The circumstances surrounding outfielder Len Koenecke’s death in the skies above Toronto seem almost too crazy to be true.
The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.
For a major-league baseball player, getting sent down to the minors can’t be easy. (Just ask former Blue Jay ace Ricky Romero.) By no means, though, does it necessarily spell the end of a professional career. After making the bigs, both Babe Ruth and Harmon Killebrew did stints in the minors before ultimately finding fame and success.
If only the same could be said for Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Len Koenecke, whose grisly death in the skies above Toronto has become the stuff of legend.
A Wisconsin native and former railroad fireman, the strapping Koenecke began his professional career in the minors in 1927. Known as a ball hawk on the field and a home-run hitter at the plate, he batted an impressive .394 in 1928, with the Indianapolis Indians.
That kind of talent wouldn’t go unnoticed. Scouted by John McGraw’s New York Giants, Koenecke made his MLB debut with that team in 1932. After 42 games with the Giants, he returned to the minors for additional seasoning.
After a season away from the show, the Brooklyn Dodgers acquired Koenecke, a promising addition to the 1934 roster; that year, he battered .320 with 14 home runs.
Unfortunately for Koenecke, the following season was a bust. Because of a shoulder injury, his fielding skills vanished, as did his power at the plate.
If it had been any other player, manager Casey Stengel may have toughed it out, but Koenecke’s off-field antics made this difficult. Belligerent and with a reputation for excessive drinking, Koenecke routinely violated curfew, causing conflict with coaching staff.
On September 16, 1935, Brooklyn played the Cardinals in St. Louis. Koenecke watched the game from the dugout. After the match, Stengel informed Koenecke he’d been cut from the Dodgers organization. His contract had been optioned to the Rochester Red Wings of the International League.
Koenecke was beside himself.
While arrangements were finalized to fly Koenecke east to New York, with a stopover in Chicago, the despondent ballplayer consumed copious amounts of alcohol.
On the flight from Chicago, the plane made an unscheduled landing in Detroit after Koenecke had become belligerent with passengers and assaulted a flight attendant.
In the departure lounge, under police supervision, Koenecke no longer appeared inebriated. Wishing to continue his travels east, the dejected ballplayer only had enough funds for a flight to Buffalo. At 9:30 that evening Koenecke boarded an airplane departing for the Queen City.
Things were about to take a terrible turn.
The flight was piloted by veteran airman Joseph Mulqueeney. Irwin Davis, a friend of Mulqueeney’s and a fellow pilot, asked to tag along.
Except for Koenecke requesting Mulqueeney perform stunts after the plane’s initial departure, the flight began uneventfully. According to a 1935 edition of the Star, the pilots were following a course parallel to the north shore of Lake Erie over southern Ontario when suddenly, and without warning, Koenecke went berserk, grabbing the controls and attempting to crash the Stinson Detroiter monoplane.
Mulqueeney fought back. Locked in a life-and-death struggle with the deranged ballplayer, he managed to fend off Koenecke while keeping the four-seater plane airborne at one-hundred and thirty miles per hour. Witnesses on the ground reported seeing the plane pitching wildly, and at one point coming dangerously close to crashing.
The cockpit chaos lasted an unfathomable two hours. The struggle finally culminated after Mulqueeney abandoned the controls altogether, subduing the crazed Koenecke by smashing his head with the blunt end of a fire extinguisher.
With Koenecke out cold, Mulqueeney regained control of the plane, now hopelessly off course. Fearing a second round should Koenecke come to, Mulqueeney hurriedly scanned the landscape, searching desperately for a place to put down.
Aided by moonlight, the pilot spotted the infield of the Long Branch racetrack near Evans and Kipling Avenues. It was a bumpy landing, but, relieved to be back on terra firma, Mulqueeney and Davis exited the airplane in haste.
Soon after, authorities arrived and were shocked by the macabre scene inside the blood-spattered cabin. Facial features barely discernible, Koenecke sat slumped in his seat, showing no signs of life. Bloodied, bruised, and covered with bite marks, Mulqueeney and Davis emerged from the darkness.
Disoriented, they asked, “Where are we?”
Bewildered by the news of Koenecke’s cross-border demise, Casey Stengel asked a reporter from the New York Times, “How could Koenecke have been on a plane at Toronto when he left on one that doesn’t go near there?”
Mulqueeney and Davis faced manslaughter charges. Held without bail, they were placed in cells at the Islington police station.
An autopsy concluded that Koenecke died before the plane touched down, the cause of death a cerebral hemorrhage.
The tragic incident was a first in North American commercial aviation history. Because the airplane was registered in the United States and the assault took place in Canadian airspace, authorities were unsure how to proceed. No laws existed concerning such occurrences. The aircraft, now a crime scene, remained at the Long Branch racetrack under RCMP guard.
Interest in the case was immense. The Attorney General of Ontario himself, Arthur Roebuck, would represent the Crown at the trial. After evidence was presented at a preliminary hearing, however, the case for self defense was obvious. The two Americans were found not guilty and released.
Len Koenecke left behind family in Wisconsin and a wife and young daughter in New York City. In honour of their deceased teammate, the Dodgers wore black armbands at their next game.
Additional material and images from the September 17, 1935 edition of the Toronto Star.