Friday, September 24, 2010

The Merkle Game

     One hundred and two years ago yesterday, on September 23, 1908, the Cubs and the Giants were in a virtual tie for first place in the National League when the two clubs took the field at the Polo Grounds in New York for what became one of the most famous games in major-league history.
     The game was scoreless until the fifth, when Cub shortstop Joe Tinker’s line drive into the gap eluded right fielder Mike Donlin and went for an inside-the-park home run. Donlin made amends the next inning by singling in the tying run. The Cubs’ Jack Pfiester held his own against Mathewson, and the game remained deadlocked 1-1 into the bottom of the ninth. With two out and Moose McCormick on first, Fred Merkle came to bat for the Giants. Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie, was in the lineup only because regular first baseman Fred Tenney was hurt.
     Merkle came through with a single to right, sending McCormick around to third. That brought Al Bridwell to the plate. “Well, the first pitch came into me,” Bridwell recalled, “a fastball, waist high, right over the center of the plate, and I promptly drilled a line drive past Johnny Evers and out into right center field. Bob Emslie was umpiring on the bases and he fell on his can to avoid being hit by the ball. I really socked that one on the nose. A clean single.”
     McCormick crossed home plate, and New York had seemingly won the ballgame. Merkle jogged only about halfway to second base before he became unnerved by the thousands of jubilant fans who were swarming onto the field. He peeled off and sprinted for the Giants’ clubhouse. Evers immediately recognized the youngster’s mistake; if he could get hold of the ball and step on second base, Merkle would be forced out to retire the side, and the game would still be tied. He began yelling for center fielder Solly Hofman to throw him the ball.
     Three weeks earlier in Pittsburgh, another rookie, Warren Gill, had failed to touch second base on an apparent game-winning hit against the Cubs. On that occasion, Evers screamed bloody murder but umpire Hank O’Day was unmoved, and the Pirates’ victory was allowed to stand.
     O’Day now found himself confronted with the exact same situation. Rather than leave the field, he watched intently as Hofman grappled with fans for the ball and threw it toward the infield. Realizing what the Cubs were up to, third-base coach Joe McGinnity grabbed the ball and chucked it into the crowd, where it was caught, according to Evers, by “a tall, stringy middle-aged gent with a brown bowler hat on.” The Cubs’ Harry Steinfeldt and Rube Kroh chased this fellow, Kroh finally knocking him to the ground and retrieving the ball. (Kroh, a seldom-used pitcher, had been in charge of the bag in which the Cubs stored their valuables for safekeeping. He forgot all about it when he left the bench to pursue the man in the bowler hat. The bag and its contents, about $5,000 in cash and jewelry, were never seen again.)
     Kroh flipped the ball to Tinker. “I was yelling and waving my hands by second base,” said Evers, “and Tinker relayed it over to me and I stepped on the bag and made sure O’Day saw me.” O’Day ruled that Merkle was out and the run did not count. Accordingly, the game should have continued into extra innings, but clearing the field was out of the question. While the Cubs and the umpires ran a gauntlet of irate Giants fans to the clubhouse, Chance took the opportunity to berate O’Day, claiming that because the chaos on the field prevented extra innings, the Cubs should be declared the winners by forfeit.
     Neither team was satisfied by the outcome, although the Cubs were well aware that they had gotten the better of it. Evers, for one, understood that O’Day could have taken the easy way out by assuming that Bridwell’s hit had ended the game. He said that O’Day’s call was “one of the greatest examples of individual heroism the game has known.”

     After hearing all the arguments and counter-arguments, league president Harry C. Pulliam ruled that the disputed game would go into the books as a tie. Meanwhile, the season continued. When it was all said and done, the Cubs and Giants found themselves again tied for first place. The Cubs went back to New York for a special playoff game on October 8, and their ace pitcher Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown subdued the Giants 4-1 to wrap up the Cubs’ third straight pennant. They were also headed towards their second consecutive World Series championship.
     “My team,” said John McGraw, “merely lost something it had honestly won three weeks ago.” Thus he blamed the Merkle incident of September 23, but not Merkle himself, for the loss of the pennant. Merkle’s teammates also understood that any one of them could have made the same mistake. Even Al Bridwell, the man who was deprived of the biggest hit of his career and credited with a fielder’s choice instead, had only empathy for the rookie. “I think anyone would have done the same thing that Fred Merkle did,” he said.
     New York fans, though, blamed Merkle’s “bonehead” play and the “villainy” of the Cubs for giving Chicago the title. Although he played usefully in the majors for a dozen more years (including four with the Cubs), Merkle never lived it down. “I wish I’d never gotten that hit,” Bridwell said many years later. “I wish I’d struck out instead. If I’d have done that, then it would have spared Fred a lot of unfair humiliation.”

Adapted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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