There is one record that no member of the Detroit Tigers would ever want to own, and it belongs to Herm Merritt. He is the only person to play for the Detroit Tigers and die before his 27th birthday.
Merritt was playing in an amateur league in Grey Bull, Montana, when the Tigers discovered him. He joined the Tigers in late August of 1921. He was 1-for-4 in his first six games – all as a defensive replacement at shortstop or as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner.
Finally, on September 5, the Merritt got his chance in a doubleheader with the Chicago White Sox at Navin Field in Detroit. Merritt got a hit in the first game after entering as a defensive replacement, and he was 1-for-3 in the second game as he made his first major-league start. He made two errors, but they did not keep the Tigers from winning the game 4-3.
Merritt began to get more playing time, and he had a five-game hitting streak in the middle of September. It included three consecutive two-hit games and a four-game streak with one RBI in each game.
Merritt opened some eyes as he hit .370 (17-for-46) with a double, two triples and six RBIs. The Tigers sent Merritt to the Augusta Tourists of the South Atlantic League in 1922. Tigers player/manager Ty Cobb held stock in the August team and hoped Merrite would develop into a player who could help the Tigers in the future. But he never got the chance to put in another season of baseball.
On April 23, 1922, Merritt and four teammates were involved in an automobile accident outside of Greenville, South Carolina. The car Merritt was driving flipped, and everyone inside was injured. The Detroit Free Press reported that Merritt said he was driving at a safe speed but the steering gear failed.
Merritt was thrown from the car and ended up pinned under the vehicle. He suffered a fractured spine at the base and was temporarily paralyzed. His baseball career was likely over, and doctors feared his life was in danger.
Surgeons operated on Merritt and saved his life. A touchy surgery that The Sporting News reported, “The operation is said to have been one of the most difficult and unprecedented in the history of surgery at Greenville.”
Merritt lived another five years, but on April 26, 1927, he died of acute nephritis, a result of the fracture.
“D” TALES: The fine late-season run by Herm Merritt in 1921 left him near the top of one list of Tigers achievements. His .370 batting average in 46 at-bats is the fourth-best in franchise history for players with at least 40 at-bats.
Phil Clark, who played in 1992, holds the record with a .407 batting average in 54 at-bats. Timo Perez, who hit .389 in 90 at-bats in 2007, is second, and Tom Hughes, who had a .373 mark in 59 at-bats in 1930, is third, Merritt, who was 20 at the time of his appearance in the majors, was the youngest of those four players.