Len Koenecke: Trains, Planes and Fire Extinguishers
It seemed like some crazed pulp magazine story, but it was really happening.
The lone passenger picked himself up off the floor and drew his broad 6′ frame up as tall as the cramped airplane cabin would allow, which wasn’t much. The cabin of the single-engine Stinson SM-1 Detroiter wasn’t much bigger than a modern Chevy Suburban. Surprised that the man still had it in him to get up, the exasperated co-pilot tore a portable fire extinguisher from the cabin wall, determined to defend the cockpit from this maniac who was equally determined to crash the plane. Behind him, the pilot struggled to keep the Stinson SM-1 airplane steady in the early morning skies over Toronto. The fight had pitched the plane violently and the pilot had lost all navigational bearings just trying to keep the plane level. All three men were yelling incoherently but with the noise from the engine nothing could be heard, just the twisted faces of two men desperately fighting for their lives and a third trying his best to end it for them all.
The passenger pulled his head down into his broad shoulders and lunged forward. Drawing the metal fire extinguisher across his body the co-pilot hit the charging man as hard as he could. With a noiseless scream he easily deflected the heavy metal canister which spun through the air and hit the pilot in the shoulder. Defenseless, the co-pilot was no match for the crazed passenger who now hammered on his body with ham-sized fists until he slumped to the cabin floor.
Now nothing stood between him and the pilot.
Seeing his friend and co-pilot rendered useless, the pilot, with one hand on the controls, reached down at his feet and grabbed hold of the fire extinguisher. While the co-pilot was a slightly-built man, the pilot was a former star athlete and tonight he would need all his strength to save his life. In the dim cockpit lighting he could see the shadow of the passenger quickly looming behind his seat. Blindly he swung the extinguisher behind him and hit something – it was the co-pilot’s head. The pilot swung the extinguisher again and this time hit the looming passenger in the side of the face. With the big man momentarily stunned, the pilot drew back and swung, again hitting the passenger in the face. Blood splashed in all directions and the pilot swung again, another head shot, and then another. And another. The man took a step back and crumpled into the back seat in a pool of rapidly spreading blood. As the man slumped forward, he brought the heavy canister down once more onto the top of his head before the blood made the extinguisher slip from his grasp and roll away into the dark recesses of the cabin.
This time he wasn’t getting up. The lone passenger, Len Koenecke, outfielder of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was definitely dead.
Len Koenecke’s career had been about as rocky and turbulent as his last airplane ride. He was from a Wisconsin railroad family, hard-working men who made the giant steam engines run. Following in his Pop Herman’s footsteps, young Len took a job as a fireman, shoveling coal into the hungry fires that propelled the Chicago & North Western locomotives across the Midwest. The work hardened the boy’s 6′ bony frame and he developed hulking shoulders and powerful arms. More importantly though, young Koenecke was assigned the Escanaba to Ispheming run where he met brakeman Murray Boyle.
Before Murray Boyle was a brakeman he was a minor league ballplayer, but now managed the Escanaba town team. One week Boyle knew Escanaba needed a catcher for that weekend’s game and he asked the athletically-built Koenecke if he’d care to play. Though he never caught before he did a good enough job that he kept playing and soon jumped to another semi-pro team where he was spotted by a fella who told a friend who knew the manager of the Class B Springfield Senators of the Three I League. Koenecke took a leave of absence from the railroad and headed south to Illinois. Unfortunately, his skills behind the plate were poor for a class B team and he was dropped in May without ever playing a game. He slipped over to Moline which was a class D level and when the Plowboy’s regular outfielder got injured, Koenecke took his place. In 117 games he his 20 homers and batted a nice .343. In the fall he returned to the Chicago & Northwestern where he shoveled coal throughout the off season.
When spring came, Koenecke rejoined the Moline Plowboys. From the hard railroad work he was a physical specimen to behold, but found it took weeks to finally unlimber his massive back muscles and swing a bat comfortably. He increased his average to .389 for 1928 and was sold to the Class B Quincy Indians at the end of the season. Quincy was in turn owned by the Indianapolis Indians and the big club had Koenecke join them for the remainder of the American Association season. Indianapolis was Class AA, the highest rung of the minor leagues. Getting into 17 games Koenecke hit .394 and clocked 4 homers. In October he went back to Wisconsin and rejoined the railroad.
