Chapter on Watertown Baseball
Fred C. Merkle
David J. Stalker
An article by David J. Stalker, a passionate baseball fan and a collector of baseball memorabilia. Through his efforts a memorial to Fred Merkle was erected on the grounds of the Octagon House, home of the Watertown Historical Society. Dave has sent copy of his documentation relating to Fred Merkle to the National Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Dave can be contacted at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
The words that I would use to best describe Fred Merkle are, a man of intelligence, courageousness, strength and quickness, competitive, quiet and determined to do his best at all times. This was Fred Merkle.
Fred Merkle was born in Watertown on December 20, 1888, and baptized at Immanuel Lutheran Church on New Year’s Day, 1889. His parents were Ernst and Amalia (Thielman) Merkle.
Ernst taught at the Immanuel School from the years 1884 to 1889, before taking a new teaching position in Toledo, Ohio. Ernst’s parents settled in the Amana Colonies, Iowa. This was an extremely religious group, and Ernst was considered to have been a very strict, no-nonsense teacher and parent.
Immanuel Lutheran School is where Fred’s father, Ernst Merkle,
taught and it is where he lived at the time of Fred’s birth
There has been some controversy as to where Fred actually spent his growing up years. As much as I would like believe some articles that I have read about Fred growing up in Watertown, I cannot. I can only consider those claims as based on assumption. Family records and Watertown records do not show any reason to believe otherwise. Ernst Merkle moved to Toledo right after his term at Immanuel, and Fred’s obituary from Daytona Beach Florida states that Fred moved to Toledo when he was a baby.
Fred graduated from Toledo High School in 1905. Along with playing baseball, he also starred in football and track. He participated in athletic programs at the YMCA and for some time held the sixteen pound shot-put record.
He was already showing signs of his blend of speed and strength.
From 1906 through part of the 1907 season Fred played for the Tecumseh Michigan team in the Southern Michigan League. This is where he met his life-long wife Ethel, and it is where he captured the attention of Manager John McGraw and the New York Giants. He was purchased by the New York club in August of 1907.
Merkle made his major league debut for
the Giants on
The following year, 1908, is considered by some historians as the most exciting season in baseball history. It is important to understand baseball as it was at this time in order to better understand the feelings that Fred had. These were the feelings that would follow him to his grave.
It was a time when baseball was truly the national pastime. Baseball teams were setting attendance records with overflowing crowds trying to make their way into the ball yard. Jack Norworth wrote the famous song, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The pennant races were receiving more coverage than the presidential election. The pennant races were very tight in both leagues.
Try to imagine the excitement and all the coverage that we would have today, living in Watertown, if the same scenario happened today that happened almost 100 years ago. Taking a look at the 1908 teams racing for the pennant, we can see that our general area here in Wisconsin was very well represented.
In the American League the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians battled down to the wire for the pennant. Cleveland fell to third place, but only one and a half games behind the winner. Within a week before the end of the season the Indian’s Hall of Fame pitcher Addie Joss pitched the game of his life, a perfect game against the Chicago White Sox, keeping them percentage points above the White Sox in the standings. Joss was born in nearby Woodland, grew up in Juneau and pitched for the Watertown Sacred Heart team in 1899. It is interesting to note that Addie’s catcher from his Watertown team was also playing in the majors at this time. He was born in Milwaukee, his name was Red Kleinow, and in 1908 Red caught for the New York Highlanders, the team that became better known as the Yankees.
The final game of the regular season for the White Sox and Tigers was played in Chicago, with the winner advancing to the World Series. The White Sox had Fort Atkinson native and great defensive catcher Billy Sullivan. The Tigers had the speedy Cambria native Davy Jones on their team. The winners of the contest would advance to the World Series and play the Chicago Cubs.
On the back of Fred’s 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack baseball card
mention is made that he was born in Watertown
Some of the Cubs players were at the game and were rooting along with the White Sox fans. This was in hopes for an intra-city rematch. Billy Sullivan’s team beat the Cubs two years prior, in the 1906 Series. This was after the Cubs set a single season record of 116 victories. The Tigers took the crowd out of the game right away, scoring four runs in the first inning, one in the second, and winning the game 7-0. Davy’s Tigers were crowned Champions of the American League for the second of three consecutive years.
Over in the National League another tight race was between our local favorite, the Chicago Cubs, Merkle’s New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates ended up tied for second place, just one game behind the winner. The Cubs and Giants also came down to one last decisive game with the winner going to the World Series. However, unlike the American League being decided on the last day of the season, the Cubs and Giants ended the season in a tie for first place. The teams were then scheduled to play a make up game at the Polo Grounds in New York. This game was labeled “The Merkle Game.” It was due to the “Merkle Mistake,’ or simply known as the “Bonehead Play” that occurred on September 23, 1908.
