November 30, 2022

Remembering Merkle

September 25, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

From the New York Times, March 3, 1956:
Fred Merkle, 67, Ball Player, Dies.
Giants’ First Baseman’s ‘Boner’ in Failing to Touch 2d Led to Loss of ’08 Pennant.

Fred Merkle

Fred Merkle

Now, that’s a pretty heavy charge to lay on anyone, that they single-handedly cost their team a championship. (And I don’t have to explain, do I, that ‘boner’ means mistake or error, right?)

To understand just what happened, we must travel back in time one hundred and five years, before even the game in question which was played on September 23, 1908. To Pittsburg(h) Pennsylvania, on September 4 of that year. When the Cubs and Pirates met at Exposition Park, it was in its last year as a major league venue, as Forbes Field would open in 1909.

Two aces met on the hill, Mordecai Brown for the Chicagos and Vic Willis for the Bucs. (By the way, in thirteen seasons, Vic Willis went 249-205, 2.63. Hall of Fame caliber? You tell me. But back to Exposition Park.) After nine innings, neither team had scored, but in the last of the tenth, the Pirates loaded the bases with player/manager Fred Clarke on third, the immortal Honus Wagner on second, and rookie Warren Gill on first. The 76 at-bats Gill had in 1908 would represent the sum total of his major league career.

Outfielder Owen ‘Chief’ Wilson was at the bat, four years shy of his stunning 36 triples in a season, still the major league record. Wilson laced a clean hit, Clarke scored, game over. Or was it? Warren Gill ran halfway to second, saw that the winning run was in, and took off for the clubhouse and a refreshing shower bath. Seeing this, and knowing the rule that a run can not score if the third out is made on a force play, Johnny Evers called to center fielder Art Hofman to throw him the ball. Evers then stepped on second and yelled to umpire Hank O’Day that the force was on and the run did not count. O’Day airily replied that the run scored before the out could have been made and anyway the game was over.

But O’Day was a conscientious umpire and as he pondered the play afterwards he realized that Evers was right and that the run should not have counted. As a former big league pitcher he was of course well familiar with the game and the practical application of the rules. But let us not blame Gill overmuch. It was the custom of the time for fans to swarm major league fields at the conclusion of the game, both because in some parks the exit was that way and because professional sports were much less formal one century ago. In two weeks’ time, Fred Merkle would have his date with destiny and learn the same hard lesson.

The day after the Gill game, the New York Globe newspaper printed an article detailing the play and the aftermath, and pointing out that the run should not have counted. That day the New York Giants were at home in the Polo Grounds playing the Brooklyn Dodgers, and it appears that neither manager McGraw nor any of the players saw the story or commented on it, which is a surprise, for ordinarily McGraw didn’t miss a trick. So the Giants’ leader bears some of the blame for not alerting his charges that they must make sure to complete plays and not assume anything.

It is September 23, 1908. With two weeks left in the season, the Giants and Cubs are battling it out in a red hot pennant race. New York leads by a game and a half after absorbing a double loss to Chicago in a twin bill the previous day. In the American League, Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers, Napoleon Lajoie’s Cleveland club, and the ‘Hitless Wonder’ Chicago White Sox were themselves engaged in an epic battle for the flag, with Detroit squeaking out a win and only 1 1/2 games separating the three clubs at the end. (I told you it was less formal in those days; teams often did not play the same number of games in a season.)

Baseball interest was at a fever pitch and it seemed the only topic of conversation uptown, downtown, and all around the town. Finally game time arrived, in those days three thirty. Nearly thirty years before the first major league night game, remember.

In what may be the most famous, or infamous, game in major league history, starting on the hill for the Cubbies was Jack ‘the Giant Killer’ Pfiester, so named because of his record against the Gothams–15-5 with seven shutouts. For the Giants, their franchise pitcher, Christy Mathewson. Going into the game the Jints were 87-50, 1 1/2 games up on the squad from the Windy City. With only two weeks left in the season, every game was crucial, for one hundred and five years ago there were no playoffs–it was win or go home, good old fashioned country hardball. None of this nonsense where fully one third of the teams get a chance in the October merry-go-round, winners only.