1929 was much the same as 1928 with the long spring training spent getting his body back to baseball form. He was sent down to Quincy in the first part of the season and when his swing came back, he moved up to Indianapolis. The books show he hit .323 for the year. Again, winter was spent with the railroad where his leave of absences was starting to rub the other workers the wrong way. Koenecke’s Pop Herman was an engineer on the line and no doubt his position and seniority had everything to do with his son’s excessive leaves each summer. Fact of the matter was that each time Koenecke returned he pushed out another well-trained worker. Baseball just didn’t pay enough for Koenecke to take the winter off nor was he sure his career would go anywhere. The constant back and forth between the mid and high minors left him uncertain of his future so he needed to keep his railroad job as long as he could. In February he married Gladys Stoltenberg which made his position even more precarious. He needed to keep both feet in, it was just the smart way to play it.
That spring he again wound up in the lower Class B level and stayed there except for 67 games with Indy where he hit a disappointing .250. The long time it took each spring to work back into baseball shape was taking its toll on him and when he returned to the railroad in the fall, he was confronted with a decision: work or play. No more leaves of absence. Koenecke chose baseball.
In the spring he came barreling into training camp and made the Indianapolis roster to stay. Throughout the season he prowled the outfield like a hungry leopard and hit everything in sight. He punished the American Association pitchers at a .353 clip, second best on the team. He led Indianapolis in hits (224), triples (19) and home runs (24). In one great leap Koenecke went from human pinball machine to top-rung minor league star. And important people were watching.
John McGraw, long-time manager of the mighty New York Giants, was looking around for a new outfielder. The Cardinals and Cubs had usurped the Giants as the best teams in the National League and the hated Yankees were now THE New York team to root for. McGraw was determined to find a ballplayer of immense quality to plug the gaps of his sinking ship, win pennants and fill the stands. Although he was in ill-health, McGraw boarded a train west and personally scouted the Indianapolis Indians’ phenom from the stands. Liking what he saw, the Giants manager bought Koenecke for an unbelievable $70,000.
When he boarded the train to Los Angeles for spring training, Koenecke left behind a trail of Indianapolis baseball records that still stand: 5th highest season batting average (.353); 3rd in hits (224); 1st in runs scored (141); 4th in triples (19) and 3rd in RBI (131).
In sunny L.A., Koenecke was the talk of the camp. His high price tag made him a sure topic for the newspaper boys and McGraw fed them lines proclaiming that his new outfielder was sure to “be a bright star in the National League”. On the field he performed well, seeming to live up to the hype that swirled around him. When the Giants suited up for Opening Day, Len Koenecke was right along with them wearing number 31.
1932 was a dismal year for New York. No matter what McGraw tried his boys slipped further and further down the standings. The Old Man was not well and perhaps this rubbed off on the team. The Giants were beginning a transition from the old-time baseball of their manager and the modern-day tactics of the heir-apparent, outfielder Bill Terry. The new $70,000 wonder-boy had a hard time breaking into the veteran lineup. The outfield consisted of future Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Freddie Lindstrom and 2 time National League MVP and 5 time All-Star Jo-Jo Moore. None-the-less McGraw played Koenecke off and on but after 40 games he was barely batting .250. Most insulting to McGraw was his 5 errors in the outfield including an unforgivable misplay on a ball that gave Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean an inside-the-ballpark home run.
The New York Giants at this time was a close-knit fraternity and difficult for any outside ballplayer to break in. McGraw was a hard man to play for and many players failed to make good solely because of his criticism and acidic personality. Besides being an over-aged rookie, Koenecke reportedly was quiet and had a fragile ego, a trait that didn’t bode well for a new ballplayer, especially one who had the press clippings and expectations that he came with. To make an already bad situation worse, somehow he’d gotten under the skin of Bill Terry, McGraw’s right-hand man. When the Old Man retired after the first 40 games of the season, any protection he was getting from McGraw evaporated. New skipper Bill Terry had enough on his plate than worry about bringing along a 28 year-old rookie he had personal problems with. Despite what his mentor might have thought of Koenecke’s talent, Terry sent the $70,000 Man across the Hudson River to the minor league Jersey City Skeeters.