On this 1911 baseball card Fred is pictured
with his Giant and Cub teammate, and lifelong
friend, second baseman Larry Doyle.
Let’s step back to that September 23 afternoon in New York. The Cub’s were visiting the Polo Grounds and the two rivals were in the midst of a pennant race. With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Giant’s were at bat with runners on the corners. Moose McCormick was the runner on third base and playing for the veteran Fred Tenny was Fred Merkle, on first base. Bridwell, the Giants batter slashed a base hit into the outfield in what appeared to be the game winner, with McCormick crossing the plate.
With the raging fans pouring onto the field and heading straight towards the diamond, Fred Merkle ran for his life, straight into the dugout before touching second base. The keen second baseman for the Cub’s Johnny Evers noticed that Merkle did not touch second base, and he knew that technically the run should not count until the base runner touches the base. He started screaming for someone to throw him a ball, so he could step on second and force out Merkle.
1916-17, while Fred was a Brooklyn Dodger
He did end up getting a ball, but it is believed to not have been the actual game ball that was hit by Bridwell. With the fans on the field, and with daylight getting shorter being the end of September, the game was ruled a tie.
The Cub’s and Giants did have equal records at the end of season and the Merkle game was played on October 8th. The Cub’s won 4-2, and then proceeded to beat Davy Jone’s Tigers four games to one. To this date, it was their last time to be labeled World Champions.
Merkle’s failure to touch second base was immediately labeled the “Bonehead Play,” and Fred inherited the undeserving nickname of “Bonehead Merkle.” Between September 23rd and October 8th Fred became a physical wreck, he was losing weight, hair, and had become very withdrawn.
About two weeks prior to the September 23rd game, the Cub’s and Johnny Evers were involved in the same situation against the Pirates. The rookie Warren Gill of the Pirates was the runner on first base, who ran off the field before touching second. At that time Evers protested to the same umpire, Hank O’Day. Hank was a Chicago native who eventually managed the Cub’s for a season. O’Day listened, but did honor Johnny’s request, basically because it was a rule that was never enforced. It was common practice for the fans to storm the field, and the players to run off the field, a step quicker.
Entering into the 1909 season, after replaying the so-called “Bonehead Play” over and over in his mind during the off-season, Fred considered walking away from the game. With his courage, desire to succeed, and the encouragement and pay raise he received from his Hall of Fame manager John McGraw, Fred was back to face the season. Trying to get accustomed to his new nickname, and still showing signs of suffering, Fred batted a disappointing .191 in 79 games. The Giants had a good season with 92 wins, but finished a distant third place.
The following year, 1910, he played in 144 games and displayed his talent in ways that McGraw patiently waited for. He batted .292, drove in 70 runs and stole 23 bases. It was the first of 8 years that he would steal 20 plus bases in a season. In 1911 he tore up the base paths with his single season career best, with 49 swipes.
Fred was featured in a Coca-Cola ad campaign. The ad above
appeared in the April 23, 1911, edition of the Atlanta Constitution.
This was an amazing feat for one considered to be a rather large man, 6’ 1” and 190 pounds.
After winning the National League pennant four out of five years, the Cub’s dominance was fading to the Giants. Three years straight, from 1911 to 1913, the Giants claimed the right of being National League Champions.
Fred lead the 1911 team with 84 RBI’s, and collected three hits in his first World Series. In the series the Giants had a hard time scoring runs against the Philadelphia Athletics’ strong pitching, facing Bender, Combs and Plank. The third baseman for the A’s was Frank Baker, and became well known as “Homerun” Baker, after collecting two homers in the Fall Classic.
In 1912 Merkle became a homer run threat by leading his team with eleven round trippers. He helped lead the Giants to another World Series, by displaying his power, along with his speed. In this trip to the series he collected nine hits, against the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox were playing on their new grounds, Fenway Park. The Giants team batting average elevated to .270 in comparison to the .175 average they had against the A’s in the previous World Series. The best of a seven game series ended in extra innings, in game eight. The Red Sox prevailed, with winning four, losing three and tying one game. Fred’s name was once again brought up in a controversial manner in a play that happened in game eight. A foul pop fly ball fell between pitcher Christy Mathewson, catcher Chief Meyers and himself, and some seemed to think that Fred should have made the catch. The missed ball gave Boston’s Tris Speaker another chance to drive in the tying run, and he succeeded. Shortly after, the Red Sox won the World Series with a sacrifice fly off the bat of Larry Gardner.
During the 1913 season Merkle was the team leader in games played with 153, and triples with 12. Once again they faced Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. During the regular season the Giants had three 20 plus game winners with Mathewson, Marquard and Tesreau, but they still fell short to the A’s, losing four games to one. During the series Fred had a few hits, one being a homer. He also drove in three runs.
