Fred Merkle, the Postseason, and the Plays That Define Us

Fred Merkle had a solid Major League career, but he was always associated with one play. (via Charles Conlon)

When I’m gone, I don’t think I’ll be remembered much. I have written all across this big Internet of ours, and I’ve written a number of pieces I think were good and important, and maybe even moved the discourse a little bit. But ultimately, I don’t think I will leave behind a big footprint.

Oh, I matter a great deal to a few people. My family, of course, and to good friends. They’ll think of me fondly when my arteries revolt for the last time. But I have not rooted myself in your consciousness, I’m willing to wager, because what I’ve done hasn’t mattered much in the grand scheme to all that many people.

I don’t say that out of self-pity. No one should feel sorry for me; I have a great life and am exceptionally happy. I’m not Eeyore. Frankly, it’s a comfort to not expect to be better known.

Because, while some people get remembered for the entirety of their contributions, many more are remembered for the individual moments that stick in your brain, that distort and block out the larger picture of who they were. It’s the perfect time of year for that now, actually. Late September. Early October. The time when pennant races and Wild Cards are decided and playoffs are settled. The time when one decision or play can totally remake a career, and obscure who a ballplayer really is.

Take Fred Merkle, for example. What do you remember about Merkle? My guess, for 90 percent of you, it’s Merkle’s Boner. Which, if I’m being honest, is a pretty hilarious name for something that made a person miserable. But it’s how Merkle is filtered down to us 110 years later. He’s an anecdote about a famous screw up. A dummy. A headcase. A guy whose nickname, forever, would be Bonehead.

That’s what frustrated Fred Merkle so much. Merkle was a 19-year-old kid when he was thrust into the public consciousness. In 1908, after a season spent almost entirely as a pinch hitter, he was given his first start of the year at first base. It was September 23 and Merkle was replacing borderline Hall of Famer Fred Tenney, who had a bad case of lumbago and couldn’t start for literally the only time that season. The Cubs and the Giants (and the Pirates) were in a pennant race that was going down to the wire in the National League. The game was tightly played, with Christy Mathewson and Jack Pfeister each allowing just a single run through the first eight innings.

But in the bottom of the ninth, Art Devlin singled. After a fielder’s choice by Moose McCormick, Merkle came to the plate against Pfeister, who had earned a reputation as Jack, the Giant Killer. But Pfeister was also running out of gas. He had been hurt most of the season, to the point where he had to be helped to the bench anytime he threw a curveball. So Merkle sat on the fastball, and lined the pitch into right field to put runners on first and third. Al Bridwell strode to the plate and lined a shot up the middle that caused the second base umpire to dive for cover. McCormick crossed the plate, appearing to give the Giants the game, but Merkle did not touch second.

Instead, as was fairly standard practice at the time for the Giants, Merkle took off for the center field clubhouse, in an attempt to get to safety before the fans, who poured onto the field after the game ended, could congratulate him. The Cubs noticed this, appealed to the umpire, and threw a ball (which may not have been the actual game ball) to Johnny Evers, who touched the bag. Merkle was called out. When the dust settled, the League made the clubs replay the game from the beginning on October 8th. The Cubs won and Merkle would forever be associated with his “boner.”

But the story of Merkle doesn’t end there. While Giants fans criticized him mercilessly, The New York Times cited his “censurable stupidity,” and the kid himself begged to be released, John McGraw stood by Merkle, gave him an expanded role in 1909, and the starting job when Tenney was released that offseason.

By 1910, McGraw was putting the mature beyond his years 21 year old in charge of a group of Giants making their way to Spring Training in Texas by ship. Indeed, maybe even because he had lived through the worst embarrassment, for the rest of his career, Merkle was heady and sought after by contending clubs, including the very Cubs he inadvertently helped get to the World Series.

It helped that he was good. Very good. In 1910, he hit .292 with a .794 OPS in the middle of the Dead Ball Era and was worth almost four wins above replacement. Starting in 1911, Merkle’s Giants won three straight pennants and he was right in the middle of everything. He finished 7th in the MVP voting in 1911, with 12 homers (good for 5th in the NL) and 49 stolen bases. In 1912, he hit .309 with 11 homers and 37 steals. He struggled in 1913, but slugged a three run bomb off of Chief Bender in the World Series, the only Giant to homer in that five-game series. Even as the Giants began to fade in the middle of the decade, Merkle bounced back and was a steady presence for the next two and a half seasons.

