9/23/1908 - Merkle's Boner

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(The Fred Merkle game on Sep. 23. Photo by Mark Rucker, Getty Images)

On a September day in 1908, the Chicago Cubs came into the Polo Grounds mere percentage points behind the New York Giants. With only a handful of games remaining in season, the pivotal contest was played knowing that the National League representative in the World Series was at stake.

Minutes before the game began, Giants manager John McGraw substituted out first baseman Frank Tenney -- who was injured -- and replaced him with a bright-eyed 19 year-old named Fred Merkle. Just two days earlier, a writer for the Chicago Tribune had envisioned such an occurrence:

"Suppose Fred Tenney should be crippled. That would be a calamity, wouldn’t it? Yes, it would in one way, but it wouldn’t keep the Giants from winning the pennant. There is a young fellow on the bench named Fred Merkle who can fill that job better than nine-tenths of the first basemen in the league. He is crying for a chance to work."

Through eight and half innings, the game was tied 1-1. A sharp pitching duel between the Cubs' Jack "Giant Killer" Pfiester and the Giants' Christy Mathewson had limited the batters to less than a dozen hits. In the bottom of the ninth, Fred Merkle came to the plate with two out and Moose McCormick on first. Merkle lined a single to advance McCormick to third, then trotted down to first.

The next man to bat was shortstop Al Bridwell, who hocked the first pitch he saw into center field. As Bridwell touched first, McCormick ran home for the presumptive winning run. Merkle, in his first career start, was the hero of the game along with Bridwell.

But... as Merkle was heading to second, hundreds of ecstatic Giants fans poared onto the field in celebration. Believing that he his team had claimed a 2-1 victory, Merkle turned around and ran for the clubhouse, without touching second. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers saw this and realized that the Cubs still had life. If he could step on second base with the baseball, the resulting forceout would cancel out the run and end the inning, even though McCormick had already touched home.

The problem was that the ball was lost somewhere among the mob of spectators, which had engulfed most of the baseball field. What happened next has been speculated and varied for years and years: one account was that Giants third base coach Joe McGinnity saw what Evers was up to, found the ball, and threw it into the stands. A pair of Cubs then tracked down the fan who caught the ball and retrieved it from him; another is that Christy Mathewson came up with it and had it wrestled away from him by Johnny Evers; and then there's the claim that one of the Cubs produced a different ball from the dugout, possibly after McGinnity threw it into the stands.

By whatever means, the Chicago Cubs managed to produce a baseball, which was then thrown to Johnny Evers at second base. Umpire Hank O'Day then met with the managers of both teams, who argued that their team had won. O'Day would rule that Merkle was out on the force, and that because the game could not be continued with the fans on the field, the game was ruled a 1-1 tie. A makeup game between the Cubs and Giants would be played at the end of the year, if both teams were tied.

The next day, the Chicago Tribune wrote: "Minor league brains lost the Giants today's game after they had cleanly and fairly won." The New York Times wrote that "censurable stupidity" from Merkle "placed the New York team's chances of winning the pennant in jeopardy." The Giants were convinced they had been robbed, claiming that during the commotion, Merkle had been led back onto the field to touch second base.

"When Bridwell shot that long single‚ I started across the grass for the clubhouse," Merkle said years later. "(Christy Matthewson was near me. When Evers began shouting for the ball‚ he noticed something was wrong. Matty caught me by the arm and told me to wait a minute. We walked over toward 2B‚ and Matty spoke to (Bob Emslie, the second base umpire). 'How about this‚ Bob‚ is there any trouble with the score of the play?' 'It's all right‚' said Emslie. 'You've got the game. I don't see anything wrong with the play.' Matty then took me by the arm and we walked to the clubhouse confident that we had won the game."

As fortune would have it, the Cubs and Giants were tied at the end of the year. The 1908 pennant race, believed by many to be the most exciting of all time, concluded with a final, decisive game on October 8th. A massive crowd packed into the Polo Grounds to see what was at the time the most anticipated baseball game ever. In the end, the Cubs won 4-2 to claim the NL pennant. They then advanced to the World Series, where the beat the Detroit Tigers to win back-to-back titles.

"It is criminal to say that Merkle is stupid and to blame the loss of the pennant on him," John McGraw said after the season. "In the first place, he is one of the smartest and best players on the club and, in not touching second base, he merely did as he had seen veteran players do ever since he has been in the league. In the second place, he didn't cost us the pennant. We lost a dozen games we should have won this year -- yes, two dozen! -- and any one of them could have saved the pennant for us. Besides, we were robbed of it! And you can't say Merkle did that!"

Merkle played an additional fourteen years and was on the losing side of six World Series, but he could never ever escape the legacy of "The Merkle Boner." Everywhere he went, Fred was blamed and ridiculed for what might have been the most infamous play in sports history. While the rabid fanaticism of sports fans would help propel players like Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan into the status of folklore heroes, it would also destroy the careers of those who committed a famous gaffe. Bill Buckner, Steve Bartman, Donnie Moore, Nick Anderson, Scott Norwood, and Phil Luckett would later be remembored for their own mistakes, but Merkle came first.

Years later, Merkle and his family were sitting in a church when the minister said, "I want to begin by admitting an ugly secret. I am from Toledo, Ohio, birthplace of the infamous Fred 'Bonehead' Merkle." A distraught Merkle then led his family out of the pew. "When I die, I guess I'll put on my tombstone, 'Here Lies Bonehead Merkle,'" he said in one of his final interviews.

Merkle was so lambasted that Al Bridwell, whose hit should have given the Giants a 2-1 win, regretted putting Merkle in that position. "I wish had never gotten that hit," he told author Lawrence Ritter. "I wish I had struck out instead. If I had done that, then it would have spared Fred a lot of unfair humiliation."

The Chicago Cubs won the championship in 1908. Perhaps as karma for winning a title that did not belong to them, the Cubs would endure more than a century of failure, and have not won a World Series since.

Further reading:

Some Players Undeserving of 'Goat' Label [Baseball Digest]

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