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Fred Merkle: A Glimpse at Baseball's Biggest Scapegoat

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Fred Merkle: A Glimpse at Baseball's Biggest Scapegoat
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It sounds a little sappy, but I believe that I was meant to write “Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball’s Fred Merkle,” which is available at:  www.sportingchancepress.com

To this day, many baseball fans still call Fred Merkle a “bonehead.”  I won’t rest until that stops. 

The truth is the complete opposite in every respect.  Merkle was one of the smartest players ever to wear a big-league uniform.  Within the context of how the game was played and officiated at the time, he did nothing wrong on the famous play in 1908.  

Merkle is the No. 1 scapegoat in the history of baseball and all sports.  No one ever got a rawer deal.  The muckraking press ridiculed him, and the fans jumped right on board.  The abuse never let up.  People insulted not only him but his kids and his grandchildren. 

Fred Merkle is a hero and a role model against adversity.  He overcame it all with incredible strength of character.  He persevered during and after his baseball career and managed to enjoy a productive life.  He did not let outside perceptions define who he was as a person.  He never struck back at his detractors.  

My book is intended to inform, entertain, and—most importantly—inspire and empower. 

If Merkle could rise above all the adversity that life threw at him, you and I can handle whatever curveballs come our way. 

A son of strict German immigrants, Merkle graduated from high school at age 16 with academic and athletic honors.  On Sept. 23, 1908, he was a 19-year-old New York Giant rookie reserve subbing at first base for the injured regular, thrust by fate into what would become the most famous and controversial game in baseball history. 

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Merkle singled to advance a teammate to third base.  The next batter roped a line drive in front of the center fielder to give the Giants an apparent 2-1 victory over the then-mighty Cubs

Merkle did what all baserunners did back then and peeled off before reaching second base, jogging toward the clubhouse beyond center field. 

There was no crowd control.  Fans, many of them drunk and abusive, rushed the field right after a game.  Many others already were seated on the field.  In those situations, umpires assumed a runner’s advance to the next base and, like the players, quickly ran to safety themselves. 

But not this time.  The Cubs appealed the play.  Second baseman Johnny Evers held a ball aloft and demanded that home-plate umpire and crew chief Hank O’Day call a force-out, which would negate the run, according to Rule 59.   

O’Day sided with the Cubs.  He reversed baseball custom.  Unbeknownst to the Giants, the Cubs had appealed to the same umpire on a virtually identical play in a game against the Pirates 19 days earlier.  O’Day did not go by the rulebook in that instance, but he was ready to do so the next time. 

With no forewarning, Merkle was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Three genuinely great teams—including the Pirates—battled to the wire over the next two weeks.  The Cubs and Giants wound up tied in the standings. 

The National League hierarchy eventually upheld O’Day’s ruling and called the Merkle game a 1-1 tie.  The teams replayed the game in its entirety in front of a riotous overflow crowd back at the Polo Grounds.  

In the final-day pennant showdown between two bitter rivals, the Cubs and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown defeated the Giants and Christy Mathewson 4-2.  Chicago dominated the Detroit Tigers in the World Series for the second straight year.  The Cubs haven’t won since.  Merkle was consigned to infamy. 

Many players could not have tolerated the unrelenting public scorn, but Merkle did not quit.  He played 16 years in the big leagues.  He was a member of six pennant-winners and a leader on four of them, including the 1918 Cubs.  A rare power-speed combination, he was usually his team’s clean-up hitter as well as a constant stolen-base threat.   Teammates and opponents universally respected Merkle, who was Giant manager John McGraw’s primary sounding board on strategic decisions.   

I researched this topic over the last six years.  No one had ever written a full biography of Merkle, completely exonerated him, and presented him as a hero and role model.  

He completely deserves this book, which was truly a labor of love for me.  I will always be grateful to Marianne Merkle Kasbaum, 79, his surviving daughter, who opened up to me on highly personal but also painful subjects. 

My other objective was to shine a spotlight on 1908 America and baseball.  This was a spectacular but dizzying year in our country’s history.  People sought escape from weighty realities and went completely nuts for baseball and not one but two of the best pennant races of all time.  It was the finest season of the great Deadball Era, which featured tight, hard-scrabble baseball, the first wave of superstars, and an assortment of colorful characters.  

Enjoy.  And may you always muster “Merkle Power” whenever life gets a little rough.

(www.sportingchancepress.com )       

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