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We Have All Made a ‘Bonehead’ Mistake – But, Sadly, One Man Never Lived it Down

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By Robert Skead

I’ve had my share of screwups in life…I’ve failed classes (French in high school, Spanish in college). I’ve lost jobs and been divorced. Like a knucklehead, I’ve bumped my head into things plenty of times. I even had my pants fly down during a job interview once. With all my mistakes and blunders none thankfully stayed with me or became what I was known for.

I’m sure you’ve had your share of bonehead moves in your life too.

I want to tell you a story about a 19-year-old baseball player who made an honest mistake, but that mistake became his moniker for the rest of his life, so much so that the word “Bonehead” became associated with his last name forever.

During his rookie year, on September 23, 1908, Fred Merkle, the youngest player on the New York Giants and in the National League, committed a base running error in a game against the Chicago Cubs that earned him the nickname “Bonehead Merkle.”

It was the bottom of the ninth. The score was tied 1 to 1. There were two outs when Merkle stepped up to the plate. With a runner on first, Merkle singled advancing the runner to third. The next batter singled and the runner on third scored easily. The fans, thinking the game was over, rushed onto the field in celebration. You could do that much easier in 1908.

To avoid the commotion and fans, Merkle ran into the Giants’ clubhouse without touching second base. 

Johnny Evers, the Cubs second baseman, noticed this and retrieved the ball, touched second base and appealed to the umpire to call Merkle out. Since Merkle had not touched the base, the ump called him out on a force play, canceling the run that had already scored.

The Giants victory was erased. The game remained tied. But with the thousands of fans on the field and darkness looming, the game didn’t resume and was declared a tie. There we no field lights in 1908. The teams ended the season tied for first place and a rematch occurred on October 8. The Cubs won that makeup game and the National League pennant.

No one knows for sure if the ball used to declare Merkle out at second was truly the game ball or not. In 1908, running off the field without touching the base was common. New York Giants manager John McGraw was furious with the league but neither he nor the Giants players ever blamed Fred Merkle for his mistake—and the Cubs later won the World Series.

But that sad day dubbed Fred Merkle as Bonehead Merkle for the rest of his 16-year Big League career and life. Fans razzed poor Fred mercilessly. And throughout the culture of the day, if one made a mistake it was known as a Merkle.

Merkle, only 19 remember, suffered at the plate for the remainder of that season, but bounced back two years later as a full-time player, and had a solid career hitting .273 with 1,580 hits, 61 home runs, 740 RBIs and 272 stolen bases.

But can you imagine the pressure and how he felt every time he heard someone call him out for a simple mistake he made as a young man? A mistake his coach and teammates never blamed him for. And had the Giants won one more game during the remainder of the season and come in first place, the name calling would have stopped and the incident would be never remembered.

Merkle is quoted as saying, “They’d call me Bonehead today if I showed myself. As a player, I became calloused to it after a while, but it was tough on the missus, and worse as my three daughters grew up. It finally got my nerves.”

Fred admitted, “I should have touched second base but I was a kid, and had pinch-hit only twice since early July. Fred Tenney, who was hurt, was the regular first baseman.”

Did the mistake affect his play? Merkle said, “Certainly it did. It made me nervous. I dreaded making another bull [mistake], couldn’t take chances, had to play the game close to the vest.”

Fred Merkle even felt the name would stay with him in death. He said, “I suppose that when I die the epitaph on my tombstone will read: ‘Here Lies Bonehead Merkle.”

Fred Merkle passed away in 1956 at the age of 67. 

Ever since I learned of this story my heart ached for Fred Merkle. And I wanted to know more about him. I reached out to a baseball historian, Dave Stalker, who described Merkle as a man of courage and strength.  Dave told me that Fred’s parents lived in the Amana Colonies in Iowa, prior to moving to Watertown, Wisconsin. His father Ernst took a teaching job at Emanuel Lutheran Church school. He taught there for four years and Fred was baptized as an infant. The family moved to Toledo when Ernst accepted a teaching job at another Lutheran Church. Ernst was known as a very strict father and teacher.

I was grateful to learn that Fred Merkle grew up as a Christian.

Later in life, Fred was still attending church in Florida. On a Sunday morning his church had a visiting pastor. The pastor stated that he was from Toledo, known as home to Bonehead Merkle. Fred got up and walked out and never went back to that church.

Dave said, “I have never come across anything negative about him, and this came from an era of some rather rough players. I believe it was his faith in Christ that gave him his strength.”

Proverbs 22:1 states, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, loving favor rather than silver and gold.”

We all want good things to be tagged to our name. But the truth is, our names are synonymous with our bonehead moves… the times we took God’s name in vain, or said something negative about our neighbor, or coveted someone else’s things or spouse or significant other, or placed something like money or a sport or hobby in higher regard than God Almighty, or committed fornication or adultery, or when we didn’t honor our father or mother. We have all blundered in thought, word and deed and by the good we have left undone. We’re all boneheads.

But the Good News, that Fred Merkle knew, was that God knew were all going to make mistakes and bonehead decisions YET loved us enough to send his son to earth in the person of Jesus. And Jesus lived a perfect life, the life we couldn’t live, and He gave his life on a cross for the penalty of our sins, paying the ransom we couldn’t pay, so we could be reconciled unto God. Jesus then rose from the dead defeating death. In Christ we gain a new name as Children of God and heirs to eternal life.

You can be sure your bonehead mistakes are all washed away and forgotten by God forever by saying this simple prayer: “God, I believe that Jesus is Your son and he died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead. Make me the kind of person you want me to be. I receive Jesus into my heart and my life right now, lead and guide me and be my Lord. Thank you, Jesus, for saving me.”

If you said that prayer, you are a new creation in Christ. Let someone know you asked Jesus into your heart today.

When I enter Heaven, I’m going to ask to meet Fred Merkle. He endured hardship like us all in life. In heaven, he was given a new name, a name written on a white stone, a name from God that describes Fred’s spirit perfectly. I’m sure Fred loves that new name and I look forward to calling him by it.

Amen.

Have you surrendered your life to Jesus as Savior? Visit PeaceWithGod.net to learn more.

Robert Skead serves with Athletes in Action and is the author of the new book Links to Liberty—Defending the Great Chain at West Point (Knox Press, $13). An avid baseball fan and creative writer, Robert can often be found speaking with children and adults at schools, libraries, churches and scouting events. Discover more at www.robertskead.com.