In 1916, when first baseman Jake Daubert got injured in August, the Brooklyn Superbas traded for Merkle to bolster their pennant run. The just a couple of weeks into the following season, the Cubs traded for him when their star first baseman, Vic Saier, suffered a compound leg fracture. Merkle provided stability for the Cubs for the rest of 1917, and then delivered one of his best seasons in 1918 as the Cubs won a pennant of their own.

In all, Merkle would last 16 years in the majors, reaching the World Series five times. He batted .273 with a 109 OPS+, garnering almost 1600 hits, became a player-coach with the Ruth and Gehrig-led Yankees in the mid-1920s, and a minor league manager after that. But he remained sensitive about his past and, when one of his players called him a bonehead in 1929, he walked off the job and never returned. He lived the rest of his life in Florida, refusing to do interviews about the play in 1908, and (unfairly) unable to see the whole of his career beyond the incident that came to overshadow it.

It can be tough, though, to come back from that moment. Rick Ankiel didn’t after his stunning breakdown during the 2000 postseason. Ankiel, a true phenom that Sports Illustrated called “The Can’t Miss Kid,” was just 20 when he utterly lost control of his pitches on the national stage. He walked six and threw five wild pitches in a single inning against the Braves, and never recovered due to mental and physical breakdowns. But instead of obsessing over what he was, Ankiel became something new, reinventing himself as a slugging outfielder for another seven seasons. Like Merkle, while he may be remembered more for his failure than his success, it’s the determination not to let that be the end of his story that is so inspiring.

Cooperstown Confidential: The Hauntings of the Hall of Fame
Believe it or not, Halloween stirs the ghosts of baseball.

If only every goat had that opportunity! Mitch Williams’ career was defined by his breakdown in the 1993 World Series and the walkoff homer Joe Carter hit off him to win it. While never the pinnacle of consistency before it, The Wild Thing’s career cratered after the home run. Traded by the Phillies that offseason, he managed just a 7.34 ERA in 45 games over the next two years, got hurt, and never really made it back. No one talks about his All Star appearance, or the Cy Young votes he received, or how he pitched 80 out of 162 games as a 21-year-old rookie, or his 192 saves. He became defined by the moment until, seemingly, it consumed him.

Of course, some of us actually want those moments to overshadow everything else we’ve done. Take, for instance, Bucky Dent.

Bucky Dent’s middle name is Earl, but you’d never know it thanks to his 1978 homer to seal the American League pennant for the Yankees. Dent had already spent four full seasons in the majors, coming in second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1974, and making the AL All Star team as a member of the White Sox in 1975. Raise your hand if you even knew Bucky Dent played with the White Sox and you are not Bucky Dent’s mom. He was a highly regarded prospect in 1973 when the Sox called him up. He’d been an All Star at Double-A the year before, winning the MVP of the game, in fact. Jerome Holtzman praised his “soft hands” and said there was “a sureness about him not often found in rookie shortstops.” Sox manager Chuck Tanner liked the “aggressive little player,” and an errorless streak the youngster had between August and September that lasted 96 chances. So he promoted Dent over incumbent Eddie Leon in September. “He looks like a hustler to me,” Tanner said, “like a working ballplayer who is going to get better-a lot better.” The Sox only complaint? No power.

Dent’s reputation was already strong enough that George Steinbrenner inquired into his availability in February of 1974, offering veteran lefty and former 20 game winner Fritz Peterson. “I’ve got this to say for Mr. Steinbrenner,” said Sox GM Roland Hemond, “He may be new to baseball, but he’s very good at evaluating young players. We consider Bucky Dent to be one of the best young players in the majors today.”

But Dent never really developed in Chicago, his OPS+ hovering around 80, and the White Sox didn’t pay him like one of the best young players in the Majors, even after his All Star appearance. In the offseason, he was forced to sell screws arouch Chicagoland, and serve as a PR representative for Bell Screw Co. But Dent didn’t want to remain a humble screw salesman, and asked for a three year contract extension, inspiring Bill Veeck to start looking around for a trade partner. He found Steinbrenner still hot to trot over the 25-year-old.

