This article was written by Bill Nowlin
When the Red Sox season ended on September 28, 1975, Andy Merchant trotted off the field and the Red Sox had only their third American League postseason berth since 1918. The Red Sox had clinched the division title the day before, thanks to the New York Yankees, who had swept a doubleheader from the second-place Orioles. So the 28th was a bit of a rest day for the Red Sox. Merchant debuted behind the plate, catching starter Dick Pole and batting third in the order. Also making his major-league debut in the day’s game was second baseman Steve Dillard.
Merchant was tested immediately. The Indians’ leadoff batter was John Lowenstein, who singled. He tried to steal second, but Merchant’s throw to second base cut him down.
First time up, Merchant flied deep to center off Cleveland’s Fred Beene; Dillard, who had singled and stolen second, took third on the flyout. The game proved to be Beene’s last after seven years in the majors. Bernie Carbo singled Dillard home. Merchant came up again in the bottom of the third. Dillard singled to lead off, and Merchant singled, moving Dillard to second. Three batters later, Merchant scored on Rick Miller’s single. Before the inning was over, the Red Sox had a 4-2 lead. It didn’t last; the Indians scored six times in the top of the fifth.
Merchant batted a third time in the bottom of the fifth and reached on an error by third baseman Alan Ashby, moved up to second on a wild pitch and to third on a groundout, but was left stranded there when Bob Montgomery made an out to shortstop. He walked in the seventh but was stranded on second. With the score 11-4 in favor of the Indians, Merchant came up again with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. He singled to the pitcher, but was left at first base when Carbo made the regular season’s final out.
Merchant’s major-league stats for 1975 thus showed four at-bats, with two hits and a walk – an average of .500 with an on-base percentage of .600. He’d scored one run, and was flawless in the field – two putouts (on strikeouts by Jim Willoughby in the eighth inning), and the one first-inning assist in three chances. The Boston Globe game story was headlined “Red Sox scrubs bite dust, 11-4” but Andy thoroughly enjoyed the day. “I had the best time of my life,” he recalled in a 2005 interview.
James Anderson Merchant was born in Mobile, Alabama, on Ted Williams’s birthday, August 30, in the year 1950. His father worked for the Alabama Power Company, and both father and mother were supportive as he began to play ball from a fairly early age. Merchant attributes his initial interest in baseball to a local man named Merle Mason: “He put a catcher’s mitt on my hand and he’s the one who taught me in the very, very beginning.” Andy was 10 or 11 at the time, and he progressed through Little League, on into Babe Ruth League and then on to what was called at the time Advanced Babe Ruth. Andy’s dad was very active during his youth baseball years and served as vice president of the Babe Ruth League. “They always followed me everywhere I went,” he remembered. “I still question Mom, where they got the money. She said, we always borrowed it – and paid it back.” Andy had siblings, but none played baseball for long.
Merchant was always a catcher, every step along the way. In high school he was the team MVP. After high school, he attended Auburn University and graduated from there in four years, majoring in business administration. The first year he had been given a “books and board” scholarship, but he got a chance to break into the lineup on the baseball team and as of his sophomore year, he was on a full scholarship. It paid off for Auburn, too. For three years, Andy was all-Southeastern Conference. He won the SEC batting title with a .400 average. He still holds one record in the conference, making six hits in one game.
Boston Red Sox scout Milt Bolling pursued Merchant and signed him with an $8,000 bonus after the Red Sox selected him in the 10th round of the 1972 amateur draft. He laughed about the bonus: “I went and bought myself a [brand-new] Monte Carlo and hit the road!” Before too long, he drove to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he played Single-A ball in the Red Sox farm system. In 121 at-bats, Merchant hit for a .339 average with four homers and 21 RBIs.
He got married the following year, and progressed up the ladder to the Double-A Bristol (Connecticut) Red Sox, where he roomed for a good while with Fred Lynn. In his 1973 season he saw some action as an outfielder as well, accumulating 171 at-bats in all, with 24 RBIs but a dip in average to .269.
A groin injury at Bristol, incurred diving back into third, reduced Merchant’s playing time. The 1974 season saw him back in the Carolina League with Winston-Salem, where he got a lot more experience, 366 at-bats in 113 games, and an average of .292, with 62 RBIs.
The 1974 year earned Merchant a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket for the following year, and he spent most of his professional career with the Pawtucket team, both before and after his brief stints with the big-league club in 1975 and again in 1976. His 1975 year with Pawtucket gave him 375 at-bats in 119 games, and a solid .280 average, and made him a candidate for the late-season call-up.
Of course, in 1975, as the Red Sox faced Oakland in the American League Championship Series and then the Reds in the World Series, Merchant was no longer on the playoff roster. “I just went home and watched old Carlton on TV like everybody else.” He’d made at least some small contribution, though. He threw a lot of batting practice while he was up and recalled throwing BP to players like Carl Yastrzemski as something he would always remember. Though Merchant was a left-handed-hitting batter, he threw right-handed.
Merchant was pleased to receive a partial World Series share later in the year.
