1908: Bonehead

Fred Merkle

This is the first of three posts on the 1908 baseball season. It became the most famous of Stone Age baseball’s years. It had drama. It had wonderful pennant races in both leagues. It had a perfect game. It had a pitcher with 40 wins. It had one of the all-time greatest single season performances by any player. And it had Fred Merkle.

The National League put up a tremendous three team pennant race in 1908. The New York Giants, the Chicago Cubs, and the Pittsburgh Pirates all stayed within a few games of the lead until the very end of the season. In fact the season had to go an extra day because there was one tie between the Giants and the Cubs. To this day the tie is known as the Merkle Game.

On 23 September the Giants and Cubs squared off  in New York. Through 8.5 innings the score was tied 1-1. The Giants, with two outs, put runners on first and third, when a clean single seemed to end the game. But the runner on first, Fred Merkle, only went about halfway to second before turning to head to the clubhouse to celebrate. What happened next is full of controversy, there are a half dozen versions, and I’m not going to weigh in on which is correct. Ultimately Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers ended up with the ball (and there’s some controversy about it being the real ball) standing on second shouting to the umpire that Merkle had not touched second, it was a force out, and the run didn’t count. The ump agreed. Due to fans on the field, the lateness of the hour (there were no lights yet), and the inability to get players back on the field, the game was declared a tie to be replayed at the end of the season if it mattered in the standings. Because I’m talking about it, you’ve figured out it mattered, right? The Giants and Cubs ended in a tie and replayed the game October 8. The Cubs won 4-2 and went to the World Series, winning in 5 games. Merkle was villified in the press and among the fans as the man who cost the Giants the pennant. The nickname “Bonehead” was hung on him and persisted until his death in 1956.

Now a few comments on the incident and its aftermath:

1. Merkle went on to have a decent, if unspectacular career. He played through 1926 hitting 273 with 272 stolen bases, a slugging percentage of 383, and 1580 hits. He played in 4 World Series (1911, 1912, 1916, and 1918) losing all and played one game for the 1926 Yankees who also lost the World Series. So not a bad career for a “Bonehead”.

2. John McGraw, Giants manager and a man known to be very critical of his players, steadfastly stood by Merkle never blaming him for the Giants failure to win the pennant.

3. Johnny Evers never gets enough credit for the play. Evers understood that no run can score on a force out that ends an inning (he’d run into the problem a little earlier in the season) and insisted the rule be followed. A lot of people argue that Evers should not be in the Hall of Fame. Maybe, but they can’t argue he wasn’t a savvy ballplayer.

4. The Merkle Game is famous because of what happened afterwards. The Giants had 16 games left (1 with Chicago, 4 with Cincinnati, 8 with Philadelphia, and 3 with Boston). They went 11-5, beating the Cubs, splitting with the Reds, going 5-3 against the Phillies, and sweeping the Braves. So you know, in 1908 the Reds finished 5th, the Phillies 4th, and the Braves 6th in an eight team league. The Cubs in the same period went 8-2 (they had less games remaining), losing the one game to the Giants, dropping one of five against the Reds, beating the third place Pirates in the last game of the regular season, and sweeping Brooklyn (who finished 7th) in three straight games. Merkle matters because those records gave the two teams identical records of 98-55-1. Change those records by only a game or two and the Merkle Game becomes an interesting footnote in baseball history explaining how a pennant winning team ended up with a tie.

5. The play became the most famous of Deadball Era plays. It’s still well known, perhaps one of the 5 or 10 most famous plays in baseball history, and maybe the most famous regular season play ever. See if you can name a half dozen regular season plays more impactful and famous. I can name a number of World Series moments (Alexander striking out Lazzeri in 1926, Mickey Owen dropping the third strike in 1941, Cookie Lavagetto breaking up Bevens’ no hitter in 1947), and a couple of playoff hits (Bucky Dent, Lou Boudreau) but not a lot of regular season moments like the Merkle play.

Having done a dumb thing or two in my life, I’ve always had a bit of empathy for Fred Merkle. It must have been tough knowing that your name was always going to attached to a moment that made you look like a fool. I understand he carried it well and lived his life without a lot of bitterness. Good for him.


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