Stump Merrill Is Just Common Folk
A few weeks ago, Stump Merrill was jogging in the snow-covered streets here when he spotted a driver ahead of him, weaving and turning. “I thought this poor guy was lost,” Merrill said. Just the opposite. When Merrill got close to the now-parked vehicle, the driver disembarked, clipboard and paper in hand. “I was in shock. He wanted an autograph,” Merrill said. “So I accommodated him and off he went.”
Why this behavior shocked Merrill is the shocker here. After all, he is the manager of the most famous, most successful franchise in sports history, and as such is Topsham’s best-known resident. Shouldn’t this burg of 8,750, mostly just plain folks, be called Stumpville by now?
The surprise is that here in scenic Topsham (pronounced Top-sum) -- a typical New England melding of beauty and history and snow -- Merrill usually is treated like any other Downeaster. Dressed in a flannel shirt and corduroy pants when he isn’t jogging, Merrill looks like any other Downeaster. He has the same old values he has always had, the same strong accent, and also the same belongings. He is, however, adding a trophy room to his nice but modest home across from where his brother Wayne lives on Merrymeeting Road.
“We don’t make a big deal about (being manager of the Yankees) around here,” said Merrill, named last June 6. “My daughters’ peers have said some things, like ‘your dad’s a manager, so how come you don’t live in a better house?’ ”
Merrill has only one great worldly want. And so far his wife, Carole, and his buddies down at beautiful, historic and academically prestigious Bowdoin College in Brunswick -- just across the Androscoggin River and Frank Woods Bridge from Topsham -- have talked him out of the Mercedes-Benz he sometimes dreams about.
“If he gets a big car, he loses his locker,” proclaimed good pal Sid Watson, Bowdoin’s athletic director. The free locker is a rare perk accorded the Yankees’ manager in his hometown.
In a sense, Bowdoin is Merrill’s wintertime Yankee Stadium; he hangs out there daily. In hockey coach Terry Meagher’s office, it’s like Floyd’s Barbershop of Mayberry R.F.D. fame. Chat time. Merrill, an assistant football coach at Bowdoin as recently as 1984, sits and talks sports with the current Bowdoin coaches.
“I come here for the free laundry,” Merrill joked about his own frugality.
“Lookee here,” chimed in longtime Bowdoin trainer Mike Linkovich. “He’s got free Bowdoin socks on, and look at his undershirt. Bowdoin grays. Talk about a cheap SOB.”
Merrill is accorded no special treatment here; perhaps that is what he likes best. The teasing is non-stop. Phil Soule, an assistant football coach, says he will jog with Merrill only “when I feel like an off day.”
Merrill’s paunch is a big target of jokes (incidentally, the 5-foot-8 Merrill has dropped 20 pounds to an almost svelte 200).
“He’s fat and he’s overweight,” Linkovich said. “And he’s cheap. I haven’t had a (free Yankees) shirt or a jacket yet.”
Meagher summed it up: “He may be in charge of the most storied franchise in the history of sports, but around here he’s just plain Stumpy.”
That might be a slight exaggeration. After all, Stump sells. At $3 a ticket, Father-Son Night at historic First Parish Church -- featuring a speech by the Yankees manager -- sold out quickly. And one recent Monday night at a high school hockey game, a man Merrill had not seen in 25 years approached him. “Send George my love,” the man told him.
Down at the Brunswick Chamber of Commerce, a woman, asked to identify local celebrities, said, “There’s James Michener, of course. He has a home in Brunswick ... and Stump Merrill.”
The woman knew little about Merrill, preferring to expand about ancient history. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Franklin Pierce are among Bowdoin’s storied alums, she said. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in Brunswick, she said. Like a few others, the woman had never heard of Merrill until George Steinbrenner stunned the baseball world by choosing Brunswick native Merrill as manager.
In one way, Merrill’s promotion should not have been such a surprise. He always has overachieved. An undersized baseball, football and basketball star at Brunswick High School, Carl Harrison Merrill was known for his scrappiness.
His most celebrated athletic achievement was catching for the University of Maine team that knocked off mighty Southern Cal and Arizona State and finished third in the College World Series in 1964, thrilling the state. Merrill became a No. 2 draft choice of the Philadelphia Phillies, but weak hitting (two home runs in six minor-league seasons) and a right knee ravaged by injury stopped his major-league dream at the Triple-A level.
Nobody ever accused Merrill of lacking effort. Only in the last few years has he not spent winters coaching college football and refereeing high school and college basketball. Instead, he punishes his arthritic knee -- which has been operated on five times -- by jogging five to eight miles a day. “Don’t tell my doctor,” said Stump, who will turn 47 in three weeks.
Nor his wife, who warns him to little avail about his jogging, his chewing and his drinking. “I’m not a good listener,” Stump said.
He is, however, a good family man. He talks often about Carole, outgoing and opinionated, as well as pretty and personable daughters Leslie, 17, and Carin, 15. For their benefit, Merrill rejects most offseason speaking engagements. “I’m gone seven months from the family, so it’s tough to justify six nights a week of appearances,” he said. “Some people say you’ve got to do it while you can. But there’ll be time for that later. And if we miss it, so what?”
Tragedy taught Merrill a lesson about family early, as a high school freshman. He recalled, “We had been eliminated from a Legion tournament in the afternoon. When I came home my dad was not home. So I went out. When my dad said to be home at midnight, he meant midnight. I was 10 minutes late. When I saw all the lights at home were on, I thought my ass was grass and Dad’s the lawn mower. Then I saw there was a note on the table that my father was in the hospital. He had had a heart attack. He died the next morning.”
Earl Merrill was in his early 50s. And Stump was the most outwardly upset of four Merrill children. “I didn’t even think I was that close to my father. I found out I was wrong about that,” he said. “I didn’t leave the house for two weeks.”
Unfairly, Merrill was struck again. In 1979, Jack Butterfield -- Stump’s coach on the celebrated 1964 Maine team and the one who first hired Merrill as a Yankees minor-league coach -- was killed when his car struck a street sweeper parked in the fast lane while he drove to his New Jersey home from Yankees General Manager Cedric Tallis’ going-away party.
Butterfield is remembered fondly as the one who housed Merrill for a nominal $30 a month during Stump’s junior year at Maine. Merrill’s mother, Emeline, all alone, worked at the bindery department of the Brunswick Record newspaper and could not afford housing and Stump’s education.
If Carole had her way, Stump would have put that education to use years ago. “I’d be the first to admit I tried a hundred times to talk him into finding something else to do,” she said. “I never doubted his ability. But the manager always seemed to be someone who had done something spectacular in the past or someone who was a great player.”