With the Blue Jays’ season opener on Tuesday, it’s time to talk a little baseball. Not strikeouts, home runs and inning-ending double plays, mind you, but something a little funkier.
For that we have to go back in time, back to the middle of the Dirty ’30s for the story and back to June 2009 for the original appearance of this Nosey Parker blog post.
Play ball! (And watch out for high-flying, homicidal ball players.)
Major league baseball player Len Koenecke died in a fierce hand-to-hand battle on board a small airplane as it careered through the night skies over southern Ontario in the early hours of a September morning in 1935.
Now isn’t that a doozy of a story? And I bet you never heard a whisper of it before. Yet it was front page news across North America when it happened, even making Page 1 of the New York Times later that same day, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 1935.
Scrooch closer, kids, and I’ll tell you the story.
Leonard George Koenecke was a raw-boned farmboy from Baraboo, Wisconsin, when he broke into organized baseball as a 19-year-old in 1923.
Koenecke was a hard-hitting outfielder who batted left and threw right. However, as he knocked around the minor leagues for a decade, Koenecke also developed a reputation for hitting the bottle — and teammates and anyone else who crossed him — as hard as he hit a baseball.
Yet his prowess with the bat and in the field was such that John McGraw, venerable manager of the New York Giants, took a chance on Koenecke when McGraw was rebuilding the faltering Giants organization at the end of the 1931 season.
The Giants gave Indianapolis of the minor-league American Association four players and cash worth a total of $78,000 — an amazing sum for that day — in exchange for Koenecke.
Koenecke played 42 games for the Giants , mainly in left field, in the 1932 season, with a .255 batting average, before McGraw sent him down to the club’s International League farm team in Jersey City.
Koenecke went to spring training with the Giants the next year, but couldn’t crack the big club’s lineup. He was released by McGraw on April 7, 1933, to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League.
On June 30, the Brooklyn Dodgers bought Koenecke’s contract from the Bisons but left him with the Buffalo team for the rest of that season.
Dodger manager Casey Stengel liked what he saw from Koenecke in spring training and put him into centre field for the 1934 season.
It was to be Koenecke’s banner season: In 123 games, he had 147 hits (including 14 homers) for a .320 batting average and .509 slugging percentage. He stole eight bases. He was great in the field too, with only two errors for a .994 fielding percentage (a National League outfield record).
But Koenecke could not keep up the pace. He spent the winter partying and brawling and came to spring training in 1935 as an overweight, out-of-shape 31-year-old with a chip bigger than his bat on his shoulder.
Koenecke lost his regular centre fielder’s position and bounced around various outfield positions through 100 games in the 1935 season. His production at the plate had fallen way off too. Although he still had a .283 batting average, his homerun and RBI production were half his 1934 rate and his strikeout rate had doubled.
Koenecke was also feuding with teammates and had gotten into several off-field dustups that needed the intervention of team officials to avoid charges.
Koenecke wasn’t the only problem the Dodgers had. The whole team had pretty much gone south from one season to the next, and Stengel decided it was time to retool, bringing in new players to finish the current season and prepare for the next.
Koenecke played his last game as a Dodger on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1935, when he entered a game in Chicago as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning. He grounded out and the Cubs won the game.
When the Dodgers moved on to St. Louis the next day, Koenecke was no longer on the team. He and two other players, Leslie Munns and Robert Barr, had been left behind in Chicago, re-assigned to the Triple-A Buffalo club.
The three demoted ballplayers were booked on an afternoon American Air Lines flight from Chicago through Detroit to New Jersey. After overnighting in New York City, the three were supposed to take a train to Buffalo and report to their new club the following day. That was the plan, anyway.
What actually happened was that Koenecke arrived at Chicago’s Midway Airport already drunk. He continued drinking on the flight, got into a fight with another passenger and knocked down stewardess (that’s what they were called then) Eleanor Woodward when she intervened. The plane’s co-pilot got Koenecke back into his seat, but he was soon up again and looking for another fight. This time the pilot and Munns and Barr, the other two former Dodgers on the flight, pinned him down and kept him down until the plane landed in Detroit.
At Detroit, Koenecke was kicked off the plane and banned from taking any other American Air Lines flights.
Koenecke seems to have spent the next few hours drinking in Detroit before he hit upon the brilliant plan of hiring a private plane and flying directly to Buffalo, thus showing up at the Bisons’ clubhouse several hours before Munn and Barr.
By the time arrangements were made and the four-seater charter airplane was ready to go, it was about 11 p.m. on Monday night, Sept. 16.
