Friday, May 10, 2013

Forgiving Baseball's Scapegoats: Fred Merkle

Dear sir,
In the game today at New York between New York and the Chgo Club, in the last half of the 9th inning, the score was a tie, 1 to 1.  New York was at the Bat, with two men out, McCormick of N. York on 3rd base.  Bridwell was at the Bat and hit a clean single Base-hit to Center Field...
That was the last moment of the craziest season ever that made any sense. 

The young rookie takes a modest lead off of first.  Not too large.  He knows that with two outs in a tie game and a runner on third he is not the important person.  He just wants a big enough lead to get the pitcher's attention.  He takes a step off the bag.  Two steps.  Now three, four, five and gets ready to run on contact.  The pitcher steps off the bag and fakes a throw.  The runner dives back.

The pitcher this day is Jack Pfister, known throughout the league as "Jack the Giant Killer".  Even in a terrible season when he struggles with arm problems and he can't seem to beat anyone he can beat the hated rivals.  His arm is killing him.  He struggles all day and his curve ball, at least the three that he attempts to throw, are excruciating.  He has little left to give but he keeps going anyway.  He fakes the throw to first but never truly intends to throw over.  It just takes too much out of him.  It won't matter.  The message is clear.  Pfister is telling the runner without saying a word:  "I know you're there."  The runner's dive back to the bag tells Pfister, with no sound, "I know your moves."

This is the crucial moment of the crucial inning of the crucial series of the 1908 season.  The Giants had sported a four and a half game lead just a few days ago.  Then two losses to the Pirates and two losses to the Cubs heading into this game and the league was all tied up again.  The seemingly lifeless Cubs came out of hibernation at the right time and fought their way back into contention.  And who is the biggest beneficiary of all this Cubs/Giants battle?  The Pirates, who were five games behind after losing a double header to the Giants on September 18th.  That was the day the writers crowned the Giants.  The Pirates reacted by winning their next five games and cut the lead behind the Cubs and Giants to one game.  As the Cubs and Giants, the ugliest rivalry in the sports at that time, fight and claw at each other, the Pirates keep winning. 

The runner takes another modest lead, maybe even a step further this time, confident that the pitcher will not throw over.  The runner is a 19 year old kid from Toledo, OH.  Going from small town to Giant city is a big change for a young man like him but he adjusted well in his limited playing time.  He normally doesn't play but Fred Tenney, the regular first baseman, sat out this game with back problems.  Tenney had not missed any games before today and he won't miss another after this one all year but this kid has done well today.  He got the single that moved the winning run just 30 steps from home plate and now he is standing off first smiling, knowing he has made the difference.

To this point in his brief career Fred Merkle has been described as using his intelligence "in everything he does" and showing  "good judgment on the base paths".  The Chicago Tribune, just a few days earlier, told readers that if Tenney went down the Giants would be fine because Merkle is ready to step in to the First base role.  He stands a few steps off first now.  Watching Pfister.  Waiting for the pitch.

Pfister swings his arm back and delivers the first pitch to Al Bridwell.  Bridwell swings the bat and drives the ball to center field.  With two outs Moose McCormick, the runner on third, ambles home.  This is the last moment of the craziest season ever that made any sense.  The game is over.  Except it isn't.

It takes an estimated 30 steps to run the 90 feet between bases.  If Fred Merkle, the base runner on first, has a slight lead of five or six steps and has taken even a slow trot towards second on contact, he is probably  another eight or ten steps toward second.  He is at least half way or more towards the base and this is where all hell breaks loose. 

As McCormick pounds his foot emphatically on the plate to score the winning run the ecstatic fans pour onto the field like a wave. Their Giants have beaten the hated Cubs and climbed back into first place.  They were going to celebrate, and maybe taunt a few Cubs in the process. Merkle has never experienced anything like this before and it is intimidating as hell to a young 19 year old kid.  Many of them head straight for him to congratulate him on the hit that put McCormick on third.  All he knows is that half crazed fans are all over the place and it is a long way to that Polo Grounds clubhouse entrance in center field.  Since McCormick has already scored the winning run why take the extra 15 or so steps when those 15 steps get you closer to the safety of the clubhouse.  And besides, the game is over.  Except it isn't.

