Monday, April 8, 2013

Spring Openers Sound New Start to Another Year of Merkle Misunderstandings

Spring is a good time to write about how Fred Merkle was lambasted for what many people perceive as a base-running error. It is perhaps the most famous story in baseball history, but one that is often misunderstood. Merkle ran the bases pretty much the way it was done in those days.

In Mike Cameron's Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball's Fred Merkle the complete story is told. Yet, Merkle continues to be the butt of jokes on screwball plays in sports. It seems like every time a big-time goof is made in sports, the Merkle base running story comes up.And you can bet that the 2013 season will serve up more stories that will conjure up the Merkle game of 1908 and no doubt most of them will "have it all wrong."

Fred Merkle, was a young 19 year old New York Giant who was filling in for an injured veteran in an important game against the mighty Chicago Cubs in 1908. The game was tied going into the bottom of the ninth inning in the Polo Grounds. Merkle who was on first, walked off the base path and ran to the clubhouse after the apparent end of the hotly contested game when a teammate on third scored on a base hit to the outfield. Merkle was called out for not tagging second based on a rule that was rarely enforced (if ever) under the circumstances at the time. The players' flight from the field was even more common at the Polo Grounds because once a game ended a large part of the crowd exited right through the field. In those day, if fans didn't like a player's performance or an umpire's call, they might take it up with them right on the field seconds after the game. In some ways, you would have been a "bonehead" to stick around after a game!

The main reason why Merkle was called out that day is because Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers had primed umpire Hank O'Day for the call by discussing the particulars of the rule after a similar situation had occurred when the Cubs played the Pirates a few weeks earlier. A baseball article had also appeared in a newspaper question and answer feature calling attention to the rule and thereby calling attention to its obscurity and lack of use at the time.

Because thousands of fans had run onto the field on their way to the exits, the umpire ruled the game a tie rather than attempt to have the crowd return to their seats for extra innings. Merkle's team cried foul, but the press focused all of its muckraking venom on the unfortunate Fred Merkle and christened him “bonehead” for the remainder of his life. Merkle became baseball’s number one scapegoat and obviously continues in that role over 100 years later despite the efforts of Mike Cameron and others to set the record straight.