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When my uncle retired in 1988, operation of the store passed to his three sons, my first cousins Joe, Jack and Terry Evers. Roughly two years later, John T. Evers, the same cousin who did research and interviews that are used in this story, found a cardboard box in the back of the store labeled HISTORIC BASEBALLS. On one of the them was clearly written MERKLE SEPT. 23, 1908. "The Holy Grail," John remembers thinking. "I'm holding the Merkle ball in my hands. I'm thinking, I don't believe this."
John took the ball home and put it in a plastic case on the desk where he did homework as a commuting student at Siena College in nearby Loudonville. Within another two years the store had begun to struggle against the rising tide of big-box competitors, and my cousins made a decision to auction the ball to raise money. "We were in trouble with the business," says my cousin Joe. "There wasn't much discussion." Experts authenticated the ball. There was no time to digest the painful symmetry: The most significant baseball in Johnny Evers's long career was being sold in an attempt to save the business that bore his name. In February 1993 the Merkle ball was purchased at auction for $30,250 by Charlie Sheen. A year later the business went under.
Five years after that, as Sheen was divesting himself of his baseball memorabilia collection, he sold the Merkle ball privately to Connecticut hedge fund manager Paul Reiferson, and in 2010, Reiferson offered the ball at auction. That May it was sold for $76,375 to an unnamed buyer. Having chased Uncle Johnny across more than a century, I felt a need to find the baseball. I asked the auctioneer if he would ask the buyer to allow me to see the ball. He agreed, and two minutes later I received an e-mail:
Erstwhile ESPN sportscaster and liberal MSNBC and Current TV commentator Keith Olbermann has made an avocation of vigorously defending Fred Merkle's actions on Sept. 23, 1908, and absolving him of the nickname, Bonehead, that followed him through his life and deep into the hereafter. Olbermann has written, blogged and broadcast his support for the rookie who was hoodwinked by Uncle Johnny—whom Olbermann calls a "dark genius"—while doing only what had always been done. Olbermann bought the ball not only because he is an avid memorabilia collector but also because the Merkle ball holds a singular significance. "It's the Rosetta Stone," he says. "This is the time-travel node that puts you on the middle of this swirling dust storm with 10,000 fans on a Wednesday afternoon at the Polo Grounds 104 years ago."
I sat on a couch in Olbermann's New York City apartment on a rainy autumn afternoon and held the ball in my right hand. It is soiled to a dark brown and slick to the touch, as if it had been preserved with a thick coat of lacquer. The writing remains clear: MERKLE SEPT. 23, 1908. The National League stamp is visible and has been authenticated multiple times. Olbermann sees a cosmic significance in the ball. Merkle was haunted. Pulliam killed himself. Evers struggled with life. The Cubs have never won another World Series. "It's almost a spirit-filled object," says Olbermann. "It took a little of the souls of everyone who touched it."
Maybe. But my attachment is more personal. As rain pounds against the glass, I roll my fingers over the seams, and Uncle Johnny comes to life. I know him now. He is scooping up ground balls on the Troy sandlot and then turning two in the National League, full of youth. He is forcing out poor Merkle because he knows no other way to play but ruthlessly. And then, so suddenly, he is sitting by a streetside window in a simple Albany apartment, old and weak, wondering where the games have gone.