While it must have been frustrating for Koenecke to again be swung back and forth between teams, he performed well with the Skeeters. The Giants might not have a place or time for him but his .355 with 18 homers got the Brooklyn Dodgers interested and they swapped Lefty O’Doul and Watty Clark for him and infielder Sam Leslie. Brooklyn let Koenecke spend another season in the minors and he batted .334 with the Buffalo Bisons for the 1934 season.
When Spring rolled around again the 30 year-old Koenecke was now an old man in baseball years. He had a reoccurring foot injury that made him sit out games, but he was still strong and eager to make good. The Brooklyn team that was training in Orlando was a miserable bunch. Besides youngster Van Mungo and the elderly Ray Benge the pitching staff was a collection of never-were’s, and the majority of the bench were has-beens. It was Casey Stengel’s first season as a Major League manager, and he worked hard to make something of the rubble calling themselves Dodgers.
In what is one of the only cases of that I’ve heard of Casey Stengel going out of his way to tutor a ballplayer, Brooklyn’s new manager drilled Koenecke all spring. Newspapers gave Stengel credit for giving the former bonus baby back the confidence he left on the Giants locker room floor back in 1932. Where Koenecke was a good outfielder before, Stengel put Koenecke through the paces until he caught anything that came near him. When the Dodgers headed north to start the 1934 season, Koenecke was raring to go.
Go he did. Batting clean-up, the re-born Koenecke batted .320 against National League pitching, second best on the team. While not a speed-demon, he was smart and sure-footed on the base paths, but it was in the field where he excelled. In 123 games Koenecke made but 2 errors – a .994 fielding percentage and still a National League record. While the Dodgers finished in 6th place, 23 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, Brooklyn finally had something to look forward to in the coming season. With Len Koenecke, the Dodgers had a bonafide star.
The off-season was spent making the usual rounds a newly minted star did back then – steak and potatoes testimonial dinners and drinks on the house from coast-to-coast. While newspapers back east speculated on the glories Koenecke was going to lead the Dodgers to in 1935, Koenecke bulked up back home in Wisconsin. The formerly reserved and emotionally tender ballplayer rolled into Brooklyn’s training camp in Orlando with a swelled head and body to match.
If you look at the record book for 1935 and isolated all other years, on the surface Leonard George Koenecke didn’t have too bad of a season: .283 average in 100 games ain’t nothing to sneeze at. Under the hood however, the numbers tell a different story: where he only struck out 38 times in 536 at bats the previous year, he now swished 45 times in only 374 chances. His power seemed to disappear over the winter and his already bad feet now all but hobbled him throughout the summer. His record-making fielding dissipated as well, and he was charged with 8 errors. Stengel watched with horror as his protege of the previous year crumbled before his eyes. The team as a whole was falling apart, too. Where the year before the rookie skipper was the darling of the sports page, he soon discovered his corny jokes and witticisms only make you look stupid when your team is stinking up the National League.
As the summer churned into the humid days of September, Stengel was at the end of his rope. Losing his cool he lashed out at his team for making him look bad. Koenecke in particular drew his ire due to his disappointing record. As September began the Brooklyn skipper let the press know that there was changes a-comin’ – and he was cleaning house. Word leaked that Stengel was trying pawn Koenecke off on any team that would take him – minor league teams. All these Stengel-fueled rumors swirled around the team as they brought their losing show on the road. In Boston last year’s hero went 5 for 8 then 2 for 18 against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. When the Dodgers turned up in Chicago, Koenecke sat out the first game then went 1 for 4 before being benched for the last game at Wrigley Field. In the 9th inning Stengel tapped Koenecke to pinch hit. He grounded out. Didn’t matter anyway. He could have hit a grand slam and it wouldn’t have mattered. When the team arrived in St. Louis the following day, Stengel had arranged for Koenecke and two other slackers, Bob Barr and Les Munns, to go to Buffalo. Len Koenecke was sent back to the minor leagues again.
