Author Mike Cameron examines the life of a ‘Private Hero’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
September 23, 1908. The Major League Baseball season, one of the most exciting in history, was winding down. The National League pennant was still hotly contested, with three teams — the Chicago Cubs, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the New York Giants — all within striking distance.
The Cubs and Giants played that day in a game crucial to the pennant race. The Giants’ first baseman, Fred Tenney, was scratched with an injury. He would be replaced by Fred Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie out of Toledo, OH.
“It felt more like the seventh game of the World Series than a late, regular season game. And it was a great game, too,” author Mike Cameron in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star. Cameron is the author of the new book “Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball’s Fred Merkle.”
Bottom of the ninth, two outs, the score tied at 1. The go-ahead run at third, Merkle on first base. The next batter hit a single to drive the winning run home. Merkle, before touching second base, ran from the field — a move which would cement him in infamy, but which before then was as customary as the seventh-inning stretch.
The rules of the game state if the final out comes as a result of a force play — say, a runner tagged out advancing from first without tagging second — the run doesn’t count. But, as Cameron pointed out, the rule had never been enforced before that day, for the safety of everyone involved.
“That was the custom at the time, because there was no crowd control,” Cameron said. “Thousands of the fans in attendance sat right on the field, along the perimeters, and a lot of them were drunk and abusive. So the advance to the next base on a game-ending play was just kinda assumed by the umpires. The players skedaddled off the field quickly to avoid the fans — in this case, to the center field clubhouse — and the umpires went to their own shelter. They all just wanted to get the heck out of there.
“A seed had been planted nineteen days earlier, in a game between the Cubs and the Pirates. The Cubs had appealed a similar play, and the same darn umpire, Hank O’Day, he turned it down, on the basis that he was watching something else on the field and he did not see the play in question. But he was ready to make the call the next time, and no one on the Giants knew that.”
The Cubs got a ball to second and Merkle was called out, which nullified the run. The game was ruled a tie, and it was decided that the Cubs and Giants would replay the game if they ended up tied at the end of the season — which they were. Cubs won the replay and the pennant, and earned Merkle a lifetime of scorn.
“I think the key word in all this is context. Some people look at all this, and they just don’t understand how the game had been played up to that point. So they don’t have the context to make a judgment. It changed all that day, and Merkle had no forewarning. And then everything that ensued after that, he just paid the ultimate price,” Cameron said.
They called him “Bonehead.” For the rest of his days. Fans, hecklers, Vaudeville comics, and especially the press hounded him over his “mistake.” “The press at the time kinda had that muckraking style to it, and things were even looser for the sportswriters, because a lot of the editors really didn’t know baseball,” Cameron noted. “The sportswriters of that era pretty much had free reign to say whatever they wanted. And they just jumped on the Merkle ‘Bonehead’ thing.”
Merkle lived the rest of his life as a punchline — his name became a verb (“I Merkled that one.”) and a noun (“You Merkle!”), and he was always “Bonehead,” whether behind his back or to his face. He died in 1956, estranged from the game he loved. So long-lived was the ridicule, Fred’s children and grandchildren were teased about it growing up.
Cut to nearly 50 years later. Cameron, a freelance sportswriter, found a book in his local library on the 1908 season, and was struck by the tale of Merkle. “I was somewhat acquainted with the subject matter prior to that, but that really piqued my interest. And I got the impression that Merkle had been very wronged. And that led me to other sources, and I kind of have an obsessive side, anyway, so I just read everything I could find on the subject,” Cameron said.
His passion led to “Public Bonehead, Private Hero,” an analysis of the man which not only lays plain Merkle’s innocence on that famous day, but also his inspiring tenacity in staying with the game through the years of hardship that followed. Cameron’s work was informed by years of research spent contacting historians, authors, and even the members of Merkle’s family, who are understandably suspect of the media.
“I earned their credibility, and eventually their trust. We had friends in common — people who they had known, who were sensitive to the whole historical Merkle matter — and I think they just eventually felt they could trust me, that I was going to do the right thing, here,” Cameron noted.
Cameron stated that he hoped people would garner a new appreciation for the life and career of Merkle — particularly those who live in his hometown. “This guy was not only innocent of any wrongdoing, but was done so wrong, yet held up his head high, throughout pretty much a lifelong ordeal,” Cameron stated. “So I wanna step further and say he’s a role model for overcoming adversity, and he truly is one of my heroes. And not just for sticking in there with his baseball career, but throughout his life.
“Fred Merkle should definitely be remembered with pride and honor by everyone in Toledo.”
Copies of “Public Bonehead, Private Hero” can be ordered at http://www.sportingchancepress.com