He appeared in 68 games with Pawtucket (renamed the Rhode Island Red Sox) in 1976. He hit .296 in 1976, and was up and down a bit with Boston during the course of the season, though he played in only two games with the big-league club. “I’d gone up several times, in fact. They’d call when someone got an injury. They’d call me up for a little while. I was kind of the next catcher in line. I was back and forth.” The Sox system had several good catchers ahead of Merchant – Carlton Fisk, Bob Montgomery, and Tim Blackwell.
Merchant got in two games in June. On June 2 at Fenway Park, he pinch-hit against Ed Figueroa of the Yankees, batting for Bob Montgomery in the bottom of the eighth, and was called out on strikes for the second out of the inning. Andy stayed in the game for the ninth, recording another putout on a Reggie Cleveland strikeout of Chris Chambliss. The Yankees won the game, 7-2, on the strength of a five-run top of the second. Eight days later, Merchant got into another game, also in Boston, against the Oakland A’s. With two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth, he pinch-hit for Doug Griffin, facing future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers. Oakland was leading the game, 8-5, after scoring six runs in the top of the eighth. Fingers fooled him on a pitch, and once again Merchant struck out looking. As it would turn out, that was his last appearance in the major leagues. After batting .500 in 1975, he’d struck out twice in two at-bats in ’76 and been sent back to Pawtucket. “I was terrible then. I was sitting on the bench too long and I lost all my timing,” he recalled in 2005.
Back with the PawSox, though, Merchant did quite well. And he did earn a ring playing baseball, for the 1977 Pawtucket Red Sox, who finished first in the International League regular season. He gladly attended a reunion in Pawtucket in recent years and told writer Joe Kuras how much things had changed from the old chicken-wire cages they used as lockers back then. But, he added, “I was always one who came early to the ballpark. I used to help them on the field. I used to come and work out. I just loved being around the ballpark. It was my life. I loved it.”
The next couple of years, 1978 and 1979, Andy played for Joe Morgan in Pawtucket, never playing full-time and never truly outstanding (.263 with 14 RBIs in 1978, but declining to .152 and 10 RBIs in 1979). In 1978, oddly, he switched positions in the battery and threw from the mound during one game – just for an inning, in which he gave up three hits and two earned runs. In 2005 he didn’t have a distinct memory of the occasion – though he did recall pitching a no-hitter back in Little League.
Merchant had it in mind to become a bullpen coach after his playing days were over and felt he’d been in line for a position along those lines, serving as “sort of a player-coach.” But things went awry and it didn’t work out that way. Despite the depth the Sox had in catching, Merchant was a left-handed-hitting catcher and those were rare so the Sox were reluctant to let him go. “I never was in the trade picture, I guess you might say.” The way it all ended, though, was a bit bizarre. In 1980 Merchant received a letter inviting him to spring training, to report to the minor-league camp. “I didn’t show up and I didn’t plan on coming back, but then I had a phone call. Sam Bowen called me up [from the big-league camp]. He said, ‘Your uniform’s in your locker. Everybody’s wondering where you’re at.’ I said, ‘I didn’t get a letter, I didn’t hear from Boston or anybody.’ I didn’t know I was supposed to report back to the big-league team that particular year.” So he called up Red Sox executive Ed Kenney. “He wanted to know if I could catch the next flight out to report to spring training. I said I’d be glad to. I done missed about a week. And I said, `Well, would y’all pay me for that week if I come?’ And you’re not going to believe this, but the connection on the phone, we faded out. We lost connection.” It wasn’t as though Kenney hung up on Merchant. “No, it went fuzzy and we lost connection. I didn’t call him back and he didn’t call me back and that’s the way my career ended right there.”
Merchant took up working for Alabama Power as a line-clearing specialist. He noted further, “I never have to this day got a release from Boston.” When the interviewer suggested that perhaps he should report for duty, even though it was more than a quarter-century later, Merchant said that some people had told him, “You ought to sue them for retroactive. You never got your release.”
Andy Merchant worked 20 years for Alabama Power and took his retirement in the year 2000. As of 2005, he was working as a caregiver, helping take care of a man in his neighborhood who was wheelchair-bound with rheumatoid arthritis.
“The type people that were ahead of me, I feel like I never got the opportunity to show what I could do. You get called up from Triple-A, and you sit around. You lose your timing, you lose everything sitting on the bench. Just warming up pitchers in the bullpen, you can’t perform in front of 30,000 people who expect you to perform well. In ’75, I got right into a game, which was all right. In ’76, it felt like I just sat around a lot more. It is hard. It’s very difficult to perform where you’re sitting around like that.”
Merchant expressed pleasure in receiving alumni mailings from the Red Sox, and kept them informed of his changes in work, even though the team he began to root for in retirement was the Atlanta Braves. He was clear, though, that he harbored no animosity at all toward the Red Sox. “I got overlooked a little bit. It’s part of life. I enjoyed a cup of coffee and then went on about my way. I came along at the wrong time, evidently, but that’s all right. I enjoyed it while I was there, I really did. I don’t have no complaints or gripes about it. It was really special in my life.”
Interviews with Andy Merchant were conducted by Bill Nowlin on October 12, 2001, and August 10 and September 24, 2005. All quotations from this biography are from one or the other of these interviews.