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 daily media and there are so many of them steeped in competition, reporters are working desperately for readers.
Public Bonehead, Private Hero concisely sets the stage for the story of Fred Merkle. The Progressive Era (1890-1920) was a time of political reform and activism. Muckraking journalists took aim at corruption in politics, unfair competition in business, and women’s suffrage. Society took a decidedly radical turn when addressing many social ills with modern ideas and means. No problem was too big to tackle—the income tax was established—prohibition was passed. Institutions of all kinds were reformed—often with a view toward modernization and efficiency. After a period of incredible wealth building in the late 19th Century, the wealthy were calling on each other to help solve social problems and the greatest philanthropists had established some of the famous foundations that did so much during the 20th Century.
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.
Merkle was a 19-year old New York Giant ballplayer when he was slotted to fill in for the injured veteran first baseman, Fred Tenney, in a key game against the Chicago Cubs on September 23, 1908. In a hard fought game, Giant ace Christy Mathewson and Cub star, Jack "the Giant-Killer" Pfiester battled to a 1 to 1 tie into the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds.
With two outs and Moose McCormick on first, young Merkle singled to right keeping the Giant's hopes alive. Steady Al Bridwell sent Pfiester’s first pitch right at the ducking base umpire, Bob Emslie, into center field for a hit. Moose trotted home for the game winning run, but Merkle broke for the clubhouse about mid-way between second and first. The modern fan knows that the runner on first must touch second to insure the run counts because a force out would negate the run. But Merkle and pretty much every other baseball player of the day didn't see it that way, because that particular rule, Rule 59 had not been enforced in those circumstances --on balls that were driven out of the infield. Up until that time, it was just a point of discussion in a newspaper article and between Johnny Evers and umpire Hank O'Day in a game on September 4, 1908 when the base runner had done the same thing as Merkle. In that game, Evers had made the point about the force out to O'Day, but O'Day ruled that he had not seen the runner miss second base.
It was as if Evers was allowed to play the hidden ball trick on Merkle with a ball that had been in his mitt for three weeks. Evers quietly waited for just the right moment to make an issue of the rule and the right moment came when the Giants had apparently prevailed on September 23 and umpire Hank O'Day was in residence.
The reason why Merkle and others ran directly for the clubhouse the second a game ended at the Polo Grounds was because much of the crowd emptied out of the stadium through the field. (We include a photo of the crowd exiting in the Polo Grounds in Public Bonehead, Private Hero and it’s an eye opener!) Players found themselves in a melee of thousands of fans--many in various states of intoxication. These fans would often want to "critique" the ballplayers’ play. It was worse for the umpires. Thus, once O'Day made his call that Merkle was out (base umpire Emslie did not see it), he also ruled the game a tie rather than continue into extra innings due to the crowd on the field. Many Giant fans went home thinking they had won the game.
The Giants players didn't blame Merkle. But the newspapers pounced on Merkle with merciless venom and ridicule--making him the scapegoat of scapegoats. Merkle had made a bonehead play and within a day or so, Merkle had received the appellation, "Bonehead Merkle" that would stay with him everywhere he went for the rest of his life. The tie game would be made up at the end of the season and the Cubs would win the game to add more fuel to those who condemned Merkle for doing what every other base runner was doing at the time.
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.
Bullying Lesson is Center Stage
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.
There was no justice for Fred Merkle, he had to live with the bonehead stigma for decades. But late in life, the press and many in the baseball community paid tribute to Merkle as a man who played well on the field and should not have been attacked for the play. In the past decade, many more people have come to defend Merkle's legacy as more light has been cast on his life and baseball in muckraking 1908.
Merkle dusted himself off as much as he could from the ridicule that followed him through life, and despite difficulties he went on and raised and supported his family in the American way throughout both the Depression and World War II.
Public Bonehead, Private Hero examines one of the most dynamic sports stories of all time. Merkle's "bonehead" play continues to live on in posts and articles that issue almost daily. The author, Mike Cameron, covers the exciting historic times, the baseball season and Merkle game, and continues with the story of a bullied athlete. Availability.
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