Frederick Charles Merkle. All the young Giants player did that fateful afternoon a hundred years ago was follow a custom, something base runners did back then at the end of games.
Well, if only history would have recorded it that way.
Merkle, as the story goes, made a costly base-running mistake on the afternoon of September 23, 1908. The 19-year-old's supposed mental lapse took place towards the end of one of baseball's greatest pennant races. The first-place Giants were hosting the second place Cubs at the Polo Grounds. Chicago had beaten New York in the first two games of the four-game series to pull to within six percentage points, a virtual tie.
A crowd of 20,000 filled the ballpark, part of a record-setting season of attendance, an average of over 11,000 and a mark not eclipsed until 1920. The great Christy Mathewson, on his way to 37 wins, held the Cubs to one run.
In the bottom of the ninth, with two out, the score tied at one, and Moose McCormick at first, Merkle came up. Filling in for the injured veteran Fred Tenney, and making his first start of the season, he singles to right. On the play, McCormick moved to third.
Al Bridwell, the Giants shortstop, is up next and cracks a hit to center. The crowd roared as McCormick crossed home plate with what everyone thought was the winning run.
Everyone except Johnny Evers. The Cubs second baseman had watched Merkle turn away before he reached second base. Knowing the rule required the runner to touch second, Evers appealed the play to umpire Hank O'Day. Evers had made a similar appeal in Pittsburgh three weeks earlier. By some accounts, O'Day didn't see that the Pirates' Warren Gill had failed to touch second base. Others indicated O'Day told Evers, "Clarke was over the plate. His run counted anyway."
O'Day denied the appeal in Pittsburgh, but this time he was watching the runner, and for the first time, enforced the rule. Merkle was out. National League President Henry Pulliam upheld the ruling. If the game was needed at the end of the season to break the tie, it would be replayed.
A month after the Merkle game, The Editor for The Sporting Life commented on the situation, saying, "Merkle only did what has been done in hundreds of championship games in the major leagues, and what has been done a hundred times this year in such games."
By then, however, it was too little, too late for Merkle's tattered reputation. Baseball fans and readers had already turned to their newspapers. The morning after the controversial game, the New York Times headline said, "Blunder Costs Giants Victory." Charles Dryden of the Chicago Tribune called him "fat-headed." The Sporting News wrote, "the stupidity of Fred Merkle."
After the game of the 23rd, 15 contests remained on the Giants schedule. They won 10, including a final three of Boston to tie the Cubs at 98 and 55.
(Lost in all this is how close the Pirates came to winning. Had they beaten the Cubs in Chicago on the final Sunday, the pennant was theirs. 50,000 filled the streets in Pittsburgh to listen to updates. The Pirates lost, which kept the Cubs and Giants alive.)
The Giants sweep of the Braves set up the replay of the Merkle Game, in essence, the very first one-game pennant playoff. Angry fans at the Polo Grounds who could not get in knocked down parts of the wooden outfield fence. Police had to use sticks to keep them out (The same sort of thing had occurred in the Pirates at Cubs games). A record, overflow crowd watched the Giants and Mathewson lose 4-1. Merkle's fate was sealed.
When I was a kid growing up in the 60s, I remember reading about Merkle. His name, his photograph, the word Bonehead, and the painful fact the Giants had lost the pennant made it stick in my mind.
In the coming years, I learned a little more about the story but it wasn't until 2000 that I began to see that Merkle had been unfairly treated. David W. Anderson's More Than Merkle, A History of the Best and Most Exciting Baseball Season thoroughly examines the season and the controversial game. He notes that it is possible Merkle was briefed or somehow knew about the Gill play (David Nemec said the newspapers covered the "Gill play," but Anderson found the New York papers mostly didn't). That, however, seems highly unlikely. Merkle was sharp mentally, played chess and bridge.
Anderson lays some blame at McGraw who should have briefed his players and most likely did not. O'Day's silence after the Gill Play did not help matters.
The author is most critical of National League Henry Pulliam.
"the problem lay in what he did not do. While he alluded to the impact a third out on a force play would have, he did not comment on either the substance of the protest or the application of Rule 59... Had Pulliam taken the lead of the Pittsburgh Press and directed his umpires to be aware of the Gill play, there probably would have been no Merkle boner."