At the controls was pilot William Joseph Mulqueeney. Along for the ride was McQueeney’s friend and assistant (but not co-pilot) Irwin Davis. Davis sat in the back seat of the plane while Koenecke said beside the pilot in the front.
McQueeney later said that Koenecke was very drunk and “appeared to be under great stress of some kind” when he boarded the plane, but remained quiet for the start of the flight.
We will let The Associated Press pick up the story with the Toronto-datelined AP dispatch that appeared in newspapers across the continent later that day (since it was now after midnight on the flight carrying Koenecke, Mulqueeney and Davis). This particular version is from Pages 1 and 2 of the New York Times Sept. 17, 1935 edition:
Then , said Mulqueeney, Koenecke for no particular reason began to nudge him with his shoulder.
“I told him to cut it out, that I had no time to play,” the pilot said. “But when he kept on the horseplay, I told him to get into the back seat with Davis.”
Koenecke sat quietly for a moment or so and then began to poke Mulqueeney in the shoulder again, the pilot said.
Davis, sitting beside Koenecke, then took a hand. He tried to force the ball player to be quiet. And then the real battle began, Mulqueeney said. Koenecke bit Davis in the shoulder and the two went to their knees on the floor of the plane locked in a desperate grip.
Mulqueeney said the ship was rocking dangerously and he lost all sense of direction as the struggle went on for 10 to 15 minutes. He (Mulqueeney) said he had all he could do to keep the ship on an even keel without trying to aid Davis.
“Then,” said Mulqueeney, telling his story to Constable Whethered of the police of New Toronto, suburb of Toronto, “I had to come to a decision. It was either a case of the three of us crashing or doing something to Koenecke.
“I watched my chance, grabbed the fire extinguisher and walloped him over the head. With the passenger quiet, I took a look around, saw the open field with possibilities of fair landing and came down.”
Another Associated Press story inside the same edition of the New York Times tells a somewhat different, bloodier story of the midair battle, still quoting Mulqueeney. Here’s the alternate AP version:
“Davis yelled for help. I looked back and saw that Koenecke was fighting Davis. He then tried to get at me. Davis hit at Koenecke with a fire extinguisher. The latter knocked it out of his hand. He again made for me.
“Holding the controls in one hand, I picked up the extinguisher and hit at Koenecke but hit Davis. I then hit Koenecke two or three times with the extinguisher but he kept on fighting so I hit him again.”
The second account seems to coincide more with the later autopsy report on Koenecke, in which Dr. W.H. Taylor of New Toronto said Koenecke died of a brain hemmorhage and that Koenecke’s face was severely battered.
So now Mulqueeney and Davis are flying through a night sky with an unconscious or dead passenger and without a clue where they were. During the fight, they had flown past Buffalo and were over southern Ontario, approaching Toronto.
When the lights of Toronto came into view, they still did not know where they were, but saw a large, clear area with lights around it where they could land — the infield circle of New Toronto’s Long Branch racetrack.
Mulqueeney brought the plane in for a safe landing, but their troubles were far from over.
“I guess I was in a trance,” Mulqueeney recalled later,” but when I hopped out of the cockpit I thought I was about to be attacked by wolves. For a minute I thought that, instead of being killed in a crash, I was to be devoured by wild animals.”
The “wolves” were racetrack guard dogs, roaming free at night to protect the property and horse stables from trespassers.
Mulqueeney and Davis were not hurt by the dogs. They just waited in the plane with Koenecke’s body until help arrived — which it did quickly and in mass.
Within hours, everyone from the chief of police to Ontario’s attorney-general was at the scene, along with dozens of reporters and photographers and hundreds of gawkers.
A quick autopsy was done, following which Mulqueeney and Davis were taken to Mimico police court and arraigned on manslaughter charges. They were held in custody until the following day and did stand trial later on the manslaughter charges. But justice was swift and, with top-notch King’s Counsel defense lawyers, they were quickly found not guilty and returned to the U.S.
Koenecke’s body, meanwhile, was shipped back to Wisconsin and he was buried the Sunday following his macabre death in the Repose Cemetery in Friendship, Wisconsin, near where he was born.
Let’s back up to the early morning of Sept. 17, 1935, for a moment. Awakened by a reporter with the bad news before dawn, Dodgers manager Casey Stengel was flabbergasted — and disbelieving.
“I can’t believe it,” Casey shouted down the phone line, “I won’t believe it. How could Koenecke have been on a plane at Toronto when he left on one that doesn’t go near there?”
Well, Casey, it’s a long story …