For traditional scapegoating practices, the scapegoat was the “means by which the accumulated ills of a whole year are publicly expelled [through] an animal.” Expelling moral wrongdoings, disease and ill will was the primary motivation for scapegoating. And if this approach is transferred to the realm of sport, the parallels are too noticeable to ignore. Sport is based around a simple, binary equation: Teams either win or lose. When the former happens, heroes are born. But when the latter occurs, our scapegoating tendencies kick in, and blame is cast out in heaping portions in the secular, athletic world. Even though ritual violence rarely occurs, we can still see the behavioral elements discussed by Girard and other scholars. By casting out the individual victim, sports fans can salvage the group dynamic and look forward to better days. This was never more apparent than with Fred Merkle, the original scapegoat on whom we begin our analysis of four Major League Baseball case studies.
Fred Merkle attracted the attention of the New York Giants in 1907 when he played first and third base for Tecumseh of the South Michigan League, signing for $2,500 after batting .271 with a league-leading six home runs for the Class D squad. Later that year, he appeared in 15 games for the Giants, batting .255 with 12 hits and 5 RBIs. In 1908, Merkle’s Giants found themselves vying for the National League title with the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates. New York, managed by John McGraw, was led by pitching ace Christy Mathewson, while the Cubs, winners of the previous two NL pennants, fielded an infield that included second baseman Johnny Evers and shortstop Joe Tinker, not to mention ace Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. Throughout the summer, all three teams remained in either first, second or third place, and Merkle ended the season having played in 38 games, batting .268 with 11 hits, 1 home run and 7 RBIs.
The stage for Merkle’s controversial mistake was set on September 4 earlier that year, in a game between the Pirates and Cubs, when an incident occurred that would ultimately seal Merkle’s fate three weeks later. With the bases loaded and the score knotted at 0-0 in the bottom of the tenth inning, Owen Wilson drove home Pittsburgh manager Fred Clarke, but as Warren Gill, who reached first base after getting hit, headed for second base on Wilson’s apparent game-winning RBI, he stopped short of the bag to watch the ball go into centerfield and headed into the clubhouse. Chicago centerfielder Jimmy Slagle saw that Gill failed to touch second and threw the ball to Evers, who then stepped on the bag. Evers cited rule 5.9, which “called a person out for not touching second after the winning run had crossed home plate on a base hit.” However, Hank O’Day, the game’s lone umpire, claimed to not see the play at second base, and refused to reverse the call despite Evers’ persistent pleas.
The Gill incident can be directly correlated to the moment that made an eternal scapegoat out of Fred Merkle. With 25,000 fans in the stands at the Polo Grounds on September 23, the Cubs took on the Giants with the season winding down. New York came to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied 1-1. With Moose McCormick on first, Fred Tenney would have normally been the next batter, but he awoke that morning with a backache and could not play. His replacement in the lineup was the 19-year-old Merkle. Though he had struck out three times that day, Merkle hit a line drive just past first base that set up runners at first and third. Shortstop Al Bridwell came up and singled up the middle, driving home the winning run. But once McCormick crossed the plate, Merkle halted just short of second and headed into the Giants’ clubhouse, doing what all other players at that time – including Warren Gill just three weeks prior – had done.
To his credit, Evers did the exact same thing as he did against the Pirates, scrambling to get the ball to second base in a whacky set of events that included Giants pitcher Iron Man McGinnity throwing the ball into the left field stands. The umpire that day was Hank O’Day, the same one who ruled against the Cubs but called Merkle out for not touching second and later called the game due to impending darkness. The Cubs ultimately tied the Giants for the pennant in October, forcing a one-game tiebreaker held at the Polo Grounds. Merkle did not appear in the game, and Chicago won 4-2, eventually winning the World Series.
The baserunning gaffe took an immense personal toll on Merkle, who “during the offseason…lost weight and sank into a deep depression.” And in an age of muckracking journalism, the media poured it on even harder. Merkle himself faulted the sportswriters for hyping the incident that led people to label him “Bonehead” after committing a mistake that most ballplayers made at the time. On September 23, the day after the game, an article appeared in the New York Times that wrote the following about Merkle:
Censurable stupidity on the part of player Merkle in yesterday’s game at the Polo Grounds between the Giants and Chicago placed New York team’s chances of winning the pennant in jeopardy. His unusual conduct in the final inning of a game perhaps deprived New York of a victory that would have been unquestionable had he not committed a breach in baseball play that resulted in Umpire O’Day declaring the game a tie.