Merkle Family Picture, 1917
Seated: Fred, his grandmother and mother,
holding daughters Majorie and Jeanette
Standing: Wife, father, brother, pastor
This was Fred’s last World Series with the New York Giants. After the 1913 World Series and into the early part of 1914, Fred went along with the Giants and White Sox on a World Tour. Later in 1914 he finally married Ethel. 1914 and 1915 were good, solid years, his last two seasons with the Giants, before being sent to the Brooklyn Dodgers late in the 1916 season.
Fred climbed on board and played in twenty three games with the Dodgers, before advancing to his fourth World Series. The Brooklyn club lost four games to one against the Boston Red Sox. One of Boston’s wins came from a young pitcher named Babe Ruth. Ruth pitched in game two and went the full 14 innings, giving up only one run in the first inning.
Fred only played in two games for the Dodgers in 1917, before being picked up by the Chicago Cubs. He joined his old Giants teammate and friend, Larry Doyle, and was now a member of the team that was once his bitter rival. Chicago was excited to get Fred, after their first baseman Vic Saier got hurt. In his first game with the Cubs, at Wrigley Field, he participated in one of greatest games ever pitched. It was the famous nine inning double no-hit game between the Cub’s Hippo Vaughan and Cincinnati Reds Fred Toney. It was not until the tenth inning that Vaughan gave up a couple of hits, and the Reds won, 1 to 0. The team finished a very disappointing fifth place.
It was not long before the veteran Merkle helped lead the Cubs back into the World Series. In 1918 while the world was at war, he led the Cubs with 65 RBI’s during the season and then collected five hits during the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. It was Fred’s fifth chance at a World Championship and became his fifth losing attempt. And beat again by Boston’s pitcher Babe Ruth.
It was the last time the Red Sox won the World Series until 2004.
In 1919 the thirty year old Merkle had another good season with the Cubs, leading the team in 133 games played, and RBI’s with 62. In 1920, his last year with the Cubs and last year in the National League, he batted .285. Still in good form, it is uncertain why Fred joined the Rochester ball club, of the International League. He played with them through 1924, and led the league in RBI’s for two seasons.
From 1924 to 1925 Fred joined the American League, and wore the famous pinstripes, as a member of the New York Yankees. He mostly coached, but also had some playing time, appearing in seven games in 1925, and had two at bats in 1926. He did not play in the 1926 World Series, but he was a member of the team. The 1926 Yankees then became Fred’s sixth World Series team. He had to feel confident going into the Series with players such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the line up. The Series did go the full seven games, and the last game was decided by one run. The St. Louis Cardinals overtook the Yankees in game seven, by the score of 3 to 2.
The following year the Yankees became World Champions, and are still considered to be one of the best teams in baseball history. Fred, however, was with the Reading, Pennsylvania team for a partial season. Fred’s father, Ernst, passed away on June 18th and was laid to rest in Florida. Fred left the Reading team and Florida became his permanent location for the remainder of his life.
Fred walked away from major league baseball when he moved to Florida. At home baseball was not even talked about. His daughter found out about the “Bonehead Play” for the first time one day at school, when one of the kids teased her. She then went home, inquired about the name, and learned that it was something they did not talk about. It is most likely Fred was sheltering his family from the pain he had suffered. While in Florida he could be often be found at local minor league games.
Retired from baseball, Fred had a fishing lure business
After retiring from baseball Fred designed and manufactured fishing lures, played a lot of golf and lived peacefully in the Florida sunshine.
After twenty three years of being away from major league baseball, Fred received an invitation from New York Giants president, Horace Stoneman, to be a guest at an old timer’s celebration on July 30th, 1950, at the Polo Grounds in New York. Upon encouragement from his youngest daughter, the 61 year old Merkle, along with his daughter, accepted the invitation and made their way to New York. Fred met up with his old friend, Giant and Cub teammate, Larry Doyle. Fred and Larry did not suit up and play in the old timer’s game but were at the ceremonies as special guests. Fred was fearful over what kind of reaction he would receive from the New York crowd at the game. Would he hear the taunting “bonehead,” or would he receive the type of ovation that he deserved, from the high level of performance that he displayed in each and every game over his career? The large crowd cheered wildly for Mr. Fred C. Merkle.
Besides having an outstanding baseball career, Fred was a dedicated husband, father and business owner. For these reasons I felt that Fred deserved so much more than an unmarked grave, and his family agreed with me. Together we financed his memorial monument. I felt that there would not be a better place to place the memorial than in Watertown, the place where his life began. It became very logical for me to determine that the Octagon House grounds would be the best choice for the monument’s permanent location. Along with the beautiful location, I felt as though no one would appreciate and preserve the history of the memorial better than the Watertown Historical Society.
