The Fatal Fire Extinguisher
September 17, 1935
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 percentage.
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 fire extinguisher.
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 into oblivion.