SABR

Jack Merson

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

It was a long slog to the major leagues for Jack Merson. He broke into Organized Baseball in 1940, signed as a teenager by the Washington Senators and assigned to play second base for the Newport (Tennessee) Canners in the Class D Appalachian League. He made the majors near the end of the 1951 season, with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Growing up in Elkridge, Maryland, where he’d been born on January 17, 1922, Merson graduated from Elkridge High School in 1939. Besides baseball, he competed in track and played basketball and soccer as well, averaging 14 points per game in basketball and winning 15 athletic letters in high school. It was in baseball that he excelled. In 1938 he struck out 15 batters to win the Howard County title over Ellicott City. Despite his success pitching, he said he simply liked infield better.i He did not go to college. In 1952 he told the American League Service Bureau that he had never had any other ambition in life other than to play baseball, and near the end of the century he told author Ali Kahn the same thing, “I never wanted anything to do but play baseball. Several of my teachers said, ‘Jack Merson, if you’d just forget about baseball and start learning your ABC’s and your English, and so forth, you’d be an ‘A’ student. Well, I was very satisfied with getting my C’s, you know, as an average student in getting by.”ii

Merson was active playing semipro ball, and one newspaper report had him playing shortstop for the Elkridge Athletic Club in July 1940 against the Navy second classmen in Annapolis. That may be where he was first spotted by legendary Senators scout Joe Cambria.iii

It was only a brief 12 games with Newport, where Merson hit five singles in 37 at-bats for a .135 batting average. He was very strong in the field, playing second base, and committing only one error in 55 chances, for a .982 fielding percentage. The next time he appeared in Organized Baseball was seven years later.

Both of Merson’s parents were Maryland natives, Mary Hastings Merson and John O. Merson, a station agent for the railroad handling baggage and tickets at several local stations – Elkridge, Relay, Ellicott City, Ilchester, Jessup, and a few others. He lost the position near the end of the Depression but a neighbor who had worked making metal tobacco tins for the Federal Tin Company of Baltimore helped secure Merson a job.

John Warren “Jack” Merson was the eldest of nine children at the time of the 1930 census; his younger siblings then were William, Oliver, Ella, and Samuel. Two other brothers, Don and Tom, and two sisters, Jan and Char, came later.

Between 1940 and 1944, Merson worked at Davis and Hemphill, a local machinist company. Active in community life in Elkridge, he was a charter member of the Elkridge Volunteer Fire Department, beginning in 1942, and helped the town refurbish an old Brockway as its first fire engine.iv Interestingly, his son John worked for 28 years for the Baltimore County Fire Department and (as of the writing of this biography in 2012) his grandson John had worked for more than 21 years for the Howard County Fire Department. Jack spent a little over a year in the United States Army during the Second World War, enlisting on July 26, 1944, in Baltimore and getting his discharge on September 14, 1945. He never sent overseas; after completing basic training, he visited home on a furlough and accidentally shot himself in the knee while target shooting in his yard. In July 1943 he had married Jimmie Baldwin, of Laurel, Maryland. They remained married for 57 years and had five children, John Jr., Joyce, Jeff, Jill, and Jason. All the children played sports and two (John and Jeff) are in the Howard High School hall of fame. Jeff and Jason each became Maryland State Police troopers.

Jack also helped establish the Elkridge Youth Organization; grandson John later became president of the youth service organization.

The accident with Merson’s knee did not prevent him from returning to baseball after the war. In 1946 he played shortstop in semipro ball for the Spring Grove Hospital club, the Maryland state champion, and was deemed to have the ability to win a job in the major leagues if he had the desire to re-enter the ranks of the pros. New York Yankees scout Harry Hesse told the Washington Post, “He looks like a good prospect, if he wants to play professional ball. But he would probably start him (sic) at Sunbury, and I understand he is already married and has a youngster.”v

After a good series playing in a tournament at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Jack signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization (which had him listed as two years younger, born in 1924 – after he’d left the game Merson owned up to knocking those two years off of what he told Pirates scout John “Poke” Whalen). Jack was assigned to the Uniontown Coal Barons in the Middle Atlantic League (Class C) for the 1947 season. The .388 he hit was, with 11 home runs, in the words of Pittsburgh sportswriter Les Biederman, “the highest batting average of any Little Pirate in the minors last year. … Buc officials think so highly of him that he’s going to Indianapolis this spring.vi Merson led the league in runs batted in. He was instead sent to Class B and optioned to the York White Roses in April 1948, though still on an Indianapolis contract. He hit .321 for York in a full 141-game campaign. After the season, Merson moved up the ladder; he was optioned to Double-A New Orleans in October.

With the Pelicans for 1949 he had an off year, missing a number of games (he played in 111 games) and hitting .247. Nonetheless, after the 1949 season, he was added to the Pirates roster. It may have been Merson’s work on defense that impressed as much as his bat had the year before. He played second base, third base, and shortstop, and Les Biederman reported that he was “regarded as a fielding artist.”vii In 1950 it was back to New Orleans for another year and Merson rebounded, batting .290 and recovering some power, with eight home runs, and playing exclusively at second base.

