Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Fred Merkle Story

Public Bonehead, Private Hero is about one of the most interesting years and events in baseball and American history.  The year is 1908 in the midst of the Progressive Era. Teddy Roosevelt is in office.  There is no radio or television. The Wright brothers are working hard to show that flight might just work for more than a few minutes.  Ford is offering the first affordable car in history, his Model T.  Newspapers are essentially the daily media and there are so many of them steeped in competition, reporters are working desperately for readers.  

Merkle Game

Merkle was a 19-year old New York Giant ballplayer when he was slotted to fill in for the injured veteran first baseman, Fred Tenney, in a key game against the Chicago Cubs on September 23, 1908.  In a hard fought game, Giant ace Christy Mathewson and Cub star, Jack "the Giant-Killer" Pfiester battled to a 1 to 1 tie into the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds. 

With two outs and Moose McCormick on first, young Merkle singled to right keeping the Giant's hopes alive.  Steady Al Bridwell sent Pfiester’s first pitch right at the ducking base umpire, Bob Emslie, into center field for a hit.  Moose trotted home for the game winning run, but Merkle broke for the clubhouse about mid-way between second and first.  The modern fan knows that the runner on first must touch second to insure the run counts because a force out would negate the run.  But Merkle and pretty much every other baseball player of the day didn't see it that way, because that particular rule, Rule 59 had not been enforced in those circumstances --on balls that were driven out of the infield.  Up until that time, it was just a point of discussion in a newspaper article and between Johnny Evers and umpire Hank O'Day in a game on September 4, 1908 when the base runner had done the same thing as Merkle.  In that game, Evers had made the point about the force out to O'Day, but O'Day ruled that he had not seen the runner miss second base. 

It was as if Evers was allowed to play the hidden ball trick on Merkle with a ball that had been in his mitt for three weeks.  Evers quietly waited for just the right moment to make an issue of the rule and the right moment came when the Giants had apparently prevailed on September 23 and umpire Hank O'Day was in residence. 

The reason why Merkle and others ran directly for the clubhouse the second a game ended at the Polo Grounds was because much of the crowd emptied out of the stadium through the field.  (We include a photo of the crowd exiting in the Polo Grounds in Public Bonehead, Private Hero and it’s an eye opener!)  Players found themselves in a melee of thousands of fans--many in various states of intoxication. These fans would often want to "critique" the ballplayers’ play. It was worse for the umpires.  Thus, once O'Day made his call that Merkle was out (base umpire Emslie did not see it), he also ruled the game a tie rather than continue into extra innings due to the crowd on the field.  Many Giant fans went home thinking they had won the game. 

The Giants players didn't blame Merkle. But the newspapers pounced on Merkle with merciless venom and ridicule--making him the scapegoat of scapegoats.  Merkle had made a bonehead play and within a day or so, Merkle had received the appellation, "Bonehead Merkle" that would stay with him everywhere he went for the rest of his life.  The tie game would be made up at the end of the season and the Cubs would win the game to add more fuel to those who condemned Merkle for doing what every other base runner was doing at the time. 

A normal run of the mill baseball season would have American fans buzzing about their team, their heroes and their games. But 1908 turns out to be something special. In both the American and the National Leagues, several teams are neck and neck in the standings as the season winds down.

Public Bonehead, Private Hero is about American history and culture, baseball, society, and the tragic media and fan attack on Fred Merkle.  After the “Merkle” game, the newspapers hung poor Fred Merkle out to dry and christened him bonehead for life.  Merkle dusted himself off as much as he could from the ridicule that followed him through life, and despite difficulties he went on and raised and supported his family in the American way throughout both the Depression and World War II.  

Public Bonehead, Private Hero reveals how Baseball fans and the press never tired of recounting the “bonehead episode” and seeing Merkle relive the ignominy.  The book discloses that the cartoon character that was Fred Merkle in the public eye was the opposite of the sensitive intelligent man who went on with his life and career with courage and determination. Available online.