What if the only thing you were remembered for was your worst moment?
Although Fred Merkle broke into the major leagues with the New York Giants in 1907, he was still practically (and technically) a rookie in the fall of 1908 when the Giants were locked in a tight pennant race with their arch-rivals, the Chicago Cubs.
On September 23, the Giants hosted the Cubs at the Polo Grounds in New York. The game was just like the whole season had been: a tense, hard-fought struggle between two teams of equal caliber.
With the score tied 1-1 with two outs in the 9th inning, Merkle singled, advancing Moose McCormick from first base to third. The next batter, Al Bridwell, also singled, which allowed McCormick to score and seemed to seal the crucial victory for the Giants. Jubilant New York fans stormed through the center field exit and onto the field in celebration.
Fred Merkle, seeing the rush of oncoming fans and convinced that the game was over, headed to the dugout without touching second base.
This was noticed by Johnny Evers, the Cubs’ crafty second baseman, who alerted umpire Hank O’Day and went after the ball. Evers fought through fans, claimed the ball, and relayed it to Chicago shortstop Joe Tinker at second base.
According to baseball rules, since Merkle had not touched second base and Tinker touched the base while holding the ball, Merkle was out on a force play, and Moose McCormick’s game-winning run was nullified. Merkle’s base-running error would cost the Giants the game, which was ruled a tie, to be replayed at the end of the season only if the two teams were tied in the standings.
Of course, they were, and when the game was replayed, Chicago won, and the 19 year-old Merkle was blamed for losing the pennant. The Cubs went on to win the World Series that year, although they haven’t managed to win another in the 98 seasons since.
Fred Merkle would go on to have a respectable year major league career that would span 18 seasons, one which produced 1,580 hits, 290 doubles and a .273 batting average (statistics more impressive when you consider that the majority of his career was played in the dead ball era), but he would never live down the “Merkle Boner,” as his 1908 mistake came to be known. In fact, it’s really the only thing he is remembered for today.
Sometimes, history can be pretty unforgiving like that—a lot of people are remembered only for their worst or most inept moments. That is one advantage of not being famous: we “normal” folk don’t have thousands or millions of people scrutinizing our every move and waiting to jump all over us when we mess up. Of course, even if we aren’t famous, we can still make some mistakes that have serious and far-reaching consequences.
But that is one of the most comforting aspects of Christianity; we may still make mistakes, but those are not what God remembers about us. In 2 Corinthians 5.17, the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
I’ve always felt sorry for Fred Merkle, and have thought that it isn’t fair that he is remembered only at his worst, for a mistake that he made as a 19 year-old kid. But his story reminds me of this: thanks to the blood of Christ, we don’t have to be remembered for our worst moments; they can be wiped away.
The picture above is a zoomed-in 1909-1911 T-206 Fred Merkle tobacco card, and was one of my favorite Christmas gifts this year. Thanks Jared!
Sources for the statistics and historical dates and names used in this article include Baseball Reference and Wikipedia.