Johnny Evers, the Cubs second baseman, is the best in the league.  In fact, other than Nap LaJoie, no one could remember someone playing second base better.  One other thing about Evers.  He is by far, without equal, the most fiery, competitive person the game has ever seen.  Not even Cobb can equal the fighting spirit of Evers, known by some as the "Human Crab",  in his prime.  Baseball is this man's life and he knows every detail, every quirk, every loophole in the rule book and he'll be damned if anyone, especially a 19 year old rookie,  steals a win from Johnny Evers.  Every night, after the bars close of course, Evers comes home with a candy bar, the Sporting News and the baseball rule book and studies the game before bed.  A few weeks before this, the Cubs were playing the Pirates when the same thing happened. Evers knows the rule. Even if the winning run scores the runner on first has to advance to second to erase the chance of a force out.  Simple.  If the runner doesn't touch second the play is still alive.  In the Pirates game Evers had gotten the ball, stepped on second and told the umpire the runner was out.  The umpire hadn't seen the play so the run in that game counted.  But luck today is with the Cubs.  The umpire from that game who had not been on the lookout for the runner touching second is behind the plate umpire.  He knows that Evers knows the rules and he sees what Evers is up to.

The noise is unbelievable.  How anyone hears anything clearly is amazing but Evers has a clear idea of what needs to be done.  He is screaming, shrieking to Solly Hoffman. "Gimme the ball, damnit!  Come on Solly!"  People swarm everywhere. Fans, sportswriters and members of both teams running for the clubhouse.  Police men, the few that are on hand, try to keep order but there are just not enough to really do anything about it.  They basically try to make sure no one was getting trampled.

Hoffman tosses the ball to Evers but Joe McGinnity, one of the Giants' great pitchers, intercepts the throw.  Evers, Joe Tinker and McGinnity wrestle for the ball while Pfister and Frank Chance try to get the umpire's attention.  McGinnity gets free from the Cubs long enough to throw the ball somewhere into the crowd. If this were a cartoon (and it wasn't too far off) McGinnity would be dusting off his hands and walking proudly off.  There is no way the Cubs will find the ball in that swirling mass of humanity and confusion.  The Giants have won.  The game is over.  Except it still isn't.

Merkle is blissfully unaware at this point that anything other than a drunken bacchanal for the fans is taking place on the field.  That is until Christy Mathewson, the "Christian Gentleman" comes desperately looking for Merkle to get him back to second base.  As Merkle returns to the field, trying to rebuckle his pants as he runs, possibly just in socks, a Cubs relief pitcher (which in 1908 means a spectator in uniform) is fighting with a fan.  Rube Kroh sees McGinnity throw the ball into the crowd and somehow sees who picks up the ball.  Kroh sprints after the fan and wrestles with him.  Undoubtedly, the drunken fans have no idea what the hell is happening and see only a hated rival attacking their brethren so this becomes a hell of a struggle.  Kroh pounds the fan over the head, crushing his bowler hat, and steals the ball back.  This is getting closer and closer to a cartoon every moment and you can almost envision stars and birds swirling around the fan's head while a bump slowly grows out of his head.

Kroh throws to Evers who holds the ball straight in the air for the umpire to see and jumps up and down on the bag.  The Cubs have turned the never before or after seen Center field to opposing pitcher to fan to relief pitcher to second base force out play.  The umpire at second base hasn't seen Merkle run for the clubhouse before reaching second but the home plate umpire has.  "Merkle never reached second base.  The runner is out.  The run doesn't count.  The inning is over."

New York's finest, the few on hand, already overwhelmed by the crazed fans, realize this is a bad situation that is about to get much much worse.  As word circulates through the crowd jubilation turns to anger.  The police encircle the umps, the rival Cubs can fend for themselves, and use their nightsticks forging a way through the crowd to safety. 

