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 media and there are so many of them steeped in competition, reports are working desperately for readers. There is a lot going on, but what is getting the most attention is baseball.
Thousands line the streets in mid-afternoon in places like Detroit to watch electronic scoreboards follow the big games. Rickety old wooden ballparks are being cheaply expanded with more rickety old stands to increase capacity, but crowd control is primitive and ineffective.
In several parks, spectators stand a few feet away from players and umpires. Often live balls roll into the bystanders and players have to fight to get them back to make a play. Poor play or an unpopular call by an umpire often gets an immediate verbal response from fans who are only a few feet away. Occasionally, a player or umpire is attacked with fists or hit with a thrown bottle. A broken jaw here, a concussion there, it's all part of the game.
1908 Was Special
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.
In one of the most heated rivalries, a young 19-year old New York Giant is put in for an injured veteran in a key game against the mighty Chicago Cubs. The young man, Fred Merkle, plays well and in the bottom of the ninth inning, he finds himself safe at first base with another man on third in a tie game. When the batter drives the ball into the outfield for a hit, scoring the winning run from third, Merkle does something everyone else was doing at the time. Instead of touching second to avoid a force out, he runs off the base path towards the club house to beat the crowd that is about to push through the field on their way out. But this day, the rule that required Merkle to touch second base is enforced at the urging of one, Johnny Evers of the Cubs, and young Merkle is belatedly called out long after the play.
The game is called a tie. The ruling is appealed, but eventually the game is “replayed” as the last game of the season to determine the National League champion when the Cubs and Giants are tied in the standings. The Cubs win the tiebreaker and go on to the World Series championship – their last in over 100 years.
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.
Still a Big Deal 100 Years Later
Sounds like old new? Not really. The Merkle game continues to be one of the most sensationalized games in baseball history. Author Mike Cameron got to know Merkle’s last living daughter and he brings the human side of the Merkle affair to light in Public Bonehead, Private Hero.
And How about the Ball?
And what about that famous ball used to force Merkle out at second? No one knows exactly how the second baseman, Johnny Evers (of Tinker, Evers and Chance fame) got the ball to force Merkle out—some witnesses said the ball was tossed by one of the players into the outfield when the game appeared to have been over. Some say the Cubs chased the ball into the stands and slugged a spectator to get it back and into the hands of Evers. Evers achieved some notoriety over and above his fame as a player for orchestrating the famous force play. He thought enough of the play to hold onto the ball for posterity.
Interesting enough, the Merkle ball as certified by the Evers family is up again for sale this spring through Robert Evans Auctions. Some believe it may fetch as much as $25,000.
Merkle dusted himself off as much as he could from the ridicule that followed him through life, and despite difficulties went on and raised and supported his family in the American way throughout both the Depression and World War II. The book is a good fit with my company, Sporting Chance Press, because our objective is not only entertain, but also inspire and Merkle’s story does that.
Merkle was born in Watertown, Wisconsin and although he grew up in Toledo, Watertown has a special place in its heart for him. Collector and baseball fan, David Stalker helped erect a special monument to Merkle in Watertown for its native son.