The baseball that recorded one of the most famous outs in baseball history is about to go on the auction block.
A private collector has consigned the “Merkle ball” to Robert Edward Auctions’ upcoming catalog event. So named for the infamous mental “boner” committed by New York Giants’ rookie Fred Merkle in the hotly contested 1908 pennant race, the ball carries a minimum bid of $25,000.
The historic ball was originally discovered by the great nephew of Cubs’ Hall of Famer Johnny Evers, the fiesty second baseman who was directly involved in the play that generated shockwaves in a baseball-mad country over 101 years ago.
Certainly considered among the ‘holy grails’ of sports memorabilia, the Merkle ball has been in the hands of private collectors since a 1993 auction where it sold for $30,250. The original buyer was actor Charlie Sheen who sold it to another collector in 1999. That east coast baseball fan has now decided to part with the ball, and will likely see a substantial increase in his investment.
The Giants and Cubs were locked in a heated battle for first place on September 23, 1908 when they met at the Polo Grounds. Tied at 1-1 in the ninth inning, the drama unfolded in an unusual way.
The 19 year-old Merkle, getting his first big league start, had singled, moving teammate Moose McCormick to third base. With two outs, Al Bridwell singled to center and McCormick trotted home with what would have been the winning run.
However, instead of touching second as required by rule, Merkle ran by the bag and into the clubhouse as a mob of jubilant and often dangerous fans swarmed the field. Cubs’ second baseman Johnny Evers saw that Merkle hadn’t touched the base. Amid the chaos, Evers somehow got the ball back (just how isn’t clear, although several accounts indicate Giants’ pitcher Joe McGinnity had tossed it away, knowing Merkle had committed a potentially costly mistake).
Evers had corraled umpire Hank O’Day who called Merkle out on a force play and the winning run was nullified. The mob scene that had ensued made it impossible to continue the game and it was ruled a tie. However, the two teams would finish even atop the National League standings at the end of the regular season. A one-game post-season playoff ordered by NL president Harry Pulliam was won by the Cubs who then beat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series to claim the title. They haven’t won a World Series since.
Despite going on to a fine career, Merkle was never able to live down the play that cost the Giants so dearly. Fair or not, “Merkle’s boner” is considered one of baseball’s most infamous plays–an early 20th century equivalent of Bill Buckner’s error in the 1986 World Series. While O’Day was technically correct in ruling Merkle out, not touching a base in a similar situation was rarely enforced in the early 20th century.
The aging ball was found in a box over 20 years ago and sold at auction long before the meteoric rise in value of the most important baseball treasures. By the early 90s, vintage baseball cards had established an order of relevance and value but memorabilia was still woefully short of touchstones that made sense in an era when few people had home internet access.
“I was there (at the 1993 auction) and I saw it come up for bid. I thought ‘this is unbelievable’,” Lifson told Sports Collectors Daily. “It’s such an important piece of baseball history but there were actually other items in the auction that sold for more money. We’re absolutely thrilled to be able to be the ones to offer it again after so long.”
It would seem that Evers realized the historic significance of the ball even before there was a market of any kind. The ball carries a remarkable hand-written notation, apparently from Evers, stating simply “Merkle”. A date stamp of 1908 is also on the ball, a unique feature to that season’s supply according to Lifson.
Joe Evers, the great nephew, signed a letter attesting to the ball’s history when it was sold in 1993.
“With some items, there’s a leap of faith,” Lifson said. “You don’t always know exactly where they came from,” he added. “The provenance of this ball is remarkable. It’s definitely the ball Johnny Evers held at second base on September 23, 1908. It’s one of the defining artifacts of the game. I can’t think of a more important baseball from the dead ball era or a more controversial ball from the entire 20th century.”
The ball will be sold in April.