It isn’t often that the death of a former pitcher with a career record of 34-35 makes national news, but that’s what happened on Thursday. On NBC’s Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams included a story on the death of former Yankee Hideki Irabu, a suicide victim at the age of 42. The inclusion of Irabu during a 23-minute national broadcast tells us about his overall impact; he was an internationally known name and a full-fledged legend in his native Japan, where he was often described as the “Japanese Nolan Ryan.”
In major league circles, Irabu was hardly legendary. By the time he joined the Yankees, he no longer had the Ryan fastball. He pitched well for the 1998 Yankees, becoming an important part of their five-man rotation, but he was certainly not spectacular and failed to improve in subsequent seasons. Continually out of shape, he did not improve his conditioning and he did not work hard to become a better pitcher. By the end of 1999, he was out of Yankee pinstripes, and by 2002, he was out of the big leagues. He became a disappointment, a flop, a bust who did not live up to the hype.
Unfortunately, Irabu also became a punch line, largely because of the “fat toad” label that George Steinbrenner pinned on him. Like a lot of other people, I feel bad about that now, after learning that Irabu took his own life. I doubt that the toad jokes had anything to do with his suicide; it’s far more likely that his severe alcoholism, which contributed to incidents involving assault and driving under the influence and ultimately led to the departure of his wife and children, had far more to do with his sad decision to hang himself. Still, it makes me wonder about the cost of making fun of people who have obvious, even blatant weaknesses. Irabu does not seem to have been a bad guy, but simply a lazy one; he deserved a little less cruelty than what the fans and media, including me, gave him.
In the hours after hearing of Irabu’s suicide, I began to think of two other players. One was Don Wilson. The other was Danny Thomas. You might not have heard of either of them, but their tales deserve to be told.
Wilson was one of a flock of blazing right-handers the Astros featured in the 1970s. A smaller version of J.R. Richard, he could throw the ball through a wall, and appeared headed for a long career. He had already thrown two no-hitters, compiled an 18-strikeout game, and struck out 235 batters in a season, all before his 30th birthday.
During the winter that preceded the 1975 season, Wilson’s lifeless body was found in the passenger seat of his Ford Thunderbird, which had been left running in his own garage. Not only did Wilson die from carbon monoxide poisoning, but the gas seeped into the Wilson’s Houston home and took the life of his son, while leaving his daughter and wife in comas. (Thankfully, his wife and daughter would survive.)
Initially, Wilson’s death was reported as a suicide. Because of those initial reports, I assumed that the 29-year-old Wilson had indeed taken his own life. I also considered him a villain because his recklessness had claimed the life of one of his innocent children.
And then, a couple of years ago, I decided to re-visit the Wilson story on the Internet. I read that the official coroner’s report listed Wilson’s death as accidental, and not as a suicide. I didn’t quite understand how the coroner came to that conclusion, but if it happened to be accurate, then Wilson fell into a more sympathetic light.
The Astros gave Wilson the benefit of the doubt. They retired his No. 30 and wore a memorial patch on their uniform jerseys for the entire 1975 season. The Astros continue to honor Wilson at Minute Maid Park, where his plaque is featured on the franchise’s Wall of Honor.
The case of Danny Thomas was more clear-cut, but no less somber. A highly touted prospect in the Brewers’ system, Thomas also had emotional concerns and required psychiatric care. After the 1976 season, he decided to join a religious group known as the Worldwide Church of God. According to the group’s religious beliefs, it was not appropriate to work from sundown on Friday to sundown on Sunday. As a result, when Thomas reported to spring training in 1977, he informed the Brewers that he would have to miss a number of weekend games. Thomas became known as “The Sundown Kid.”
Thomas had enormous power and hit well in two stints with the Brewers, but several disciplinary infractions and his refusal to play on weekends curtailed his career. He seemed to have legitimate mental health problems. Ultimately, the Brewers felt he was too much trouble and demoted him to Double-A; when he refused the assignment, the Brewers gave him his release. In 1979, he attempted a comeback, playing minor league ball for the Miami Amigos in the ill-fated Inter-American League, which folded in the middle of its first season.
The following June, his playing days over, Thomas was arrested on charges of rape and sodomy, a situation made even more complicated because he happened to be married with two young children. On June 12, as he sat in jail awaiting trial, Thomas cut strips from his jeans, tied them to his jail cell, and hanged himself. Like Wilson, Thomas was only 29 years old. To make matters worse, Thomas’ family was so poor that it could not afford to pay for a funeral.
I’m not sure what to make of all this. Perhaps the lessons are two-fold. Athletes, no matter how young and talented, are not invincible or immortal. And athletes, no matter how good they are at what they do, have the same kind of emotional problems that many of us face.
Wilson, Thomas, and Irabu were vulnerable. We all are.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.