The Redemption Of Watertown's Fred Merkle: More Than Baseball's 'Bonehead'

by Dean Robbins
| July 8, 2016
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We all hope to be remembered for our successes rather than our mistakes. Watertown’s Fred Merkle played on six World Series teams but was remembered not for his admirable career but for one early mistake. Dean Robbins tells us Merkle’s story.

 

I loved baseball as a kid, but I lived in fear of making a mistake on the field. Chalk it up to the legend of Fred Merkle, the Wisconsin native who committed the most infamous base-running error in the game’s history.

Born in Watertown, Merkle joined the New York Giants in 1907 as a teenage infielder. His career looked promising until a crazy game against the Chicago Cubs on September 23, 1908. I read about it, in horror, as a fourth-grade baseball-history buff.

The Giants and Cubs were tied for first place in the final game of the season, playing each other for the pennant. The score was even in the bottom of the ninth, with Merkle on first base and another runner on third. The next batter singled, the runner on third scored, and the Giants appeared to win the game.

Fans spilled onto the field. Merkle dashed for the dugout without getting all the way to second base—his fatal mistake. A Cubs player noticed he hadn’t tagged the base and managed to get hold of a ball in the midst of the chaos. He touched second, meaning that Merkle was technically out and the game still tied.

With thousands of fans screaming on the field, there would be no more baseball that day. Tragically for Merkle, the Cubs won the makeup game, and thus the pennant. 

Merkle’s mistake earned him the nickname “Bonehead,” and it followed him for the rest of his life. Despite an admirable baseball career, in which he played on six World Series teams, he remained notorious for that one lapse in judgment. The word “Merkle” became baseball slang for a profoundly stupid play. When he died in 1956, the Associated Press headline inevitably referenced the error.

That might have been the end of the story. But believe it or not, Watertown came to Fred Merkle’s rescue.

Watertown residents looked at the whole of Merkle’s life, not just the one error. They discovered a modest, decent man who stood up to adversity. Rather than quitting in shame, he stuck with baseball and distinguished himself as a champion. Rather than lashing out at those who called him “Bonehead,” he bore the insults with dignity.

In 2005, Watertown erected a monument to Merkle: a black stone marker bearing Fred’s determined face. It references his “outstanding talent” and “intelligence.”

Watertown also named a field after him in Washington Park. I hope the kids playing baseball on Fred Merkle Field can take a lesson from its namesake. I know I have. He showed that you don’t have to live in fear of making mistakes. You don’t have to let others define you. You just have to do the best you can with life’s ups and downs.

The people of Watertown deserve credit for their wisdom. They remember Fred Merkle not for making an error, but for transcending it.

Tags: baseball / Fred Merkle / mistake / base error / bonehead / sports / career / park
Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins is a journalist and author based in Madison. He has won state and national awards for arts, features and news stories, and has contributed to magazines and newspapers around the country.