Joe Jerger

26 Nov

Through a pronunciation fluke and poor subsequent research, Joseph J. Jerger remains the least known player to have been involved in a fatal beaning in a professional game.

Jerger was born in Germany, February 14, 1877, and began playing professionally with the Fall River Indians in the New England League in 1902.  With the exception of two short stints in the Eastern and Central Leagues, he remained with Fall River through 1907.

On August 9, 1906, with Thomas F. Burke, left fielder for the Lynn Shoemakers at the plate Jerger threw a pitch that broke inside and struck Burke in the temple.  Burke was immediately knocked unconscious, he was caught by the umpire as he fell.

According to newspaper reports Burke was  “a former player for Boston University and a law student in the off season,” this could be true, or Burke might have been confused with Boston athlete and Olympian Thomas E. Burke, who was attending law school during this period.

The real confusion was with Jerger.

Every contemporary newspaper account of the event, using the name as it was pronounced rather than as spelled, called Jerger “Joe Yeager.”   It was probably also due to Joseph Francis “Little Joe” Yeager, who had been a pitcher and in 1906 was playing infield for the New York Highlanders.

The Sporting Life had only added to the confusion in July of 1906 when they said:

“The name of the Fall River pitcher is Jegger not Yeager.”

Early reports were optimistic, The Boston Globe said “Doctors have hope,” for Burke’s recovery. Burke underwent surgery, but never regained consciousness and died on August 11.

Jerger was arrested and charged with manslaughter on August 18.  Contrary to some accounts, like in the otherwise excellent, “Death At The Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities of Players, Other Personnel and Spectators in Amateur and Professional Baseball, 1862-2007,” Jerger was never in danger of being convicted–the local authorities had determined that the best way to “place (Jerger) in good standing,” was to make his exoneration official.  (Incidentally, the book also incorrectly identifies Jerger as “Yeager”).

At the time of his “arrest,” the Lynn Chief of Police (named Burke), called the manslaughter charge “a mere formality,” and said it was only to “have a complete record of Burke’s death.”

Judge Berry of the Lynn Police Court, who had been in attendance at the game, presided over the brief hearing on August 20.  Six witnesses testified on Jerger’s behalf and according to The Boston Evening Transcript, Berry ruled that “(Jerger) was in no way to blame for the death of Burke,” and:

“Judge Berry told Yeager (sic) that he was a good pitcher and it gave him pleasure to exonerate him.”

Unlike other pitchers who were involved with hit by pitch deaths, the name confusion meant that the incident did not seem to follow Jerger.  I cannot find a reference to Jerger in any newspaper article after 1906 that mentions Burke’s death.

After being released by Fall River at the close of 1907, Jerger joined the Wheeling Stogies in the Central League.  In 1909 he had his best season, posting a 20-12 record for the East Liverpool Potters in the Ohio-Pennsylvania League.  Jerger finished his career in 1910 with the Quincy Vets in the Central Association.

Jerger died in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, February 6, 1961.

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