Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"...[I]t remains the most famous do-over in a sport where there are no do-overs."

Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most famous incidents in baseball history, which has long since been known as "the Merkle Blunder".

What with the Cubs' history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory since the Curse of the Billy Goat was visited on them 37 years later, it's somewhat ironic that this putative miscue was committed not by the Cubs, but by their opponents—specifically, Fred Merkle of the New York Giants.

Not insigifnicantly, the incident played a major role in allowing the Cubs to make the playoffs that year. They would, of course, go on to win the World Series.

It needn't be mentioned that they haven't won a World Series since.

The New York Daily News offers a fascinating look back:

One hundred years ago this afternoon, the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs played a game that can still be found on baseball's figurative Mount Rushmore, next to the Bobby Thompson home run game, the Sandy Amoros catch game, Don Larsen's perfect game, and the game where Carlton Fisk waved it fair.

No one who played in or saw the game is alive. The Polo Grounds, where it was played, was demolished a half century ago. Doesn't matter. Some games just endure.

More specifically, what happened on Sept. 23, 1908, was this.

With the first breezes of autumn in the air, Giants' Hall of Famer Christy Matthewson had allowed only a solo home run by Cubs' shortstop Joe Tinker in the first nine innings. On the Cubs' side, Jack Pfeister also gave up just one run through eight.

But in the bottom of the ninth, the Giants' Moose McCormick reached on a fielder's choice with two out and was singled to third by rookie Fred Merkle. As Cait Murphy noted in her marvelous book "Crazy '08" (Smithsonian. $24.95), some reporters felt Merkle could have gotten himself a double. But his decision to stay at first was considered smart baseball, since he would gain little by trying for second. In the bottom of the ninth of a 1-1 game, only McCormick's run mattered.

Al Bridwell followed Merkle and slammed a clean line drive single to center, sending McCormick home and Giants fans pouring out onto the field to celebrate their 2-1 win.

Except there was a problem.

Running toward second base, Merkle had seen McCormick cross the plate and the crowd start to overrun the field. Following the custom of the day, then, he took a right turn and headed for the clubhouse, which in the Polo Grounds was behind dead center field.

When he did, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers yelled for center fielder Art Hofman to throw him the ball.

What happened after that, Murphy notes, is lost in the mists of time - mists that closed in rapidly. The next day's newspapers contained at least a half dozen radically different accounts of the events at the apparent end of the game.

In some of them, Merkle was intercepted by Mathewson and steered back to second base. Some accounts said he got there, which he didn't.

In most accounts, Giants' pitcher "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity dashed from the first base coach's box to intercept the ball Hofman threw back to the infield and fling it deep into the stands.

That was that, McGinnity figured, except Evers was still yelling. If that ball was gone, he wanted another one.

Eventually he found one. Some say it was the real one, ripped away from a fan in the stands by little-used relief pitcher Rube Kroh. Others say it was another ball, relayed to Evers by shortstop Joe Tinker and maybe even third baseman Harry Steinfeldt, in a bizarre alternate version of the Cubs' famous Tinker-to-Evers-to Chance double play combination.

Whatever the ball's origin, Evers secured it, touched second base and asked the umpires – R.D. Emslie at second base and Henry O'Day behind the plate – to call Merkle out on a force play, which would nullify McCormick's winning run.

Emslie, who fell to the ground avoiding Bridwell's single, said he didn't see whether Merkle touched second and therefore couldn't make a call.

O'Day said he did see and no, Merkle did not touch second. Therefore, yes, he was out. McCormick's run did not count. The score was still 1-1.

The reason the home plate umpire was watching second base on this play was a story in itself. Nineteen days earlier, on Sept. 4, O'Day was behind the plate when Evers had attempted a similar appeal after a Cubs' game against Pittsburgh ended with a similar walk-off single.

Back in Pittsburgh, O'Day said he could not call the runner out because he had not been watching whether he touched second. Umpires never like having to say they didn't see something they should have, so obviously O'Day had made a mental note not to let that happen again.

By the time Merkle was called out, it was also getting dark, and given the logistics of clearing the field, O'Day saw no way for the game to resume. He called it on account of darkness and left National League President Harry Pulliam to decide what to do next.

Since there were still two weeks left in the season, Pulliam joined the general hope that in the end this game wouldn't affect the standings and he wouldn't have to do anything.

No such luck. The season ended with the Giants and Cubs tied for first place at 98-55.

So on Oct. 8 they all trooped back to the Polo Grounds to replay what was already being called The Merkle Game or, less kindly, The Merkle Blunder.

Read the rest here.

The New York Times notes:

On the afternoon of Oct. 8, an enormous crowd engulfed the Polo Grounds, willing to do anything to see a game that would decide the pennant. They teetered along Coogan’s Bluff above the ballpark; climbed up on the grandstand roof; perched on the elevated train viaduct out past left field. One man fell to his death from the el; another fell from a telegraph pole and broke his neck. A wedge of fans broke through a wooden fence into the outfield and had to be pushed back by mounted police. Later, they tried setting the fence on fire.

A second crowd gathered down at Grand Central Station to jeer the Cubs as they arrived after a 14-hour train ride. The Cubs players literally shouldered their way into the park. Once inside, they were allotted only 15 minutes of warm-ups, after which McGinnity came on the field, ringing a bell and telling them their time was up.

Some accounts at the time said McGinnity went right up to Frank Chance, the Cubs’ manager and best player, cursing and spitting and apparently trying to start a fight that would get Chance thrown out of the game.

Nevertheless, Chance and the Cubs kept their heads. The Giants fans set up a perpetual roar, ringing cowbells and blowing trumpets. They went wild when the great Christy Mathewson made his slow walk to the mound from center field, but what they did not know was that Mathewson, who had thrown 110 innings in September alone, had a dead arm. The Cubs pushed across four runs early and held on behind their own ace, Mordecai Brown, better known as Three Finger.

“From the stands there was a steady roar of abuse,” Brown said later. “I never heard anybody or any set of men called as many foul names as the Giant fans called us that day.”

Foul names might have been the least of their worries. The New York Journal reported that Cubs catcher Johnny Kling, chasing a pop foul, had to dodge “two beer bottles, a drinking glass and a derby hat.”

The moment Brown got the last out in the Cubs’ 4-2 victory, he and his teammates ran as fast as they could to the center-field clubhouse.

They were not fast enough. Pitcher Jack Pfiester was knifed in the shoulder, and Chance was punched so hard in the throat that he sustained broken cartilage. At least three other Cubs were struck, and the police had to hold shut the clubhouse doors with guns drawn.

So what happened to Merkle?

Merkle's career went up hill from there. He went on to play another 18 seasons, compiling a respectable .273 batting average.

Perhaps ironically, he was known as a smart player, someone who paid attention to the nuances of the game. After he retired he managed for almost 10 years before he took some government jobs and later went into the fishing equipment business.

With some trepidation he returned to the Polo Grounds for Old-Timers Day in 1950 and was greeted with cheers.

Still, the legacy of Sept. 23, 1908, followed him.

"I suppose when I die," he told a reporter, "they'll put on my tombstone, 'Here Lies Bonehead Merkle.'"

For what it's worth, they didn't.

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