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, McCormick moved over to third base on the hit. An actual photo of Merkle leading off first base in the 9th inning was found a century later. In the picture the Cubs Frank Chance hold Merkle on girst base.

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.

Manager John McGraw & his Giants teammates never blamed Merkle for losing the Pennant for them. His teammate Chief Bender called him "the smartest man on the team". Others called him "a gentleman & a scholar".

But the fans & the press did, they never forgave him for it, as poor Merkle took it to his grave. The play & the game would forever be known as "Merkle's Boner". He was also labeled "leather skull" & "Ivory Pete". 

Sadly, his very good career was never recognized as it should have.

After the Controversy: In 1909 Fred 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, as 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. 

In 1910 Merkle hit .292 in his first full season, hitting 35 doubles (4th in the NL) 14 triples (8th in the NL) He drove in 70 runs which was tenth in the NL. He would be in the league's top ten in RBIs the next three years in a row. 

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. 

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, which was fifth most in the NL. He would be in the top five of the league two straight years. He also drove in 84 runs.

1911 World Series: In the World Series loss to Connie Mack's A's, Merkle struggled batting just .150 with one RBI. 

 The Giants win the next two NL pennants as well, losing in the World Series to the Boston Red Sox (1912) & Philadelphia A's again (1913).

In 1912 Merkle had another big year batting .309 third best on the Giants to Jack Meyers (.358) & the leagues would be MVP- Larry Doyle (.330).

Merkle hit 11 HRs (3rd in the NL) with 22 doubles & 84 RBIs (9th in the NL). He was one of six Giants to steal 30 or more bases that year with 37 steals (5th in the NL). 

1912 World Series: In the 1912 World Series after hitting poorly in the first five games, he had five hits in the last three games.

In Game #6 Merkle doubled off Red Sox pitcher Buck O'Brien in the Giants five run 1st inning. O'Brien also balked in a run during Merkle's at bat. Buck Herzog drove in Merkle with another double in the next at bat. The Giants went on to a 5-2 win at the Polo Grounds. 

Fred Snodgrass' Error & Giants Blow Series: In Game #8 at Fenway Park, Merkle drove in the go-ahead run in the top of the 12th inning with an RBI single off Smoky Joe Wood. But in the bottom of the inning, teammate Fred Snodgrass muffed a fly ball in another infamous Giants error. 

After pitching legend, Christy Mathewson walked Steve Yerkes, Tris Speaker hit a foul ball that Merkle backed away from after Mathewson called him off. The ball dropped; Speaker then hit a sac fly bringing in the walk off Series winning run.

The press was all over Merkle again, blaming him for not grabbing the foul ball. 

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. 

1913 World Series: In the four-game sweep by Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's, Merkle hit a three run HR off Charles Bender in Game #3.

From 1915 to 1918 Merkle would be in the league's top ten in batting twice.

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.

1916 World Series: Merkle played in three games of the Series loss to Boston going 1-3 with an RBI & two walks.

The next year his contact was purchased by the Chicago Cubs & he hit .297 his first season at Wrigley Field with 25 doubles & 65 RBIs (4th in the NL) while stealing 21 bases. He got to his fifth World Series that year. 

1918 World Series: This year the Cubs lost the World Series to the Boston Red Sox; this was the last championship for the Red Sox until 2004, a long 86 years later. Merkle played in all six games, batting .278 with five hits & four walks.

Merkle finished out his 16-year career with the AL New York club playing in 18 games over the 1925 & 1926 seasons.

Career Stats: In his 16-year career, Merkle batted .273 lifetime, with 1580 hits 720 runs scored 290 doubles 81 triples 61 HRs & 733 RBIs with 232 stolen bases. He struck out 645 times walked 454 times with a .429 on base % & .890 OPS playing in 1638 games.

Merkle played 1547 games at first base with a .985 fielding%. He also played 46 games in the outfield, three at second base & one at third base.

World Series Play: Merkle played on five Giants Pennant winners but lost in the World Series each time. Overall, he hit .239 (21-88) with one HR, one stolen base, nine walks & nine RBIs in 27 games. 

Retirement: After baseball Merkle moved to Florida & during the Depression worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). 

He then became a partner with a small manufacturer of fishing equipment in Daytona Beach which became very successful. 

Merkle would enjoy playing golf, chess & bridge in his later years. Merkle refused to talk about baseball to reporters after he left the game. 

Family: Fred & his wife Etel Cynthia (Brownson) were married in 1914 & were together until his passing. Together they had three daughters.

Passing: On March 2nd, 1952, Fred Merkle passed away of natural causes 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.

Trivia: Merkle's Bar & Grill, is a popular Wrigleyville bar just one block south of Wrigley Field in Chicago. It is named after Fred Merkle & 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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