This post is a continuation of one I made about Cannon Dick Redding a week and a half ago. I apologize it’s taken me so long to update it …
Here’s a PDF of a page from the Nov. 6, 1948, issue of the New York Amsterdam News, an African-American paper. It includes a short article about the funeral services for former Negro Leagues pitching star Richard “Dick” Redding, who garnered the mound nickname “Cannonball” for his overpowering delivery and wicked fastball:
Note that the World War I veteran — he fought on the French front in the waning days of The Great War — received military rites after passing away “in Brentwood Hospital after a year’s illness.”
First off, it’s quite disheartening to know that such a fantastic pitcher — one whom many believe belongs in the Hall of Fame — and, moreover, a fantastic human being garnered such little coverage in the media after his death.
But secondly, this is Brentwood Hospital, better known as Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island:
And this …
Or at least it was around the time Dick Redding was institutionalized. It was the world’s largest psychiatric hospital, with around 14,000 patients at its peak. Decades ago, such places were often dubbed “lunatic asylums.”
This is what the vast majority of Pilgrim State Hospital looks like today:
No wonder some people believe the place to be haunted. Here’s an excerpt from a 2009 article by Ambrose Clancy on libn.com, commenting on how the development of revolutionary medications affected the kind of “treatment” that went on at Pilgrim:
“The new drugs freed the mentally ill to control their conditions at home through pills, rather than being warehoused in huge state institutions where in many cases quacks dispensed “therapies” which turned human beings into vegetables or caged them like animals.
“The primitive methods of treatment included restraint devices unchanged since the dark ages, as well electric shock and prefrontal lobotomies. This procedure required drilling holes in a patient’s skull and then severing fibers that connect the thalamus to the frontal lobes of the brain.
“Physicians could take a knife to anyone’s brain if the patient was institutionalized and demonstrated aggressive behavior. Patients were either reduced to drooling idiots or children with almost no memory.
“More than 2,000 Pilgrim patients were lobotomized in the 1940s and ‘50s. One out of every 25 lobotomies performed in the country was done there.”
Today, what was a massive, 1,000-acre-plus (!!!) facility has been winnowed down to little more than a handful of mainly administrative buildings. Included in those buildings is a medical records office, to which I’ve sent a letter formally requesting the release of Richard Redding’s files. I’m guessing I’ll be denied, with administrators most likely citing privacy issues.
In addition, New York State seems to have very stringent rules for who can receive copies of a death certificate. I’m probably going to try to get Cannonball’s anyway, but I doubt my reasons will be deemed pertinent enough by some random bureaucrat.
So how did Dick Redding, baseball twirler extraordinaire, perish, forgotten, in a New York mental institution that was known for medieval treatment practices (and the occasional patient death at the hands of staffers)? Was he a “lunatic”?
At the time, no one seemed to really know for sure. In an August 1948 article, just a couple months before Redding’s death, Hall of Fame sportswriter and Baltimore Afro-American columnist Sam Lacy wrote that Redding “is reportedly critically ill in a New York hospital.”
Then this from the Associated Negro Press’ Alvin Moses at the same time:
“Dick (Cannonball) Redding, Lincoln Giants pitcher whom Babe Ruth was unable to hit successfully in barnstorming tilts with colored teams, is seriously ill and hospitalized at this writing, his body racked with a strange malady.”
Over the years, the mystery never dissipated. Legendary Negro Leagues chronicler John Holway, in a short biography of Redding, quoted another blackball legend, Ted Page, regarding Redding’s virtual disappearance into a medical black hole.
“Dick Redding remained in baseball spreading good humor until 1938,” Holway penned. “He died shortly after that. The circumstances aren’t clear. ‘I know he died in a mental hospital,’ says Page, ‘down in Long island … Nobody’s ever told me really why, how, what happened to him.”
Then Holway added: “The mystery may never be solved, but the memory of the big, grinning good natured black pitcher remains.”
If anyone out there reading this knows anything at all about the final years and death Cannonball Dick Redding — especially any family members or descendants — please feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com. I WILL solve this mystery with your help.