Both pitchers started strong and the game remained scoreless until the fifth inning, when Chicago shortstop Joe Tinker, of Tinker to Evers to Chance fame, whacked a line drive to right center, where Turkey Mike Donlin (so called because he strutted like a turkey. A fitting sobriquet for someone who did six months in jail in 1902 for striking a woman on a Baltimore street.) tried to stop the ball with his foot, missed, and had the pill go right on by him to the fence while Tinker circled the bases for an inside the park home run.

In the bottom half of the frame, New York came right back when second sacker Buck Herzog hit a slow roller to third where Harry Steinfeldt, made a bad throw, enabling Herzog to reach second. Donlin then atoned for his atrocious fielding by singling to score Herzog with the tying run. And there the score remained, 1-1, until the ninth inning. Mathewson handled the Cubbies 1-2-3 in the top of the inning, then the home team batted to try for an exciting last of the ninth win. No one could have expected what they got. After Seymour grounded out to Evers, third baseman Devlin singled, followed by outfielder Moose McCormick’s slow grounder, again to Evers. A double play ball. But McCormick hustled all the way and beat the relay, keeping the inning alive.

Up comes Fred Merkle, starting at first for the first time all year, subbing for regular Fred Tenney, who was out with what was variously reported as a headache, stiff back, or a bad ankle. At any rate, he was on the bench, and with a southpaw working for the Cubs, McGraw wanted as much right-handed hitting as possible in the lineup, so Merkle was in there. And he came through with a single. With the Giants down to their last out, the 19-year-old rookie got aboard. Now the winning run was on third with two outs.

Up next was shortstop Al Bridwell, who would hit a solid .285 in 1908. And he rose to the occasion, drilling a clean single to the outfield and scoring McCormick easily with the winning run. Joyous fans, seeing their league leading team gain a game on their arch-rivals, swarmed onto the field and immediately overran it and the players, making further play impossible. Merkle, halfway to second, saw McCormick cross the plate at the same time as he saw thousands of crazed New Yorkers charging toward him. Seeking to keep body and soul together, he sprinted towards the center field clubhouse, oblivious to the fact that he had not completed the play by touching second.

But the game was over, and it was the Giants’. Or was it? There were doings on the infield. Alertly, second baseman Evers (pronounced Ee-vers, by the way, not Eh-vers) called for center fielder Art Hofman to throw him the ball, quick. Just as he had in the Warren Gill game, Hofman did, but of all times to make a lousy throw. It went over everyone and into the crowd, setting off a stampede. Evers and Giants pitcher Iron Man Joe McGinnity (so named for his off season work in an iron foundry and his penchant for pitching both ends of a doubleheader. Imagine a pitcher today doing either one?) reached the ball at the same time and wrestled for it.

National League President Harry Pulliam

National League President Harry Pulliam

McGinnity won the battle, heaving the ball into the teeming crowd. According to Evers, he and Giants pitcher Floyd Kroh saw the man who caught it, chased him down, and persuaded him to part with it by the simple expedient of pulling his hat down over his eyes. Evers ran back to second, touched it, ball in hand, and called to Umpire O’Day, who said ‘The run does not count.’ That’s Evers’ tale, anyway.

For his part, both Merkle and Mathewson swore that the former had indeed touched second and that the Cubs’ protests were simply sour grapes. The other umpire, Bob Emslie, insisted at first that he had not seen the play and refused to corroborate or refute the disposition of the play, although he later agreed with O’Day’s version of events. National League President Pulliam was reportedly disgusted by what he saw as bald faced lying by the Giants’ players.

