1908: Merkle

Fred Merkle in 1908

You knew when you read that I would be taking some time to talk about the 1908 season that it would eventually come down to Fred Merkle, didn’t you? The “Merkle Boner” is among the most famous of all baseball plays, probably the single most famous Deadball Era play. So without hesitation, let’s get on with it.

At the end of the day on 22 September 1908, the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs were in a virtual tie atop the National League. The Giants were percentage points ahead (.635 to .629) by virtue of having played seven fewer games. They were three up in the loss column, but the Cubs had eight games to play while they had 15 more. The next game for both would be an afternoon game at the Polo Grounds the next day.

Fred Tenney

The Giants’ regular first baseman Fred Tenney was having back trouble and was forced to sit the 23 September game. In his place John McGraw inserted Fred Merkle. Our man Merkle came up in 1907, played a little, was again on the team in 1908. He had not started a game all season and at that point had all of 41 at bats for the year. He was, considered an excellent fielder, an acceptable hitter, and a player worth having. He was also 19 years of age.

The Cubs sent Jack Pfiester to the mound and the Giants replied with ace Christy Mathewson. Pfiester would finish the season at 17-6, while Mathewson would go 37-11. The first four innings were scoreless. In the top of the fifth, Chicago shortstop Joe Tinker, who had a habit of hitting Mathewson well, stroked his fifth home run of the season (he ended up with six). The Giants struck back in the bottom of the sixth when a Mike Donlin single scored Buck Herzog with the tying run. The score remained 1-1 through the top of the ninth. By that point Merkle was 0-2 with a walk.

With one out Art Devlin singled, but was erased on a Moose McCormick grounder. Now with two outs, Merkle sliced a single that put McCormick on third and himself on first. Up came Al Bridwell who drove a pitch into center field scoring McCormick and giving the Giants a one game lead in the NL.

Except that it didn’t. Merkle, halfway to second and seeing McCormick score, turned and trotted toward the club house without ever touching second base. The rules (it’s 4.09) state that, with two outs, no run can score if the final out of the inning is a force play. Merkle was forced to run to second, so a force play was in order.

Johnny Evers

At this point, history leaves off and legend takes over. There a several versions of what happened next. All agree that Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed that Merkle failed to touch second. He called for Cubs center fielder Circus Solly Hofman to throw him the ball. At this point there is great disagreement. The stories indicate that there was some interference with the throw. Most sources say that Giants base coach Joseph McGinnity intercepted the ball and threw it into the stands. Other sources say a fan (fans were on the field by this point) grabbed the ball and either tossed it into the stands or pocketed it. Whatever happened, Evers and other Cubs went after the ball. There seems to have been some sort of scuffle and Evers eventually emerged at second with a ball. Whether it was “the ball” or not is in open dispute. Wherever the ball came from, Evers was on second holding it and arguing that Merkle was out and that the run didn’t count. Umpire Hank O’Day agreed and called Merkle out. With fans all over the field and darkness approaching, he also called the game a tie.

Hank O’Day

New York exploded. McGraw was furious with the umpires, not with Merkle. Team President John T. Brush complained to the National League President. The Cubs prepared for the next game. The ramifications of the game would continue for the remainder of the season. They would effect both teams and, unexpectedly, help determine the fate of not only a pennant, but a life.

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “1908: Merkle”

  1. glenrussellslater Says:

    Interesting.

  2. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    I love when batter-runners today will cover themselves by double-tagging a bag or a fielder with the ball will just tag everyone nearby — once or twice — just to make sure, because they really don’t know what the rules are in a peculiar situation. And, a great broadcaster, like the O’s Jim Palmer (although he is not the only one), will then regale viewers/listeners with the story of Fred Merkle. And, it never gets old … and you could repost this story every year and I’d read it every single time. Thank you!

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