Introducing… Fred Merkle

One mistake can follow a person around for as long as they live.  Fred Merkle, as a youngster with the New York Giants, was the target of Johnny Evers’ trickery that enabled the Cubs to win the NL pennant in 1908.  When Fred failed to touch base after a game-ending hit, Evers retrieved the ball and stepped on the base thus counting Merkle as out.  This infamous annal of baseball history has been forever known as The Merkle Boner but should have been called The Card Up Tricky Johnny’s Sleeve.  Due to Merkle’s freshman incident, he was unjustly referred to as a “bonehead” when in truth he was a vastly intelligent player; the only player skipper John McGraw would consult with concerning game strategy.

When Merkle first came up to the Major Leagues, he was stuck behind an aging Dan McGann and then had to sit in the shadow of the great Fred Tenney when McGraw acquired his services after McGann was through.  But Merkle cracked the everyday lineup in 1910 when he replaced Tenney.  At the age of 21, the first year regular paced Major League first basemen in slugging average. 

In 1911, Fred clubbed a dozen homeruns (quite a bundle during The Deadball Era) which enabled him to finish second among Major League first basemen.  The Giants first baseman, playing under constant stress from the fabled “bonehead play,” was a multidimensional talent, indicated by his hefty total of steals.  During the 1911 season, Merkle led all first basemen with 49 thefts.  The following season, Merkle paced Major League first basemen in homeruns, posting back-to-back seasons with double-digit homerun totals.  Merkle led NL first basemen in runs scored and stolen bases while leading the Giants to a World Series.  In a Fall Classic loss to the Red Sox, Merkle hit a respectable .273.

The Giants won their third straight NL pennant in 1913 with Fred legging out thirteen triples.  But the Giants of Merkle’s time were unlucky in October.  They lost all three Fall Classics that Fred appeared in.  However, Merkle performed adequately under October pressure.  He was the only Giant to swat a homerun in the 1913 World Series.

Fred hit .299 in 1915 but with his power and run production waning, the Giants shipped him off to the Dodgers in 1916 for Lew McCarty.  The trade allowed Fred to make his fourth World Series appearance, as Brooklyn captured the NL flag.  Although Fred was a member of a different team, it was the same old result for poor Mr. Merkle: the Dodgers lost.  He would appear in five World Series and would be a member of the losing cause in every Classic.

In 1917, Fred and Hall of Famer George Sisler were the only Major League first basemen to reach 30 doubles in 1917.  As a member of the Cubs, the team that exploited his youth as a rookie, Fred hit a nifty .297 for them in 1918.  He paced senior circuit first basemen in hits and doubles while leading the Cubs to the World Series.  In the 1918 Fall Classic, Fred hit a tidy .278 but his team fell to the Red Sox of Babe Ruth. 

Merkle topped NL first basemen in RBI during the 1919 season.  He played one final campaign with the Cubs in 1920 before becoming a fixture at first base for the Rochester Tribe in the International League.  He returned to the Majors in 1925 in a coaching capacity with the Yankees and even got into a few games in 1925 and ’26.

THE NUMBERS

G 1,638/R 720/H 1,580/2B 290/3B 81/HR 60/RBI 733/BB 545/SB 272/BA .273/SA .383

www.nytimes.com

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3 comments
  1. You don’t often see anything on Merkle’s career after 1908 – nice job. For your readers who may want to read more on Fred, we have a book called Public Bonehead, Private Here — readers can order it at http://www.sportingchancepress.com — endorsed by many Merkle fans. Thanks.

  2. brettkiser said:

    Although Merkle had a fine career, his “bonehead” play as a youngster is all anyone knows about him. He showed great perserverance by letting the scoundrels in the stands jeers roll off his back, but his numbers might be too light for the HOF. He did however play for a strong Giants team and had the respect of fiery skipper John McGraw. Merkle’s chances for eventual enshrinement are very weak.

  3. mike cameron said:

    I am the author of “Public Bonehead, Private Hero.” Fred Merkle was not a HOF-caliber player. He was somewhere between a good to very good player. He usually hit in the clean-up spot for his teams. He was an outstanding base-runner and base-stealer, and one of the first to slide head-first, which would’ve been fun to watch because he was such a big man for that era. He was a great teammate in every way. He was McGraw’s “second brain” on strategic decisions, which was like having an extra coach. Defensively, he was a little shaky. I plan to ask the HOF to honor Merkle with a separate display. The folks there acknowledge that he did no wrong and paid the most unjust of prices. By surmounting all the abuse during and after his playing career, he is a hero and role model against adversity. He deserves to be saluted not as a superstar ballplayer but as a superstar human being.

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