By James G. Robinson
When Giants manager John McGraw bought minor-league
star Len Koenecke
from Indianapolis for $75,000 and four players in 1931, he immediately
predicted the young outfielder "will be a bright star in the National League."
But Koenecke lasted just one season with McGraw's Giants. In 1934, he
caught on with the Brooklyn Dodgers; on Sept. 17, 1935, he was released. By
the end of the day, he was dead.
In his short stay in the majors, Koenecke quickly
developed a reputation as a solid hitter whose
focus was not always on the field. He hit well as
a reserve outfielder for the Giants in 1932, but
made five errors in 35 appearances. One of
Koenecke's worst mistakes came in an
early-season contest in St. Louis, when fellow
rookie Dizzy Dean surprised the Giants in an
obvious sacrifice situation.
Expecting a bunt, New York third baseman
Johnny Vergez charged the plate, but Dean
swung weakly and punched the pitch over his
head, catching Koenecke unawares in left field.
As Len loafed after the ball, Dean advanced to second and turned for third,
scoring when Koenecke's frantic throw sailed over the infield. Dean later
opined that the botched play -- emblematic of the Giants' shoddy play that
season -- must have contributed to McGraw's decision to retire three weeks
later. "When he sees a pitcher get a home run on a bunt," Dean reasoned,
"that's just too much for him."
Koenecke left the team five months later, and didn't return to the majors until
he came to Brooklyn in Casey Stengel's first season as manager in 1934. In
his first season with the struggling Dodgers, the 30-year-old Koenecke won an
outfield job as incumbent center fielder Danny Taylor shifted to left to replace
a fading Hack Wilson. Not only did Koenecke bat .320 with 14 homers and 73
RBI, he made just two errors and led NL outfielders with a .994 fielding
But in 1935, Koenecke was back on the bench. He continued to hit for
average after losing his regular job to Frenchy Bordagaray, but his power
output was disappointing. Even worse, his teammates began to notice that
Koenecke was drinking heavily and that booze brought out some of his less
desirable personality defects. For the good of the team, Stengel decided to
release him during a mid-September road trip.
Being cut loose prompted another drinking binge, and the intoxicated
Koenecke caught an American Airlines flight heading north from St. Louis. By
the time the plane reached Detroit, Koenecke had been ordered off; during the
flight, he had knocked down a flight attendant. Undeterred, the outfielder
chartered a small plane to take him to Buffalo, but over Canada another fight
broke out between Koenecke, the pilot, and another passenger.
Initial reports indicated that Koenecke was confronted by the other passenger
after suddenly grabbing the controls from the pilot's hands, but rumors spread
that the former outfielder had made unwanted advances towards the two men.
Whatever the case, it took fifteen minutes for the two to finally subdue the
outfielder. He died instantly when the pilot slugged him over the head with a
Stengel was shocked to hear of Koenecke's death, but refused to talk to the
media about the incident. The Dodgers decided that silence from the
organization would be perceived as indifference, and convinced
newspaperman Roscoe McGowen to call the Associated Press, posing as
Stengel, and give a short statement. McGowen/Stengel's sympathetic
remarks were duly reported the following day, and Koenecke's name drifted away