The Boss sent Oscar Gamble (who would hit 31 homers and have a 162 OPS+ in one year in Chicago), LaMar Hoyt (who would win the 1983 Cy Young Award) and $200,000 to Veeck for Dent at the end of Spring Training in 1977. Despite the high cost, and the fact that Dent continued not to hit, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t worth it. He provided the steady defense the Yankees were looking for at short and helped the club win the 1977 World Series. But he was still frustrated. Steady play didn’t make you a star in New York, after all, and Billy Martin refused to let him hit late in games. “It really eats at you,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t think I can play another year like that.” He showed up early for Spring Training and promised he’d come through in the clutch if he were only given the chance.

Of course, he’d get that chance. The Yankees and Red Sox had both finished the season 99-63, in a dead heat for the AL East. It was the sixth time that had happened. While many previous NL ties had ended in a three-game series, the AL had always required a one-game showdown between the tied teams. Thanks to a coin toss in September, the Sox won the right to host Game 163 at Fenway, and it was packed with almost 33,000 fans.

In the second inning, Carl Yastrzemski homered off of Ron Guidry to give the Sox an early lead and, in the sixth, Rick Burleson came around on a Jim Rice single. Boston starter Mike Torrez was cruising, having only allowed two hits in the first six innings. In the top of the seventh, however, Chris Chambliss and Roy White smacked a pair of one-out singles. After a flyout, things were looking pretty good for the Red Sox again. After all, only Bucky Dent stood between them and getting out of the inning.

Now, this would have been a great time to pinch hit for Dent, of course. In June, he had injured his hamstring and, after coming back on July 31st, had hit .242 down the stretch, with a .590 OPS and just seven extra base hits. But Willie Randolph was hurt and couldn’t play, and his replacement, Brian Doyle, was an even worse hitter than Bucky. In fact, it had been Jim Spencer, pinch hitting for Doyle, who had flied out just before Dent stepped in. The Yankees were essentially out of middle infielders, so Bucky would have to bat for himself.

The first pitch was a ball just below Dent’s knees. He then fouled a ball off his foot on the second pitch, necessitating a visit from the trainer. Bucky struggled to put weight on the foot, using the bat for support as he explained where the ball hit him. But there was no one else to take his spot, so he was sprayed with ethyl fluoride to numb the pain. Choking up on the bat by at least a inch, Dent dug back in and flicked his bat at a fastball from Torrez. He connected, lifting an easy fly to left field that just kept going, scraping the back side of the Green Monster, and landing in the netting for a three run homer to give the Yankees the lead.

They weren’t done. The Yankees would score two more off of Bob Stanley, and though the Red Sox came within a run of tying it up, but New York held on. The game instantly became known as the Bucky Dent Game, and Dent had his new middle name.

And that’s what folks tend to remember, even though Dent had more heroics left in him. In the World Series, he tallied 10 hits, drove in seven runs, and batted .417 as the Yankees beat the Dodgers. After that, things changed for Bucky Dent. That offseason, he became a prominent spokesperson. He got his own beefcake poster. He modeled mens wear in Playboy. He endorsed acne cream and bubble gum. He filmed car commercials and a TV movie about the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders (the finale of which is here).

Bucky was a star; but even more than that he was an unlikely sex symbol, much to his wife’s chagrin. He was so busy, she complained to The New York Times, that he barely saw her or his kids that offseason. She worried that “they’re deliberately quieting down the fact that he’s married, because not being married will generate the most money and publicity.”

“Women in particular have told me,” said one ad executive, “that if his picture is on it, they’ll buy the product, whatever it is.” Another was equally enthusiastic, telling The New York Times that, “The girls like him, and there must be a jillion of them out there who can hit daddy up for two bucks for a poster.” Even the Yankees benefitted, as longtime PR Director Marty Appel noted: “Bucky had a certain sex appeal that led to women buying tickets. Mickey Mantle [on the other hand] was loved by women, but it didn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales.”