Sadly, he took his own life in 1909, leading some to speculate that the pressure from the Merkle affair was a contributing factor. O’Day could have saved himself a lot of grief had he simply gone along to get along and followed the custom of the time, but he abided by the spirit and letter of the law, and declared the out at second ended the inning and the run did not count. In his official report to Pulliam, he contended that there was so little daylight left that it would have been impossible to continue play. For their part, the Cubs went even further, claiming that as the home team, it was the Giants’ responsibility to clear the field so that play could resume, and failing that, forfeited the game to the Cubs. This was disallowed, as was the predictable claim of the Giants to have been robbed of a victory on a miserable technicality. To add insult to victory, or something like that, it was discovered after the game that the box that the players kept their valuables in while playing had been stolen. The keeper of the box that day? None other than Floyd Kroh, who abandoned his post while he was chasing down the game ball.

Unsurprisingly, the Chicago papers excoriated Merkle for being slow witted, while the New York scribes cried foul at what they saw as a cowardly attempt by Chicago to steal a victory fairly won by the Giants. Many of the fans had gone home convinced that the home team had won it, and imagine their chagrin when they learned of the events on the field in the aftermath of the ninth inning.

This is the way that the New York Herald described the scene the next day:

Rioting and wild disorder, in which spectators and players joined, causing a scene never witnessed in New York before, marked the conclusion at the Polo Grounds yesterday of the game between the Giants and the Cubs. By cleverness in seeing an opportunity to deprive the Giants of their final and deciding run and quickness in seizing it, the Cubs had forced the umpire, Henry O’Day, to declare the game a tie, after half the spectators had gone home believing that New York had won 2 to 1, and many of the New York players had left the field.

Thus the game was declared a tie and ordered to be replayed at the end of the season if necessary. And in a turn of events that no one would believe if it were in a book or a movie, the two teams ended the season in a dead heat, making a replay necessary to determine the National League pennant. In fact, in the event of a tie, the National League had offered the teams a choice of a single game or a best of five playoff, and while Cubs owner and noted blowhard Charles Murphy was all for a money-spinning series, McGraw was so confident of winning with Mathewson on the mound that he pressed for a one game replay and prevailed.

In the two weeks following the Merkle game, Phillies’ starter Harry Covaleski beat the Giants three times, earning him a reputation as a Giant killer no less than that of Jack Pfeister. The latter reprised his starting position in the playoff game against, of course, Mathewson. But Jack the Giant killer didn’t have it that day, and didn’t get out of the first inning. Chicago manager Frank Chance brought in ace Mordecai Brown, having passed over him to start on only two days’ rest, and the man they called ‘Three Finger’ shut down the Giants’ bats the rest of the way for a 4-2 Cubs win.

Al Bridwell: ‘I wish I’d never gotten that hit. I wish I’d struck out instead.’

Al Bridwell: ‘I wish I’d struck out instead.’

The North Siders would handle Ty Cobb’s Tigers in the Series to win their second straight Fall Classic victory, and a legend was born.

Poor Fred Merkle. For a half a century until he died, he was blamed for costing the GIants the 1908 pennant, an honor that the Giants, to a man, felt they had been cheated out of. Certainly Merkle should have completed the play, but in fact it was standard operating procedure to consider the game over once the winning run scored, no matter what else was going on. In fact for many years in the big leagues, a game winning hit was only counted as whatever was needed to bring the winning run home. For instance, if the potential game winner was on third and the batter hit it over the fence, he only got credit for a single since that was all that was needed to score the winning run.

So perhaps the abuse heaped on Merkle, who played 16 seasons in the big leagues to a .273 lifetime average, was at least partly unwarranted. Surely McGraw, in not taking notice of the Gill affair earlier in September, should have made it clear that his players were never to take anything for granted on a ball field. Certainly he never blamed Merkle for the loss of the game. But let us have the man who struck the potential game winning blow have the last, and saddest, words on the whole sorry situation, In Lawrence Ritter’s classic The Glory of Their Times, Al Bridwell said, ‘I wish I’d never gotten that hit. I wish I’d struck out instead.’


One Response to “Remembering Merkle”
  1. mike says:

    I wrote this in 2013, hence the ‘one hundred and five’ year reference in the second paragraph.

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