At last Merson reached Indianapolis in 1951, playing second base in 147 games for the Pirates’ Triple-A club. He hit .295 with 10 homers and 94 runs batted in, and he led the American Association in double plays. This earned him a September 1 call-up to Pittsburgh. Merson’s first game was on September 14, at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field against the Brooklyn Dodgers, and he collected his first base hit – a double – off Preacher Roe. The next day, he had a stunning second game: He was 4-for-5 with two doubles and a triple and he drove in six runs in an 11-4 win. Helping win the game gave Merson bragging rights in later years about what he called “my contribution to the shot heard ’round the world.”viii After all, he suggested, had the Dodgers won that game, they wouldn’t have finished the season tied with the Giants, and there wouldn’t have needed to be a playoff game, and Bobby Thomson never would have homered off Ralph Branca.

In 13 games, Merson had 50 at-bats and hit for a .360 average. He had one home run, on September 28 with two RBIs in a 4-3 loss to Cincinnati. He was perhaps better known as Johnny Merson, which is how he signed his name for autographs.

Back again for the 1952 season, Merson hit well in spring training and kept it going into late May,holding a .305 average after a game against the Chicago Cubs that he won with a double in the 13th inning. He couldn’t maintain the momentum, however, and as the season wore on, his average came back down to earth from the .340 he’d been hitting on May 13. He won another game on July 25, driving in Ralph Kiner in a game against the Boston Braves. His last game of the 1952 season came on August 17, when he played both games of a doubleheader at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, but was hit on the right wrist by a Bob Kelly pitch in the third inning. He suffered what was described as an “incomplete fracture” and he was out for the season.ix

The Pirates finished in last place in 1952 and on October 13 they traded Merson and two other players to the Hollywood Stars in the Pacific Coast League. On December 1, in the major-league draft held at Phoenix’s Westward Ho Hotel, the Boston Red Sox drafted Merson from the Hollywood team. Merson told Brent Kelley in the Sports Collectors Digest article, “Ol’ Pinky Higgins, he always liked me – he managed Birmingham when I played with New Orleans – and he was affiliated with the Red Sox at that time and he recommended that they pick me up.”x The Red Sox also signed bonus baby Billy Consolo as a potential second baseman. “That killed me right there,” Merson said. “With my age and all, I was a victim of circumstances.”xi Merson played in only one regular-season game for the Red Sox, on April 24. He was 0-for-4, and was optioned to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League on May 2.

For the next four seasons Merson played for the Padres, initially at third base, but mostly in the middle infield – though he did play one game each in the outfield and as catcher, and played two games at first base. He didn’t hit that well in his first two seasons, hitting .229 and .227. Despite his own subpar season, the Padres won the pennant in 1954, beating Hollywood in the playoffs, and Jack received a championship ring. In 1955 he got his stroke back again and batted .282 but then slid back a bit to .253 in 1956, his final year in Organized Baseball. With a growing family, and though he recalled a nice place the family lived in in the Mission Beach section of San Diego, he was perhaps happy enough to be able to return home. At one point he compiled a listing of all the places in which he had played baseball. It totaled 147 locales in 27 states, the District of Columbia, Vancouver in Canada, and five cities in Puerto Rico.

At first, Jack took up work at Pressley’s auto parts store, but then developed his own parts supply business (which he ran out of his car). He and his wife, Jimmie, began a florist business.

Thanks to a brother-in-law, who had worked there, Merson took up work for the Maryland House of Corrections, beginning as a guard working the tiers. “I really got a kick out of going into the correctional system,” he said. He advanced to become a captain, supervising the guards as a shift commander, usually working the midnight-to-8 A.M. shift. He retired in 1982, but felt that during his stay, “I think I turned a couple of people around. That was my ambition – to try to turn at least one person around and get away from the recidivism and going back and so forth. … I think I did that to a couple of people. To me, I reached my goal. It was a lot of personal satisfaction.”xii

This dedicated community man died of complications following a stroke in Elkridge, the town of his birth, on April 28, 2000.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Merson’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the online SABR Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com. Special thanks to John Merson, Jr. and John Merson, III, who assisted with a great deal of the Merson family information in e-mail exchanges in February-April 2012.

 

Notes

iQuestionnaire completed in 1952 for the American League Service Bureau, on file at the Hall of Fame.

ii Draft article sent by Alison Kahn to Jimmie Merson in February 2005, intended for publication in a book Patapsco: Portrait of a Valley. The article offers many colorful reminiscences by Merson himself of what it was like growing up in his town and times.

iii Note added in January 1951, National Baseball Hall of Fame player file. Also see Merson’s own recollection in Brent Kelley’s “Jack Merson helped set the stage for the ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World,’ ” Sports Collectors Digest, December 2, 1994. This is a very enjoyable interview which offers a lot of stories from his years in the game.

ivAlison Kahn article. See also The Sporting News, April 4, 1947.

vWashington Post, September 7, 1946.

viThe Sporting News, March 24, 1928.

viiThe Sporting News, January 11, 1950

viii Kelley, Sports Collectors Digest, December 2, 1994.

ixNew York Times, August 18, 1952.

xKelley, Sports Collectors Digest, December 2, 1994.

xiKelley, Sports Collectors Digest, December 2, 1994. Merson added, “I don’t regret it. I don’t regret anything that ever happened to me ’cause I think it was the Lord’s will.”

xiiKelley, Sports Collectors Digest, December 2, 1994.

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