Call My Cane “Merkle”
by Tim Burnell
“I suppose when I die, they’ll put on my tombstone,
‘Here Lies Bonehead Merkle.’”
~ Fred Merkle, 1950
Erasing a common perception is about as easy as holding back a wave with a bare hand or scooping up stars with the Big Dipper. Harder still when that perception is created in New York.
Fred Merkle was a nineteen year old rookie in 1908, a season of two heated pennant races. The National League’s race has long since overshadowed the equally stunning race in the American League, just as the race overshadowed the remainder of Fred Merkle’s solid sixteen-season career and the remainder of his life. His afterlife, too.
Leave Merkle out of it? How? Remove Merkle from 1908 and you no longer have 1908. Remove 108 stitches from a baseball and you have two pieces of leather and a ball of twine.
It wasn’t all Merkle’s fault, you say? Of course not. His teammates all came to his defense. His manager, one of the meanest, toughest SOBs ever to play or manage the game, continually came to his defense. Baseball is a long season. The Giants had plenty of other chances to not have the season come down to one play, to one young man. But, it did. Tired arms and blown chances gave another team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the chance to make a run. It gave yet another team, a team whose manager’s confident utterance when heard today haunts all the Cub faithful, the chance to win it all. All because of one play. Maybe even because of one glare.
* * *
It is neither fair, nor accurate to dismiss the 1908 Chicago Cubs as the mere beneficiaries of a single fluke play. They began the season in strong fashion. They were, after all, one of the three marquee clubs of the first decade of the 1900s. They swept Cincinnati in their opening series and by the end of April were in first place where they would stay, but for two days, until mid-July. They were streaky, rattling off a series of 3 and 4 game winning streaks, offset by fewer 2 and 3 game losing streaks. On July 14th their record stood at 45-31. A loss on the 15th against the Giants dropped the Cubbies to third, a game out, while New York climbed into the second spot, a half game behind Pittsburgh.
By mid-July, the contenders were set. The Pirates, Giants and Cubs seemed prepared to slug it out over the course of the following two months.
The Pirates were led by shortstop Honus Wagner, who provided most of the pop for an otherwise pedestrian offensive attack. Wagner would, by season end, lead the league in batting (.354), on-base percentage, slugging, OPS (.957; a number of interest to absolutely no one in 1908), hits, total bases, doubles, triples, RBIs, stolen bases, extra base hits, times on base; and would finish second in runs (100 to NY’s first baseman Fred Tenney’s 101) and second in home runs (10 to Brooklyn’s Tim Jordan’s 12).
New York, on the other hand, offered Christy Mathewson who would go on to lead the league in wins, strikeouts, ERA, games, game started, shutouts, and saves (tied for the league lead with 5 – not that anyone counted such things back then). It was pitching’s Triple Crown and then some. But by season’s end, Matty would tire, and beyond Hooks Wiltse (23-14) there wasn’t enough to pick up the slack.
The Cubs, while sporting some eventual Hall of Famers, offered no one particular superstar of the magnitude of Wagner or Mathewson. They did, however receive solid pitching from Ed Ruelbach (24-7, 2.03 ERA) and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown (29-9, 1.47 ERA). The team also sported the trio made famous by Franklin P. Adams in his poem Baseball’s Sad Lexicon:
These are the saddest of possible words,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Trio of bear cubs and fleeter than birds,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double,
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
* * *
An August 24th doubleheader sweep of the Pirates by New York, in Pittsburgh, dropped Pittsburgh into second place and put the Giants into first. At day’s end the Pirates were 1½ back with the Cubs 3½ back in third place, where they had spent a good portion of their time since their fall from first in July.
By the end of the month, though, the race tightened. One and a half games separated first from third. By the end of the day August 31st, the teams stood as follows:
Chicago 71-47 1
Pittsburgh 70-47 1½
Then on Friday, September 4th, the Pirates and Cubs played a game that would have a great impact on events at the Polo Grounds later in the month. Tied 0-0 in the last of the 10th, with two outs and the bases loaded, Pittsburgh's Owen Wilson singled, scoring Fred Clarke with the winning run. Warren Gill, the runner on first, did not get to second, instead, he stopped short and headed for the dugout, which was a common practice at the time. Johnny Evers called for the ball, touched second and claimed the run did not count as Gill was forced out at second. Hank O’Day, the only umpire that day, had already left the field and ruled he could not call what he didn’t see. He declared that Clarke had scored, so the run counted. The Cubs protested to league president Harry Pulliam, but they were denied. It would be a different story 19 days later.
