Old Time NY Giants Player: Fed Merkle & The Legendary Story "Merkle's Boner" (1907-1915)

Frederick Charles Merkle was born December 20, 1888 in Watertown, Wisconsin. The six foot one, right handed hitting first baseman was raised in Toledo Ohio.

Merkle was signed by the New York Giants debuting at age 18, as the youngest player in the league in 1907. He only played in 15 games batting .255 going 12-47.

In the Crazy baseball year of 1908, he played in 38 games as a utility player at the major league level batting .268 with one HR seven RBIs (11-47) .

Merkle's Boner: During the 1908 baseball season the New York Giants & the Chicago Cubs were involved in a tight pennant race. On September 23rd the Polo Grounds in New York was packed with fans as the two teams battled in a tie for first place. The score was tied 1-1 going to the bottom of the 9th inning with the Giants Moose McCormick on first base.

Nineteen year old Fred Merkle came to the plate and singled to right field, as McCormick moved over to third base on the hit. The next batter Al Bridwell, singled bringing home McCormick with what was looked like the game winning run. The happy Giants fans emptied on the field, on their way to the exit through centerfield which was common in those days. Fred Merkle jumped for joy, then started walking toward the outfield club house where the locker room was then located.

The problem was he never touched second base. Cubs shortstop Johnny Evers screamed to his outfielder Solly Hoffman for the ball, so he could force Merkle on second base. Evers also alerted umpire Hank O'Day of the situation & the fact he was going to force the runner out.

Oddly enough, The same type of play happened a few weeks prior involving the Cubs & the same umpire. Meanwhile the Giants Christy Mathewson saw what was developing on the field & tried to get Merkle back to touch second base. The Giants third base coach" Iron" Joe McGinnity, ran over to cut the ball before it reached Evers.

As the ball came in to the infield, it was said McGinnity, Evers as well as a few Giants fans all fought for it. All hell had broken loose, some accounts say McGinnity got the ball and threw it back into the stands. Others say a fan grabbed it and was beaten up by Evers& had it taken away from him.

Others say the fan who retrieved the ball, got tackled by other Cubs players & they got the ball back tossing it to Evers. Some accounts say a new ball was brought in from the Cubs dugout having nothing to do with the play.

Either way Evers ended up with a ball and then he then touched second base to force Merkle out. Cubs manager Frank Chance argued his point, claiming Merkle never touched second base. Giants manager John McGraw was furious and argued his case that the run had scored & game was over. With hundreds of Giants fans on the field the Umpires were not going to reverse the call at that time, for fear of their lives.

They met under the stands and decided Merkle was out, and the winning run wouldn't count. The game would end in a 1-1 tie and the rule would from here on forever be enforced. The next day the New York fans awoke to the shocking turn of events in their morning newspaper.

As fate would have it, the Giants & the Cubs ended up tied at the end of the regular season. A one game playoff was played at the Polo Grounds to decide the 1908 National League pennant. Never before in the history of the game had so many people anticipated this much excitement for a game.

Crowds began to gather the night before, NYPD had extra police on site overnight as the crowds gathered. The Giants made sure no one filled up the bleachers on the overnight as well. It is estimated anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 people tried to get in to the park.

People were lined up on the hills of Coonans Bluff, 8th Avenue, & the Speedway which is now the Harlem River Drive. They climbed utility poles & the elevated 8th Ave. train tracks for a view. Some fans burned down a section of the fence to try to get in.

One poor fellow was cheering a play & fell off the elevated train tracks from which he was hanging on, to his death.

The Giants took a 1-0 lead on a Turkey Mike Donlin double, but the Cubs got to the Giants ace Christy Mathewson for four runs. In the end the Cubs ended up winning the game 4-2 in a very hostile environment. By game's end they feared for their lives as they exited past the angry crowd. The Cubs went on to win the World Series that year, but haven't won another Championship since some 103 years later.

