Friday, April 1, 2011

Opening Day: Merkle Revisted

You can never write too many stories on Fred Merkle because for every accurate one published there a dozen that get it wrong. As we begin the 2011 MLB season, let's take another look at Fred Merkle, the biggest scapegoat in sports history.

Public Bonehead, Private Hero, tells the complete story. On September 23, 1908, 19-year old Fred Merkle was the youngest player on the New York Giants--slotted into the lineup at first base to replace a wounded veteran in a game of great importance in a tough Pennant race. The pressure was on when Merkle came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied 1—1. With two outs and Moose McCormick on first, the youngster rifled a single to right-center easily advancing the slow-footed Moose McCormick to third. Shortstop slugger Al Bridwell, up next, whacked a low liner that knocked the second base umpire down on its way to shallow center field. As McCormick crossed the plate with the “winning run,” Merkle turned from the base path and raced towards the clubhouse without touching second. Modern fans know that even if a team scores on such a play, the runner should advance to the next base and tag it to avoid a force-out. The score is nullified on the force out.

No Brainer?

What seems like a "no-brainer" for modern players was not so obvious in 1908. Unfortunately for Fred Merkle, in 1908 this rule had not enforced when the winning hit traveled to the outfield. September 23 however, was different.

Johnny Evers, the Cubs super-competitive skinny-as-a-chicken - clever-as-a-fox second baseman, knew the rule and had quietly lobbied for it's enforcement with umpire Hank O'Day. Just a few weeks before the Cubs-Giants match, the same scenario took place when the Cubs played Pittsburgh, but O'Day would not call the Pirate runner Warren Gill out--"I didn't see it" was O'Day's response to Evers on that day when the Cubs second baseman screamed that Gill had not tagged second. But from that day forward, O'Day and Evers mutually agreed that the runner needs to advance and touch the base--and O'Day was prepped to "make the call." But, there was no sports radio to discuss and publicize the rule--in fact there was no radio at all!

No Go at the Polo Grounds

To further complicate the issue, the Cubs-Giant game took place in New York's Polo Grounds where fans not only surrounded the field in close proximity to the players, but they actually exited from the outfield stands right through the field. It was a custom for Giant players to wisely run with all due speed to the clubhouse the nano-second a game ended. This had a great deal to do with self preservation as many a fan in those days was able to give the players, managers and umpires an up-close-and-person critique of each game. Even the Cubs fearless "peerless leader" Frank Chance would have known enough not to dally on the Polo Grounds infield after a game.

Follow the Bouncing Ball

As Merkle flew toward the clubhouse after Moose crossed home, there is evidence from various accounts that the game ball was grabbed and tossed into the stands. No doubt several rules were broken as the ball moved from the playing field and mysteriously made its way back to the Cubs who stomped on second and appealed to O'Day. Perhaps a very basic question was: Was the ball that came into possession of the Cubs infielders the actual game ball? O'Day having been primed by Evers saw and attested to two things: 1. Merkle had not touched second. 2. The Cubs touched second with a ball and called for a force out. O'Day ruled for the Cubs.

As usual, seconds after Moose crossed home, the derby clad crowd of dark clothed Giant fans were spread out all over the field like kids at an Easter egg hunt. It was no time to ask everyone to get back into their seats --tie-game ruled O'Day, who was anxious himself to find the exit.

Merkle was boiled, broiled, baked, steamed, sautéed, and grilled in the papers for his "bonehead" play. Legendary Giants Manager Mugsy McGraw, whose temper was one-part Earl Weaver and two parts Mike Tyson, defended Merkle in every interview, but it wasn't enough. Merkle's good name was toast. When the Cubs and Giants ended the regular season tied for the Pennant lead, a "tie-breaker" was played and the swooning Giants took it on the chin leading to a Cubs Pennant, a Cubs World Series and a Merkle burning at the stake that outlasted Fred Merkle himself.

Neverending Story

Sadly, the papers had so much fun making fun of Merkle, the name-calling spread to the fans and from clambakes to church services, from opening days to playoffs, the verbal abuse never ended. As I write this article, there are probably three more references appearing on the Internet that will posit that Fred Merkle made a play. He did not - he did what everyone else was doing at the time under the circumstances. The real boneheads were those critics who knew better, but cared little for fairness or accuracy.

If you are a baseball and history fan who likes a good story, get Mike Cameron's Pubic Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball's Fred Merkle.

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