Fred was courageous, intelligent, and his determination for success would be hard for anyone to match. He could have walked away and been successful at anything he might have done, but that would have been too easy for a man that faced a challenge. It was a challenge that would have made many others crumble, given the same situation.
We can be proud to claim
[Original autograph] WHS_005_450
as our own.
All rights reserved by the author, David J. Stalker
The Merkle monument is located on the grounds of the Octagon House and was
donated to the Watertown Historical Society in September of 2005, by the author,
baseball historian David Stalker, Merkle family members and Archie Monuments
Mike Cameron / "Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball's Fred Merkle."
Cameron, a sportswriter for Pioneer Press, presents an indepth biography of Merkle and detailed account of the baseball drama. He strongly asserts that Merkle not only did no wrong but stands to this day as a role model against adversity.
“Merkle did no wrong on the controversial base running play that gave him the nickname of ‘bonehead' and he instead should be remembered for his accomplishments and his perseverance in the face of extreme adversity.
“That is the essence of my book. No one had ever completely exonerated Merkle of wrongdoing and presented him as a hero and role model against adversity. I wanted to do both. Not just poor, poor Fred got a horribly raw deal.
“What I want readers to take from my book is that if Merkle could overcome all the bad stuff that life threw at him, we can surmount any hurdles and challenges that come our way.
“I call it ‘Merkle Power.' Fred's example inspires and emboldens me to stay strong through life's inevitable rough patches.
“This is the first in-depth biography on Merkle. Raised by strict German immigrants, he was very smart, multitalented, modest and decent.
“He was just a 19-year-old rookie when the fateful play took place, but he hung in there through all the insults and public scorn. He was a very good player for 16 seasons as well as a member of six pennant-winning teams and a leader on four of them.
“He overcame a lot more adversity after his baseball career. He lost his house, had only a menial job and could barely support his family during the Depression. Baseball turned its back on him for more than two decades. Merkle and a partner started a business manufacturing fishing floats, and it eventually succeeded.
“Marianne, his youngest and surviving daughter, opened up to me on very personal and painful subjects. It wasn't just Fred who heard the bonehead insults. Everyone in the family was subjected to ridicule. But the Merkles looked past the ignorance and cruelty of others. They never struck back and stooped to the level of their detractors or defined themselves by the perceptions of others.
“Out of all this emerged Fred Merkle. Hero. Role model against adversity. Epitome of a real man. True superstar as a human being.
“Watertown, you should be very proud. Salute your favorite son. No community can lay claim to a better one. Fred Merkle represents all that is good and strong in all of us.” [from the book]
Movie on Fred Merkle, Watertown Daily Times article
Review article, Watertown Daily Times article
Plaque honoring Merkle, Watertown Daily Times article
Topic in book, Watertown Daily Times article
Watertown Baseball chapter on Watertown Historical Society website
Scapegoats: Baseballers Whose Careers Are Marked by One Fateful Play
Poor Mr. Merkle, The Boston Globe, Sept 23, 2008 article. “Sept. 23 is an annual Holy Day. But this year it has an extra special meaning.”
Watertown’s Merkle Couldn’t Shed Nickname, JS Online, Bob Wolfley, Sept. 24, 2008
Merkle highlighted on TV, print, Watertown Daily Times article, 09 22 2008
Etched in Stone: A Lasting Tribute to the Deadball Era, by David Stalker
Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball’s Fred Merkle, By Mike Cameron Publication Date: February 2010
From the Milwaukee Journal
Born in Watertown
Birthday congratulations are due to Frederick O. Merkle, who was responsible for enriching the English language by the addition of the word “merkle,” which means, according to Webster’s Unexpurgated, “to pull a bone.” (Note: in 2004 this would probably mean “boner"). Fred has attained the mature age of twenty-seven years, and, by his subsequent work as first baseman of the Giants, has long since atoned for the “crime of 1908.” In spite of the sloppy work of his teammates last season, Fred played his usual heady game and at bat he came within a point of joining the small and select circle of National League 300 swatters. He has apparently recovered his batting eye, for his 1915 average of .299 is a great improvement over 1914, when he got .258. In 1912 Merkle batted .309, but after that he slumped to .261 in 1913.
Fred was born in Watertown, Wis. Toledo has been Merkle’s winter address for several years. He broke into professional baseball at Tecumsah, Michigan and it was in 1907 when he was a kid of eighteen, that he joined the Giants. Naturally, considering his age and previous condition of servitude, he was quite verdant when he donned the spangles in the big village. McGraw found him an apt student, and predicted great things for the German lad. The fat came pretty near to being in the fire when he failed to touch second in a decisive game in 1906 and so lost the pennant for his club. Lots of veterans have pulled bones quite as bad, but the New York fans didn’t consider that, nor were they included to be lenient because of Fred’s extreme youth. If they had their way, Merkle would have been ridden out of baseball on a rail.
History of Watertown, Wisconsin