The umpires immediately send off a letter to the league President.  "Dear sir, in the game today at New York...  Merkle did not run the Ball out; he started toward 2nd base but on getting half way there, he turned and ran down the Field toward the Club House. The Ball was fielded in to 2nd base for a Chgo Man to make the play."

Even if the umpires can clear the fans from the field there is not enough light and certainly not enough security, to resume the game.  Game over.  1-1 tie.  The Giants protest the decision.  The Cubs counter protest.  And still, they play the regularly scheduled game the next day without incident.  The Giants win 5-4 to regain first place. 

The headlines the next day are murderous towards the Cubs.  The Cubs fire back.  As the season churns on and the race remains tight all the way, Fred Merkle becomes the focus of everyone's hatred.  The Giants fans start to despise him.  Why the hell couldn't he have taken 15 more steps to finish the play?  The terms "numbskull" and "bonehead" are introduced into the American vernacular to describe him.  The Cubs' owner claims it was not the Cubs' fault the Giants were stupid.  "We can't supply brains to New York's dumb players."

The Giants, Cubs and Pirates continue to fight for the pennant and at the end of the regular season the Cubs and Giants are tied, with the Pirates just a half game behind them both.  The difference is that tied, disputed game from September 23rd that the Giants should have won if only Merkle had run a few more feet.  The protests have gone back and forth and the league's investigation has sworn affidavit's from both sides swearing that "it happened this way" which is exactly the opposite of the way the other team swore it had happened.  The final result is that the teams would "replay" the disputed tied game. Technically it is the first playoff in Major League history but it is only called  a replay game.  The Cubs win the replay game and go on to beat the Tigers in the World Series.

Merkle's reputation as a player is ruined.  He will forever be known as the idiot who made the bonehead play of failing to touch second on a routine base hit and cost the Giants the 1908 pennant. The play is forever known as "Merkle's boner" and from this point to the end of his career every error he makes will immediately lead to a boo or the rude comment  "It's that damn Merkle again!" or "What do you expect? It's Merkle."

Merkle's career is much more than 15 steps he didn't take on an apparent game winning base hit.  As the Giants went on to reach the World Series in 1911, 1912 and 1913, Merkle makes major contributions  to the Giants winning teams.  He lands in the top ten in RBI four times, Home Runs three times and extra base hits five times.  Merkle ends his career with 1580 hits and also helps the 1916 Brooklyn Dodgers reach the World Series, their first appearance ever, and helps the 1918 Cubs reach the World Series.  He was not a hall of fame player but he was definitely not a bumbling idiot.

The Merkle mistake took place over 100 years ago, in fact the same year as the Cubs' last World Series victory, yet Merkle is still blamed for losing the 1908 pennant for the Giants.  115 years after the fact it is time for Merkle to shed the label of bonehead.  There are plenty of reasons the lost pennant was not his fault.  Here are just a few:

1.  The Giants had a four and a half game lead with only a few weeks left in the season.  Merkle's early turn towards the clubhouse may have cost the Giants one game head to head with the Cubs, but the Giants had already blown their lead by the September 23rd Merkle game.  They were tied going into that game.

2.  The Giants as a group had lost focus.  On taking the four and a half game lead, the team started discussing who they would be playing in the Worlds Series and who would pitch the first game.  They immediately lost the next two games to the Pirates, another big contender in the pennant race that year, and the first two games of the Cubs series.

3. The Giants won 5-4 the next day, putting them back into first place by one game.  Regardless of the outcome of the Merkle game they had a chance to overcome the chaos and move forward.  They had the advantage since the Cubs were chasing them.

4. The fact that the newspapers and Sporting News made a point of discussing the Pittsburgh-Chicago game of a few weeks earlier, where Evers attempted to get the same ruling, seems to show that batters failing to run all the way to second in this situation was fairly common.  Merkle did what most players of the era did. 

5.  The Giants' closest competition in 1908 were the Pirates and Chicago.  The Giants went 11-11 against Pittsburgh and 11-11 against Chicago (including two straight losses to the Pirates and two straight to the Cubs after reaching the four and a half game lead).