John McGraw & the Giants team never blamed Merkle for losing the Pennant for them. But the fans as well as the press did, they never forgave him & Merkle took the play to his grave. It would forever be known as "Merkle's Boner" & a somewhat very good career was never recognized.

In 1909 he played behind Fred Tenney who was in his last season as the Giants first baseman. That year John McGraw's Giants finished in third place, Merkle hit just .191. By the time he was 20 years old, Merkle became the Giants regular first baseman, a spot he would hold for the next six & a half seasons.

John McGraw called Merkle a shrewd, aggressive player, as well as a very good hitter. Merkle hit .292 in his first full season, hitting 35 doubles (4th in the NL) 14 triples (8th in the NL) driving in 70 runs (10th in the NL).

At first base he led the league in errors for the first of three straight seasons although he was second in assists, games played & fourth in put outs. He would be in the league's top ten in batting twice, RBIs & extra base hits five times each, doubles, HRs & stolen bases four times each.

In 1911 the Giants won another pennant, Merkle batted a modest .283 but received votes for the MVP Award due to his 49 stolen bases (4th in the NL). He also hit 12 HRs (5th in the NL) & had 84 RBIs (10th in the NL).

He struggled in the World Series loss to Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's, batting just .150 with one RBI. The Giants won the next two pennants as well, losing the World Series to the Boston Red Sox (1912) & Philadelphia A's again ( 1913).

In 1912 he had another big year batting .309 with 11 HRs (3rd in the NL) 22 doubles 84 RBIs (9th in the NL) & 37 stolen bases (5th in the NL). 

Post Season: In the 1912 World Series he batted .273 driving in a run in the Giants, Game #6 five run first inning Red Sox pitcher Buck O'Brien balked home a run with Merkle at bat, then he doubled to right field driving in a run. Buck Herzog drove in Merkle with another doubles in the next at bat. The Giants went on to a 5-2 World Series clinching win at the Polo Grounds.

In 1913 he fell to a .261 average , with 12 triples & 69 RBIs as New York won the pennant. In that World Series he hit .231 (3-13). The next year Merkle led the league in strike outs (80) as his average fell to .258. 

In 1915 he rebounded to a .299 average but midway through 1916 he was only hitting .237 when he was traded to the Brooklyn Robins for Lew McCarty. He got to another World Series that year with Brooklyn losing once again to the Boston Red Sox.

The next year his contact was purchased by the Chicago Cubs and he hit .297 his first season there with 25 doubles & 65 RBIs (4th in the NL) while stealing 21 bases. He got to his fifth World Series that year but lost to Boston once again. This would be the last World Series the Boston Red Sox would win until 2004.

In Merkle's five World Series he batted .239 (21-88) with one HR, one stolen base, nine walks & nine RBIs in 27 games. Merkle finished out his 16 year career with the AL New York club playing in 18 games over the 1925 & 1926 seasons.

He batted .273 life time, playing in 1638 games, with 1580 hits 61 HRs 81 triples 290 doubles 733 RBIs 232 stolen bases & a .429 on base %.

Retirement: After baseball he moved to Florida and during the Depression worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). After that he became a partner with a small manufacturer of fishing equipment in Daytona Beach. He refused to talk about baseball to reporters after he left the game. Merkle passed away of natural causes on March 2, 1956 at age 67.

After many years, Fred Merkle has received some love in his hometown of Watertown, Wisconsin. The city's main high school baseball field at Washington Park is named Fred Merkle Field. Also a black plaque honoring him was erected in the park on July 22, 2010.

In a humorous remembrance, Merkle's Bar & Grill, is a popular Wrigleyville bar just one block south of Wrigley Field in Chicago. It is named after Fred Merkle, and features his image prominently in the bar's logo and interior.


Scott said…
I was reading the Glory of Their Times yesterday and the interview with Al Bridwell. He was taking up for Merkle, and, upon reading it, I feel really bad for the man and how the one play tainted his name for the rest of his life. There were so many other "what ifs" that season that could have changed the outcome of the Giants' season.

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