By Glen Sparks
Fred Merkle didn’t deserve the nickname “Bonehead.” He hit a respectable .273 over a long career, belted 82 home runs in the Dead Ball era and stole 273 bases. Off the field, he liked to read and play chess. Still, a bonehead he is remembered as, and all because of a youthful indiscretion.
Today marks the 106th anniversary of Merkle’s Boner. The best place to begin this tale of woe is on first base at the Polo Grounds. It was the last day of summer in 1908, the National League pennant at stake. The New York Giants were playing the Chicago Cubs. The score stood at 1-1, two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Merkle, just a rookie and only 19 years old, singled for New York. The hit advanced Harry “Moose” McCormick to third.
With Al Birdwell up to bat, Merkle took a big lead off first. That had Birdwell scratching his head. Merkle’s run didn’t mean anything. Why take any chances? Birdwell got back into the batter’s box. He slapped a single, scoring McCormick and giving New York a 2-1 victory. Right? Hold on.
The problems really began after ballpark ushers opened the gates. Fans raced onto the field to join the celebration. Merkle, though, headed to the Giants’ clubhouse in centerfield to avoid the ruckus.
Merkle is out!
Cubs shortstop Johnny Evers (He of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame) saw that Merkle had not touched second. He yelled for the ball and screamed for an umpire. Merkle was called out! The game stayed tied. Predictably, the Giants argued. Predictably, they lost. However, they complained long enough that the game was postponed due to darkness. (See Rule 59 below from the 1908 M.L.B. Rule Book.)
The Giants appealed to the N.L. office, and the pennant race went on. Both the Giants and Cubs were knotted up at 98-55 after 153 games, and were ordered to play off that 1-1 tie. The Cubbies, thanks in part to Frank Chance’s two-run double, beat the Giants 4-2 to earn the pennant (and, a few weeks later, the World Series championship. They haven’t won one since, of course.)
Sportswriter Dave Anderson wrote about Merkle’s Boner in his book Pennant Races: Baseball at Its Best. He offered plenty of details about the play and a catalogue of “what if’s” that may have changed everything. If even one those what-if’s had come true, Merkle would probably never have been a Bonehead.
Boo birds at the Polo Grounds hurled insults toward Merkle for some time. New York Manager John McGraw, not one to coddle in a time that saw little coddling, told his young ballplayer not to fret. “Don’t pay any attention to those weathercocks,” the skipper said, according to an article written by Trey Strecker. “They’ll be cheering you the next time you make a good play.”
Merkle did indeed give the fans plenty to cheer about throughout his 20 seasons. He even finished seventh in the N.L. MVP voting in 1911. Merkle also played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Yankees and, oddly enough, the Cubs. Later, he became a business man, lost a lot of money in the Depression, and built another business after the nation’s economy picked up.
Remembering Fred Merkle simply as a Bonehead seems a bit sad. He did much throughout his career and life to show that his insulting nickname should never have been a keeper. Of course, it’s wise to remember that baseball players in Merkle’s rough-and-tumble era nicknamed deaf players “Dummy.” So, the Bonehead moniker was given, and it stuck. Fred Merkle may indeed stay a Bonehead forever.
Rule 59. One run shall be scored every time a base-runner, after having legally touched the first three bases, shall legally touch the home base before three men are put out. Provided, however, that if he reach home on or during a play in which the third man be forced out or be put out, before reaching first base, a run shall not count. A force out can be made only when a base-runner legally loses the right to the base he occupies and is thereby obliged to advance as the result of a fair hit ball not caught on the fly