6.  The Giants went just 11-10 in May and started June 7-8 leading to a six and a half game deficit.  Their competition during the beginning of June included Boston, St.Louis (the 6th and 7th place teams at that time.  St.Louis would finish dead last, winning only 49 games that year) Chicago and Pittsburgh (their competition). These records were long before Merkle started seeing playing time.

7.  The Giants should have won the replay game.  Christy Mathewson started the replay game for the Giants in New York with the intimidating support of an overflow crowd behind him.  The Cubs had received death threats and several of them were nervous.  Mathewson was the most dominant pitcher in the history of the game at that time. On the other hand, the Giants knocked Jack Pfister out of the game in the first inning after scoring a run and having two runners on base.  The Giants not only blew a four and a half game lead in late September, they blew a lead with Mathewson on the mound in the replay game.

8.  The Giants went on to reach the World Series in 1911, 1912, 1913, 1921, 1922, 1923 and 1924
 under McGraw's leadership and in 1933, 1936 and 1937 under the leadership of Bill Terry.  They won the Series in 1921, 1922 and 1933.  Although they didn't win the 1908 pennant they had plenty of success in the years that followed while the Cubs have not won since.

9.  The Giants never blamed Merkle so why should you?  John McGraw said "It is criminal to say that Merkle is stupid and to blame the loss of the pennant on him.  We were robbed of it and you can't say Merkle did that."  Al Bridwell later said "I wish I'd never gotten that hit.  I wish I'd struck out instead.  If I'd done that it would have spared Fred a lot of humiliation."

10. Merkle nearly won the Giants the 1912 World Series with a tenth inning RBI double in the eighth game giving the Giants the lead.  That World Series loss is blamed on next week's member of the scapegoat club.


  1. It's unfortunate that the sum of one person's career is based on one bad play, but in a way don't you think the error made him famous? Would anyone now really know who he was without the mistake?

  2. I agree that a players career should not be summed up based on one play. Merkle probably would have been remembered as a member of the Giants dynasty in the early 1900's and later as a member of both the 1916 Brooklyn Robins and 1918 Chicago Cubs, both World Series teams.

  3. The scene at the end of the tie game must have been something. Something out of Hollywood.
    Great writing, I was picturing everything you were describing in my mind.
    I was so happy to learn that he did have a good career. seems like his teammates did not blame him but the fans and press did.
    I was surprised that since the game was protested by both teams they did not start at the point of protest like they would today. correct me if I am wrong but I don't think there was a commissioner at the time and a league president made the call.
    I agree with Hope, that without this mistake, Merkle's name would be just another of the many unknown players who have played the great game of baseball.


    1. Merkle did have a great career after this incident but no matter how good he was this was the first thing anyone thought of when they heard his name. None of his teammates blamed him, at least not publicly, not even McGraw who notoriously had a short fuse. In fact McGraw was one of his biggest supporters until Merkle held out for more money at the start of the 1913 season.

      The game was officially declared a tie game because at the end of play the score was even. Games in this time period often ended in ties as there were no light systems and once dark started to effect play the umps would call the game at their discretion.

      You are correct about the Comissioner. Judge Landis was not given the position of Commissioner until 1920 in the wake of the Black Sox scandal. He was brought in to clean up the game and enforce rules as an independent force. The leagues were run by league presidents and the National Commission. In fact, the Nationl Commission was established in 1903 ending the baseball wars (sort of) 110 years ago this year.

    2. As a second side note, the replay game had an even uglier scene afterwards. I mentioned the death threats received by several Cubs players. After the replay game Giants fans were frustrated and angry. They stormed the field and some literally attacked the Cubs players. Joe Tinker,Frank Chance and Solly Hofman had to fight off attackers literally and Chance was slashed in the neck area with a blade of some sort. Evers was a big target o the mob but he was saved by some members of the Masons (of which he was also a member). The Cubs had to hide out in the club house for hours after the game while the police formed a human barricade in front of the clubhouse door to keep the mob at bay.


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