But while he was a star off the field, he wasn’t really one on it. In fact, 1979 was probably the worst season of his career to that point, as he hit just .238 with a .573 OPS. The Yankees still paid him like he was hitting though, giving him a five year, $1.5 million extension after the season ended. While he rebounded in both 1980 and 1981, it was ludicrous when he was elected to start the All Star game. But it didn’t matter; by this point, in everyone’s imagination, Bucky Effing Dent had replaced Bucky Earl, and he’d remain cemented there forever.

That had consequences, of course. The extra attention and Dent’s busy schedule were hell on his marriage. Bucky filed for divorce in August of ‘79, saying that his wife “told me she was tired of the type of lives we lead, that we had grown apart, and that she wanted a separation.” When Dent missed the end of the 1981 season and the World Series with an injury, it took some of the luster off, and Steinbrenner traded for Roy Smalley to serve as a platoon partner. And when Dent’s career started to go bad in 1982, it went bad quickly; he was done just two years later at the age of 32.

All of this seems so dramatic. So complicated. Bucky Dent can’t just be a pretty good shortstop for a few years because he’s suddenly an MVP and a matinee idol. Fred Merkle can’t be a perfectly decent first baseman because he’s a bonehead who forgot to touch second base. Ankiel and Williams can’t be remembered for what they did before and after their respective disasters because the moment in between overshadows them. And, as the 2018 season winds down, chances are some other poor sap is going to cause the rest of their obituary to be eclipsed by a some heretofore out of character home run or error or balk or managerial decision. It’s not fair, but that’s how this time of year works. That, and a fundamental lack of talent, is why I don’t play baseball anymore. It’s so much less pressure not to matter.

Resources and References

  • Barbara Basler and Albin Krebs, “Notes on People.” The New York Times, Aug 2, 1979
  • “Blunder Costs Giants Victory.” The New York Times, Sept 24, 1908
  • James Elsener. “No hot stove hiatus for pair of Sox.” The Chicago Tribune, Jan 31, 1977
  • Giants Sail Southward. The New York Times, Feb 13, 1910
  • Jerome Holtzman. “Dent Making Big Splash as New White Sox Shortstop.” The Sporting News. Sept 15, 1973
  • Jerome Holtzman. “Chisox Cool to Yankee Pitch for Dent.” The Sporting News. Feb 28, 1974
  • Michael Katz. “Dent to Yanks: Stick With Me In the Pinch.” The New York Times, Feb 15, 1978
  • Tony Kornheiser. “The Series Hero for Sale: The Marketing of Bucky Dent.” Jan 29, 1979
  • David Krell, Society for American Baseball Research, SABR Bio Project: Bucky Dent
  • Trey Strecker, Society for American Baseball Research, SABR Bio Project: Fred Merkle


Mike Bates co-founded The Platoon Advantage, and has written for many other baseball websites, including NotGraphs (rest in peace) and The Score. Currently, he writes for MLB Daily Dish on SB Nation. He currently cohosts the podcast This Week In Baseball History. His favorite word is paradigm. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBatesSBN.

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8 Comments on "Fred Merkle, the Postseason, and the Plays That Define Us"

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Paul G.
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Paul G.

Dan Bern sings a song about Merkle. It manages to be both entertaining and deliver the pain of the moment.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rrWBemxQHg

bherz1
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bherz1

Sometimes tragic outcomes follow postseason failure. Remember the Angels’ reliever Donnie Moore, who in 1986 gave up a home run to Dave Henderson that put Boston ahead, just when the Angels were one strike away from their first pennant? He committed suicide less than 3 years later.

antone
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antone

No Bill Buckner mentions? Leon Durham? Steve Bartman?

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

Bucky Dent as beefcake? Had no idea!

GeneralKnarf
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GeneralKnarf

Here’s a gaffe that might have put someone in the Hall Of Fame: Lonnie Smith’s base running blunder in the 8th inning of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. That game is a huge part of the narrative that got Jack Morris in. Lonnie doesn’t mess up, Braves win (possibly, definitely not a 10 inning shutout), and Morris isn’t elected by the veterans committee.

GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

I think the famous “Merkle’s Boner” card from the 1961 Nu Scoops set really helped reintroduce the play and player to a new generation.