You have to try get in the head of Len Koenecke to fully understand what led up to the event described in the beginning of this story. Baseball lore has twisted the story of Len Koenecke’s demise so many ways it is hard to tell what really happened in his final hours, but let’s try. Here he was, 31 years-old, been sent up and down the rungs of organized baseball so many times he had to look in a mirror and read his jersey to see what ball club he was with on any given day. He was a married man with a 5 year-old girl waiting for him in their apartment in Brooklyn. The Great Depression was in full swing and the once lucrative security of his railroad job was long gone. His feet were bad, and he’d been thrown off two major league teams in disgrace, both times after garnering high praise and expectations. With a fragile ego that was probably coming apart at the seams, Koenecke packed his bags once again. Before he picked up his plane ticket back to New York he paused and wrote a postcard to his daughter Anne: “Hurrah, I’ll be with you tomorrow.”
The Brooklyn Dodgers’ use of airplane travel was rare for 1935, especially since the three men the reservations were made for were being demoted. Whatever the front office’s motives behind the swanky travel plans, Munns, Barr and Koenecke took a cab to St. Louis’ airport and boarded an American Airlines flight to Chicago. From there they would change planes in Detroit before arriving in Newark, New Jersey the next day. It was a long journey but much shorter than taking the train. Somewhere on the way to the airport the ballplayers picked up a bottle or two of whiskey. What better way to drown your sorrows and cover up any anxieties of flying than with booze?
The first leg of the trip went off fine. They were late to Chicago but made the flight to Detroit. Witnesses reported seeing Koenecke with a bottle of whiskey in his hand. Once on board the three men were rapidly becoming intoxicated. Koenecke, who I’ve read wasn’t known as a big drinker, was by far the worse of the former Dodgers that day. Juiced-up and combative, the large-framed Koenecke started a fight with a fellow passenger. When a stewardess tried to calm things down Koenecke knocked her down as well. The former railroad fireman’s hulking size and strength made him extremely dangerous in the confined space of the primitive aircraft and it took a handful of men to wrestle Koenecke to the ground and tie him up. The plane’s co-pilot came out of the cockpit in order to personally sit on the ballplayer until they landed in Detroit.
He was carried off the plane passed out and snoring by Munns and Barr who unceremoniously deposited their former teammate into a waiting room chair. A representative from American Airlines tore up his connecting ticket and refunded the Dodgers’ money – there was no way they were going to let him on another flight. Munns and Barr left Koenecke snoozing on a bench and boarded their own flight back to the minor leagues.
Sometime after midnight Koenecke snapped awake. Realizing he was marooned in Detroit he frantically looked around the deserted airport for a way home to his wife and daughter. Suddenly the door opened, and a leather jacketed man walked in off the runway. Quickly assuming correctly he was a pilot, Koenecke offered to charter a plane to New York and home. The pilot, William Mulqueeney, owned a single engine Stinson Detroiter. The small passenger plane could seat six including the pilot and despite the late hour and the disheveled state of the man before him, he decided to accept. The catch was he would go only as far as Buffalo. Koenecke thought it over and decided he could catch the morning train to New York City and be home in Brooklyn for lunch.
Mulqueeney, either thinking he may have some trouble with the intoxicated passenger or just wanted some company on the flight back, asked his friend Irwin Davis to join him. Though Davis was later referred to as a co-pilot, he was in fact just Mulqueeney’s pal. He was also known as “The Human Bat” for his dare-devil parachute stunt where he would jump out of a plane in a black bat-wing parachute. In 1935 people ate that stuff up and he was fairly well-known in the Midwest.
Davis later described Koenecke as being under “a great stress” as the three men boarded the Stinson. Mulqueeney squeezed in behind the controls on the left side of the cockpit and Koenecke sat next to him in the co-pilot’s chair. The Human Bat stretched out by himself on the plush bench seat behind them. They were cleared to taxi and took off into the night sky.