In the years after the 1908 season, Merkle received support from time to time, an article here and there that would try to explain how he was unjustly blamed. But those were teardrops in the ocean. For the rest of his life, he paid a terrible price for his supposed mistake. Soon after the game, a vaudeville comedian joked, "I call my cane Merkle because it has a bone head." (Dave Anderson, Pennant Races)
Haunted by comments like, "Hey bonehead, don't forget to touch second," Merkle's batting average plummeted from .268 in 1908 to .191 the next year (OPS+ went from 141 to 48). McGraw told him to ignore the peanut galleries and gave his six-foot first baseman from Watertown, Wisconsin a raise. Merkle responded with seven more solid seasons with the Giants. He also played for the Dodgers, Cubs and Yankees, had a OPS+ above 120 five times and went to the World Series six times.
At the end of the 1926 season, Merkle retired from the big leagues. Daytona Beach brought much-needed seclusion but as his daughter observed, escape was not always possible. "It followed him his whole life… you never knew when someone would start calling out that name." (Wall Street Journal, 2003)
"That name" reappeared several times. As Trey Strecker notes in his SABR bio, Merkle managed a team in Daytona in 1929. During a game, a player called him a bonehead. Merkle walked off the diamond and never returned. Several years later, a minister visiting their church told the congregation, "I am from the place of the infamous Fred 'Bonehead' Merkle.'" Merkle and his family walked out (Anderson). While umpiring an exhibition game between the Senators and a minor league team, one of the players called Merkle a bonehead (Cait Murphy). A bully at school called one of his daughters a bonehead.
In 1950, Horace Stoneham and the Giants reached out to Merkle who accepted their invitation to an Old-Timers Day at the Polo Grounds. The event took place 58 years ago today.
It must have been tough for him to walk back to the site where he got the clutch hit and had a good career, but received so much undeserved blame and abuse. This time though, he received a special tribute and warm applause from the crowd of 35,000. One paper noted the ovation he got was one of the loudest of the day, a way of acknowledging he had been "done wrong."
The New York Times published a picture of him smiling and standing beside Larry Doyle, his friend and Giants roommate for 10 years. During their re-union at Toots Shor's restaurant, The Sporting News noticed "he enjoyed himself tremendously and was one of the last to leave." Merkle told a reporter, "It's strange how things work out. I never had such a good time. It was worth it to talk to Larry Doyle… everybody was so great."
By all indications, Merkle had a great time, but if the Washington Post's caption summed it all up, Merkle, in the eyes of many, was still the goat.
"All's Forgiven - Fred Merkle, whose boner 42 years ago cost the New York Giants the National League championship, returned to the Polo Grounds yesterday…"
Within the last decade or so, there have been some attempts to give Merkle a fair shake. Anderson is squarely in his corner, as well as Dan Gutman who authored Baseball's Biggest Bloopers : The Games That Got Away. He writes: "It's not really fair to say that Fred Merkle's mental error cost the New York Giants the 1908 pennant. First of all it was common practise in those days to run right off the field after the winning run had scored."
Christopher Bell, author of Scapegoats, is very sympathetic of Merkle, and in fact, calls him a hero for all the pain he endured.
At his website, Stan Isaacs has reported on Olbermann's efforts to "revise the record about Merkle." In the foreword to Anderson's book, Olbermann writes,
"I have done a report of some kind on the Fred Merkle story whether in print, on radio, or on TV, on or about its anniversary, September 23, virtually every year since I was in college… I have often proposed September 23 as a nation day of amnesty, in Fred Merkle's memory."
In 2005, David Stalker, a SABR member who lives in Watertown and collects Merkle memorabilia, got together with some of the Merkle family and purchased a granite memorial marker for Merkle. The plaque purposely makes no mention of the play. In SABR's Deadball Era Committee newsletter (Feb 2006), Stalker writes,
"The person who has heard the bonehead story, and reads it, will see that there is so much more than just the 9-23-08 play. For these reasons I feel as though I am granting him his wish, in helping forget, or at least look past the infamous play."
The Stalker group donated the plaque to the Watertown Historical Society in September 2005. It can be seen at 919 Charles Street in Watertown, near the Historical Octagon House.
Note: Stalker will put his memorabilia collection on display at the site in the month of September. The monument is located about 2 blocks west of Washington Park, where you can find Fred Merkle Field.
The 100th anniversary of the September 23rd game is upon us. Hopefully, a high profile publication or TV network will produce something that explains the whole story, and it would be great if the Giants do something positive.
Fred Merkle knew in his heart the recorded history was wrong, but it must have been cold comfort. A couple of years before he passed away in 1956, he granted a reporter a rare interview. He said, "I suppose when I die, they'll put on my tombstone, Here Lies Bonehead Merkle."