Indeed, the incident had little effect on Merkle’s numbers – he started for the Giants the following season, collecting 148 hits and 70 RBIs in 144 games, and later hit .309 in 1912 with 11 home runs – but the collective baseball community insisted on pouring the hatred on Merkle, effectively making him the sport’s first well-known scapegoat. Ironically, a biography of Merkle on the Baseball Biography Project describes him as one of the game’s fastest and best baserunners. Even so, that same biography begins with the following sentence: “Due to a single base-running blunder on September 23, 1908, Fred Merkle became known by such unflattering epithets as ‘Bonehead,’ ‘Leather Skull,’ and ‘Ivory Pate.’”
And as we will see with Snodgrass, Buckner and Bartman alike, the sports media led the charge of scapegoating, for hate sells more papers than love. The writers at the game clearly felt a big, sensationalistic story approaching and leapt at the chance to cast blame onto one person. Listed below is a sample of some of the sentences written about Merkle in the days following his blunder, accompanied by cartoons that depicted Merkle with “an outsized forehead, the standard visual exaggeration for stupidity” :
“A one-legged man with a noddle is better than a bonehead.”
– Gym Bagley, New York Evening Mail, September 25
“If only [Merkle] would run to second base when it is required–which reminds us of a man who had a thousand-dollar back and a ten-cent head. In fact, all our boys did rather well if Fred Merkle could gather the idea into his noodle that baseball custom does not permit a runner to take a shower and some light lunch in the clubhouse on the way to second.
–New York Herald, September 24
“Minor-league brains lost the Giants a game after they had it cleanly and fairly won.”
--Charles Dryden, Chicago Tribune, September 24, referring to the “fat-headed Merkle.”
“No plays came up in which Merkle had to think, so he got by.”
–Jack Ryder, Cincinnati Enquirer, September 26
Fans clearly got over Merkle’s blunder in the immediate; after all, the Giants still had a legitimate shot at winning the pennant. But once New York was eliminated – and why was blame not placed on those who failed to deliver against the Cubs – the baseball community reverted back to that September game, to shine the proverbial spotlight on their new scapegoat. Even though McGraw vehemently defended his player, calling it “criminal” to cast blame on Merkle, because he “merely did as he has seen veteran players do ever since he’s been in the league,” the rest of New York was hardly as forgiving. “Merkle” became a popular verb, meaning to “fail to show up, arrive tardy or mess up in any way. Sometimes it was a noun, replacing either boner or bonehead.” A Vaudeville comedian appearing on Broadway created a popular joke when he cracked, “I call my cane Merkle because it has a bonehead on it.”
There are many aspects which make this scapegoat unique. First, Merkle’s situation was entirely avoidable. Unlike the other people focused on in this essay, Merkle was not subject to external forces like a bad hop. His task was simple: to touch second base. He never threw a pitch that resulted in a loss or made an error that cost his team a win. Moreover, his gaffe did not even directly result in the Giants losing the pennant, an event that occurred weeks later in October. Though haunted by the mistake, Merkle played for fourteen more seasons in the major leagues and was relatively successful. But, as Christopher Bell wrote, “…many people believed that Merkle died prematurely on September 23, 1908. The play was a bum rap, for none of Merkle’s contemporaries who were on first base ever bothered to touch second if a runner had crossed the plate with a winning run.”
Yet in other ways, Merkle conforms to the scapegoat archetype. Relative to the other players at the time, he was a child, an unassuming 19-year-old thrust into the spotlight in the nation’s biggest media market and unfairly bombarded by an arsenal of cutthroat sportswriters who milked every last euphemism for “boner” to sell papers. Having entered the team just one year prior, Merkle was an outsider, thereby making him an easy target for fans desperate to heap the blame onto someone for their ill feelings about the Giants’ plight.
René Girard would call Fred Merkle a foreigner, and would point to the rabid New York fans – an estimated 250,000 showed up for the one-game playoff in October – as a typical example of society needing a mechanism onto which they can deflect their innately violent tendencies. Indeed, one can easily imagine a modern situation in which Merkle receives death threats over talk radio or on the Internet for “costing” the Giants a game. Perhaps an insane practice, scapegoating has become an integral part of baseball, and it began with Fred Merkle.