Both men said later that Koenecke was quiet for the first few minutes of flight. Then he started nudging the pilot. No one knows what the hell he was thinking. Maybe he was just being funny. Lord knows liquor makes many a man a bad comedian. But this just wasn’t funny. In 1935 there was no auto-pilot, flying a plane back then was a full time operation. In the confines of a primitive airliner like the Stinson, any false move could be a pilot’s last. Mulqueeney told him to quit it. He did. Then he started up again. He poked Mulqueeney. Then he nudged him with his shoulders – those huge rock-solid shoulders. The plane swayed. Mulqueeney told him to knock it off. Koenecke made a grab for the controls and at that point the pilot had enough of the sole passenger. Reluctantly Mulqueeney and Davis coaxed Koenecke into the back seat. But it was far from over.
Koenecke lost his mind. He tried again to shove the pilot. Davis did his best to restrain the hulking ballplayer, but he was just too small. He knocked him back a few times, every time thinking he would just pass out in his drunken stupor, but then it would start over. It was getting serious now – both Davis and Mulqueeney said later they were convinced Koenecke was trying to crash the plane. Davis tried to fight Koenecke back but the big man pounded on him, even bit his shoulder, then pounded him some more.
That’s when the fire extinguisher came into play.
With the passenger crumpled in a bloody mess on the floor of the cabin, Mulqueeney brought the Stinson in for a forced landing on the first flat clear spot he could find. Both he and Davis were dripping with blood and on top of the dead man lying in the cabin, when the two men opened the door and spilled out onto the grassy earth, what they thought were wild animals charged out of the darkness at them. Fortunately, they were just the guard dogs of the caretaker of the country club they had landed on. They were in Toronto, Canada. In their airborne do-or-die fight they had overshot their destination of Buffalo by miles.
The next morning all the newspapers carried the story of Koenecke’s wild flight. Mulqueeney and Davis were swiftly arrested and charged with murder. Photographers snapped pictures of the two men with torn, bloody clothes and shocked expressions. A reporter caught Stengel in St. Louis before that day’s game against the Cardinals and he was uncharacteristically shaken: “I can’t believe it – I won’t believe it” he said. It was the manager’s demotion of Koenecke that put him on that plane. His teammates were devastated. The Dodgers organization circled their wagons and said nothing to the press except condolences. Team secretary John Gorman later released a statement to eager newspapermen that Koenecke “apparently was not depressed when he left the team.”
Lawyers were hired, and the rumors began. Some carried the line the big outfielder was trying to kill himself in one last blaze of glory. Others said it was some kind of murder, motive unknown. Another claimed Koenecke made unwanted sexual advances towards the two men – put into play by the two survivor’s lawyer who was probably throwing anything out there to get his clients off the hook fast.
Researching the story, I can’t honestly say what his motivations were. Some modern accounts I’ve read play up that Koenecke was a brawler who got violent when he drank, yet I can’t find any contemporary accounts supporting this and I have no clue where those writers got it from. Maybe it’s just an obvious guess – many ballplayers back then were tough boozers, God knows I’ve written about quite a few on this site myself. But the things I’ve read seem to indicate Koenecke wasn’t a bad-tempered tough guy and he didn’t appear to drink more than anyone else. However, it is known he was tanked up on that final day of his life. Hell, who wouldn’t hit the bottle after being canned from their job and faced with an uncertain future? But intentionally try to kill himself and two innocent people, too? It just doesn’t seem right, and I can’t believe it was anything more sinister than a man mentally at the end of his rope filled with so much whiskey he didn’t fully comprehend what he was doing. Koenecke’s widow Gladys refused to believe he would try to commit suicide and the upbeat postcard to his daughter seemed to back it up. The Toronto authorities fully investigated the whole incident and held Mulqueeney and Davis in custody until a jury sifted through the evidence. When the Canadian court ruled it self-defense the story quickly went away.
All that remained was a grieving widow, a fatherless daughter and one heck of a story that became a classic of baseball lore.