 -- in a private plane, in the skies above Toronto.
A Dodger for just about two years, centerfielder Leonard Koenecke was in the midst of a disappointing season when, during a mid-September road swing, manager Casey Stengel sent him home with two teammates, slumping pitchers Bobby Barr and Les Munns. The year before Koenecke looked like a sure bet, batting .320 and committing just two errors in 193 games, a major league record for outfielders. Fortune, however, turned on the man and as quickly as he had made a spot for himself in the flock's roost he was sent packing on a plane from St. Louis to Brooklyn, his fate with the club unknown.
But before he made it home to his wife and young daughter at 2025 Regent Place, Koenecke was yanked from his commercial flight at a stopover in Detroit due to drunkenness, belligerence, and general polluted wantonness. Munns and Barr continued on with the second leg of their journey leaving Koenecke behind at the airport where he eventually hired a private plane to fly him as far as Buffalo. To know what happened in the air we have to rely on the accounts of the men who piloted the plane, the very same men who brained Koenecke with a fire extinguisher following a struggle. According to the two pilots, William Joseph Mulqueeney and Irwin Davis, Koenecke became violent and uncontrollable, at one point attempting to commandeer the controls and fly -- or crash -- the plane.
As you can see from this headline, the attorney for the pilots argued that the men were merely defending themselves from a distraught ballplayer looking to end his life. It's a reasonable story, and one that would sound good in a courtroom, but was there more to it than that? Numerous times throughout the Eagle's coverage of Koenecke's death descriptions of the outfielder's demeanor surface. He is called "a moody hypersensitive chap," possessing a "peculiar introspective temperment" who was "never talkative" and was generally recognized as a "problem player." His drinking, which was roundly acknowledged in the papers, likely contributed to this assessment.
In his book, Stengel: His Life and Times, author Robert W. Creamer claims that something other than suicidal ideation gone haywire accounts for the violent outburst in the air. He writes: "Koenecke, drinking, made his way to Detroit, where he chartered a two-man plane to fly him to Buffalo. He began to behave irrationally -- veteran baseball men say that he made homosexual advances to the pilot and the copilot -- and a fight broke out on board the small plane, during which Koenecke was hit on the head with a fire extinguisher and killed." It's not surprising that the Eagle would completely avoid any discussion of a major leaguer's sexuality, preferring to cloak speculation with quotes regarding the man's "peculiarity." But I was surprised that this bit of information is nowhere else cited. Just who Creamer's "veteran baseball men" are is unknown, and they don't seem to surface in the Dodger literature I explored. But if Creamer's claim is true, or rather, the claim of these anonymous veteran ballplayers is true, the story of Len Koenecke, though tragic no matter how you understand it, certainly becomes a lot more complex and difficult to come to terms with. To read more about these events you should check out this great Globe and Mail piece from 2005, written on the 70th anniversary of Koenecke's death. And if you're near the library you should stop by the Collection to look through our clipping files.