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Suicide letters, note confound researcher

Morning Journal/Michael S. Burich George Barclay "Win" Mercer is buried on his family's plot in Spring Grove Cemetery in East Liverpool. The grave marker does appear to be inaccurate however. His date of death is established as Jan. 12, 1903. This current marker, which may have been a replacement of the original marker, incorrectly lists the date of death as Feb. 12, 1903. Although it is not confirmed through birth records, most biographical information lists Win's birthday as June 20, 1874. The marker here reads April 20.

The three letters and one note found in deceased East Liverpool major league baseball player Win Mercer’s San Francisco hotel room on the morning of Jan. 13, 1903 are a source of bewilderment for Society of American Baseball Research member Jimmy Keenan.

The Glen Rock, Pennsylvania resident and Baltimore native has spent many hours trying to make heads or tails out of the four strangely worded pieces of correspondence.

For instance, one letter to his mother Maggie suggested something very peculiar in its closing statement.

“I thought it was very odd that the one letter said say good-bye to my brothers and sisters when he didn’t have any sisters,” Keenan said.

His mother was also not convinced of the authenticity of the letter because it was signed Winnie.

“He signed all correspondence Win,” Keenan said.

In his suicide letter to his fiance Maggie Porter, the letter was filled with flowery language and style that did not match his personal writing style in publications he submitted to at the time.

“Mercer was a smart guy,” Keenan said. “He had a rough edge to his writing. He got his point across. That letter did not match that at all.”

The letter composed to his barnstorming tour business partner Norris “Tip” O’Neill called the man Morris. It also had several other misspellings of names of people on the tour.

The final small note accompanying the letters simply read “Tell Mr. Vanhorn of the Langham Hotel that Winnie Mercer has taken his life.”

Its use of the third person baffles the researcher.

“Wouldn’t you just write ‘I have taken my life?’,” Keenan said.

The letters and some of the other evidence left behind had many people in East Liverpool demanding a deeper investigation into the death.

“The people of East Liverpool were on it,” Keenan said. “They were picking through everything.”

One of the deeper questions was about the method of the suicide. The reports of the time said the rubber hose he used to asphyxiate himself by way of breathing in illuminating gas was found clenched in his teeth.

“If someone died from asphyxiation there would not be anything clenched in their teeth,” Keenan said. “They would be completely limp.”

There are many more items included in Keenan’s “The Life, Times, and Tragic Death of Pitcher Win Mercer: A Baseball Biography” that muddy the waters when it comes to establishing the official cause of death. Those include a failed robbery attempt at a Sacramento hotel, business deals, baseball contracts and perhaps even icy relationships with some people in the game.

“I put all the information out there I could and I want the reader to decide,” Keenan said.

Keenan admits the investigation of the time was short and inadequate. He speculates it could have been because San Francisco was a very corrupt place back then.

“The whole atmosphere of San Francisco led me to believe something could be off out there,” Keenan said. “I think they wanted to close the books on it because of Win being such a famous person. They may have rushed to judgment on it.”

Even though the death was in some cases front page news in newspapers across the country, it didn’t have legs.

Would-be Baseball Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty died under mysterious circumstances of a fall off a bridge near Niagara Falls in July of that year. Keenan said that was a big reason why Mercer’s story faded in the press.

While there are plenty of details which make the suicide ruling questionable, there is still a lot of supporting evidence that would make one believe that it was possible.

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The big leagues were not kind to Win Mercer’s health. Playing in big cities where sanitation standards were light years away from what they are today, Mercer picked up many devastating illnesses along the way.

During 1895 spring training, he battled influenza and malaria at the same time. In December 1895, he contracted a near-fatal case of smallpox but recovered at his mother’s East Liverpool home.

In 1896, he came down with cholera. In 1897, it was a touch of mumps or typhoid fever. In 1898, he was reportedly was diagnosed with neuralgia of the jaw, a painful nerve disorder which also causes bouts of depression.

Keenan said that he also had many injuries on the field, including concussions and all of this could have taken its toll.

In addition to the many ailments and injuries, Mercer visited an ailing brother in New Mexico while on his final barnstorming tour. The brother was said to have consumption (tuberculosis) and Mercer was shaken by his brother’s appearance according to his friends of the time. There were some reports that a doctor had told Win that he would soon end up in the same situation as his brother, but those reports were never corroborated.

It’s possible that the totality of all of these health-related matters could have nudged him in the direction of suicide.

Although he did not partake in alcohol consumption of any kind, Mercer was also a known compulsive gambler. It is not certain whether he won or lost a lot, but it was something he did a lot of. In an 1898 game, it was reported he lost his composure on the mound after the results of a big horse race were revealed over the stadium bullhorn. There were no indications of any big losses at the track on his day of death, but one of the letters he left did mention “a game of chance” as a reason he chose to end his life. He was responsible for handling the tour’s money, but none of it went missing. All players were confirmed to have been paid in full throughout the tour and at the conclusion.

“He was a pretty big gambler for the time period the way he was spending the money,” Keenan said. “But he always paid his debts and at the time of his passing there were numerous people who said if they knew he was in trouble they would have helped him out.”

He also blamed women for his downfall in two of his letters, but there were no specifics left behind regarding the status of his intimate life.

“It’s really a sad story,” Keenan said. “He had a lot to offer.”

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The likelihood of uncovering official government records related to Win Mercer’s death went away for good when the April 1906 earthquake devastated the city of San Francisco.

It’s something that really puts the brakes on more in-depth research on the matter.

“Because of the earthquake and subsequent fire, I don’t think anything was left,” Keenan said. “I would have loved to have seen the coroner’s jury report and his death certificate. I think all of that was lost in the fire. That’s another horrible outcome of this case. There’s really nothing left to look for now.”

Although he has moved on to other projects, Keenan is still quite invested in Mercer’s story. He is hopeful that a living relative of Win’s in the East Liverpool area will read about his work and contact him so that perhaps he can continue to look for answers.

“He had brothers in the East Liverpool area, so it’s possible that some living relatives are still around,” Keenan said.

He said he can be contacted by e-mail at keenanirish7@aol.com. If you are uncomfortable with contacting him through e-mail, this reporter can put you in touch with him. Call (330) 424-9541 ext. 286 and a message will be relayed to him.

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Keenan’s book “The Life, Times, and Tragic Death of Pitcher Win Mercer” is available on Amazon.com in print and Kindle e-book editions.

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