Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Fred Merkle Finished His Career as a Cub

Fred Merkle is certainly one of the most well-known baseball players of all time. In fact, he is arguably one of the most well-known athletes of all time. He is considered by many to be the greatest sports scapegoat in history. He was bullied and maligned from 1908 until the day he died and beyond for no good reason. Even his obituaries recalled the "bonehead" play.

On September 23, 1908, 19-year old Fred Merkle was the youngest player on the New York Giants. He was slotted into the lineup in a critical game against the mighty Chicago Cubs. When Merkle came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied 1—1 and Moose McCormick on first, he rifled a single to right field easily advancing McCormick to third. Up next, Shortstop slugger Al Bridwell whacked a low liner that scored McCormack for the "win." But as was the custom at the time, Merkle turned from the base path and raced towards the clubhouse rather than tag 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. Unfortunately for Fred Merkle, in 1908 this rule had not been enforced, especially when the winning hit traveled to the outfield. September 23 however, was different.

The rule was enforced.
Merkle was called out, and the game was ruled a tie. A protest ensued to no avail and at the end of the season a rubber match was played for the Pennant because the mighty Cubs and feisty Giants had identical records for the season. The Cubs won the rubber match, the Pennant and the World Series. The Cubs had actually played much better ball than the Giants the last few weeks of the season and were certainly the better team, but you wouldn't know that by the stories you read about the Merkle game.

Merkle was unfairly Christened "Bonehead" Merkle from coast-to-coast--after the September 23rd game and perhaps more emphatically after the Giants lost the rubber match for the Pennant. Merkle was vilified so severely by the press that today over a hundred years after the Merkle game, the name Merkle is still associated with the moniker "Bonehead." At Sporting Chance Press, we helped Mike Cameron set the record straight by publishing his book Public Bonehead, Private Hero which you can order at Sporting Chance Press. Cameron's book sets the stage historically and then recounts the 1908 season and its aftermath for Fred Merkle and his family.

Much has been made of the fact that it was Johnny Evers, who had alerted the umpire Hank O'Day to the rule that was enforced that day. Many have written about the play as if it had just occurred to Evers at the time and praise him for being crafty--and having tagged the base to force Merkle out. Evers may have been crafty, but he was also prepared for the game. Evers himself said that after a similar situation had occurred in a Cubs-Pirates game nineteen days earlier in which he didn't get the call, he had primed umpire Hank O'Day for just such a game. Evers would always be remembered for his heads up play that day. Merkle would always be remember for his "boner" even though he ran the bases essentially the same way everyone else had done up to that day. In Fred Merkle's case, life was not fair.

However, Merkle had a long career. He played for the Giants through 1915 with the respect of his teammates and manager John McGraw. He moved around to a few other teams as his career wound down. Although, Merkle played his last games for the New York Yankees in 1925-1926, his last full and productive MLB seasons were with the Chicago Cubs 1917-1920. In fact, Merkle played in the 1918 World Series where the Cubs took on the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately for both Merkle and the Cubs, the Red Sox were a talent-laden team that won the Series 4 games to 2. The Red Sox boasted a young baseball phenom named Babe Ruth who was pitching that season. Ruth won two games in the Series with a stellar 1.06 ERA.

Some have argued that there is a Merkle curse on the Cubs because of the treatment he received following the Cubs-Giants game in September 1908. But these arguments seem a little silly when you consider that Fred Merkle himself was a Chicago Cub and played some of his best baseball in Chicago. Merkle certainly would have loved to have won the 1918 Series against the Red Sox!

Photo from Library of Congress Bain Collection

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