Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fred Merkled To Be Honored in Rochester, NY

Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of a wonderful historical baseball book called Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball's Fred Merkle. Merkle was a much maligned player for a base running "error" that he committed toward the end of the 1908 season when his New York Giants were battling the mighty Chicago Cubs for the NL Pennant. Almost daily someone writes a story about a sports error that uses Merkle as a metaphor for stupid play. Those who have studied baseball history know better. Merkle was an intelligent man who had a long productive career and was anything but stupid. In the waning years of his professional career, he played four years of minor league ball for Rochester of the International League. This summer he is being honored by induction into the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame.

Merkle Game. In the now-famous Merkle game of September 23, 1908, the umpire, Hank O'Day, decided to enforce a rule that had been essentially ignored up until that important game. He was pressured to make the call by none other than Johnny Evers of the famous Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance "trio of bear cubs." Evers had jawed at O'Day about the rule a few weeks earlier when the Cubs played the Pirates.

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 in the New York Polo Grounds. In those days the Cubs were not lovable losers--they were bare-fisted winners. The character of the Cubs was exemplified by Frank "Husk" Chance who took more than his share of bad pitches on the noggin and was known to take no guff from his teammates or anyone else. Evers was another face of the Cubs, a skinny boney leathery looking man who was a winner and was not shy about working every angle to put up a "W."

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 McCormick 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. This was especially true in the Polo Grounds where spectators exited right through the field.

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 that you read about the Merkle game.

The scalding from the press that Merkle received at the ripe old age of 19 followed him around his entire career and much of his life after baseball. Towards the end of Fred Merkle's long professional career, he went down to the minors and played for Rochester in the International League. Fred had a good run in Rochester and he stayed there four years until the Yankees bought his services and brought him back up to the big leagues. In his last year with Rochester, Merkle, who was about 15 years older than most of his teammates, whacked 22 home runs and held a .351 batting average. Rochester's fondness for the great Fred Mekle has never died.

For some inexplicable reason, modern writers often judge Merkle as if he is playing today after the rule that Merkle broke has been enforced for over 100 years. Few seem to understand Merkle's point of reference. But the Rochester Red Wings understand and appreciated Merkle.

Some 88 years after his playing time with Rochester, Fred is being honored by induction into the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame. On Friday, August 10 at 7:05 p.m., the Red Wings play the Pawtucket Red Sox and in a special pregame ceremony, Fred Merkle and another Red Wings luminary, Dave Leonhard will be honored. The Red Wings Hall of Fame night will also feature post game fireworks sponsored by Flower City Printing and Western new York Dental will be giving away toothbrushes. You have to love the Minor Leagues!

Radio host Bob Matthews of Rochester's 1180 WHAM will be interviewing our author, Mike Cameron, in the days leading up to the induction and game. More information on Redwings games/tickets is available on their site.

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