The Giants entered September 23rd with a three game lead over the Cubs (the Pirates were in third, 3½ out), but had lost four in a row, including a double-header sweep at the hands of the Cubs on the 22nd. The Giants sent Mathewson to the mound to face Jack “the Giant Killer” Pfiester. Everyone expected, and received, a duel. Before the game began Giant manager John McGraw had to make a last minute substitution for his sore legged (or back, depending on the source) first baseman, Fred Tenney. McGraw gave 19 year-old rookie Fred Merkle his first start of the season.
This was not considered ominous. Quite the contrary – just two days earlier a writer for the Chciago Tribune had written, “Suppose Fred Tenney should be crippled. That would be a calamity, wouldn’t it? Yes, it would in one way, but it wouldn’t keep the Giants from winning the pennant. There is a young fellow on the bench named Fred Merkle who can fill that job better than nine-tenths of the first basemen in the league. He is crying for a chance to work.”
* * *
Al Bridwell stepped out of the batter’s box and glared out towards first base. The Giants’ shortstop had come to bat with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Fred Merkle took a long lead off first. He had just singled to right for his first hit of the day, advancing Moose McCormick, representing the potential winning run, to third. Bridwell thought the lead too long and far too risky.
“I saw Merkle edging pretty far off first, almost as if he were trying to steal,” Bridwell would say years later. “That didn’t make any sense. So I stepped out of the box and looked at him and he went back and stood on the bag. I often think that if I hadn’t done that, everything would have turned out all right. Well, the first pitch came in to me, a fastball waist high right over the plate, and I promptly drilled a line drive past Johnny Evers into right-centerfield, a clean single.”
McCormick scored. The Giants, and 22,000 fans, thought they had won the game.
Hundreds of fans poured onto the field. This was the custom at the Polo Grounds, according to Fred Snodgrass (Another Giant, who, in the 1912 World Series would have a blunder of his own to haunt him the rest of his days; Fred Merkle would play a role there, too. But that’s another story.), “The ushers would open the gates from the stands to the field, and the people would all pour out and rush at you. All they wanted to do was touch you, or congratulate you, or maybe cuss at you a bit. But, because of that, we bench warmers made it a practice to sprint from the bench to the clubhouse as fast as we could.”
Merkle peeled off before he reached second base and ran towards the clubhouse, also an accepted practice on a game-winning hit at the time. A gonfalon bubble was about to be pricked, and there was only one man for the job. “Trunculent, scowling, slouching, complainful, but nevertheless ball-playing” Johnny Evers noticed that Merkle had not touched second. He called for the ball from centerfielder Solly Hoffman. The facts get a bit muddy here, but it appears (according to the Cubs) that Joe McGinnity, coaching third base, saw what Evers was doing, intercepted the ball and threw it into the stands. Evers or one of the other Cubs retrieved the ball from the stands, or another ball from nearby. Then, Evers, ball in hand got umpire Bob Emslie’s attention and stepped second base, forcing Merkle and erasing the run.
The Giants told a different version. According to Mathewson, he saw Merkle turn for the clubhouse and Matty ran to the outfield to bring him back. “I ran after him and brought him back to second base, so as to make our lead unquestionable.” said Matty. “He was on second after McGinnity tossed away the ball, following his tussle with the Chicago players. Maybe Evers got the ball and touched the base afterward. If he did, it didn’t prove anything. I can state positively that no force play was made before Merkle got to the base.”
While Mathewson and Merkle were at second base, Mathewson asked Emslie, “How about this, Bob, is there any trouble with the score of the play?” “It's all right,” said Emslie. “You've got the game. I don't see anything wrong with the play.”
Whichever version was true, the fact of the matter was this – thousands of people were by then on the field. Frank Chance, the Cubs’ first baseman, manager and Peerless Leader (as he was called; sometimes shortened to P.L.), argued to the umpire who had been at first, Hank O’Day and Emslie that the run should not count. O’Day would not make a ruling on the field (surrounded by 22,000 of the Giants’ closest friends, would you?), but at 10:00 that evening he ruled Merkle out at second and declared the game ended in a 1-1 tie.
Each side was furious. The Cubs demanded the game be forfeited to them as the crowd prevented play from continuing, although darkness would have soon ended it. The Giants maintained McCormick scored and they won the game 2-1. Both teams appealed. NL President Pulliam saw no inconsistency with the September 4th incident and claimed he merely upheld his umpire on a question of fact in each case (O’Day didn’t see the play in question in Pittsburgh; depending on the source, he both claimed he did and didn’t see Merkle not touch second. He did, however, see McGinnity interfere with the Cubs.)
Pulliam upheld the 1-1 tie and announced that if a replay were necessary to decide the pennant, it would be played October 8th at the Polo Grounds, the day after the completion of the regular season. Again, no one was happy. The Giants still insisted they were robbed, and the Cubs still looked to receive their forfeit victory (This included taking the field at 1:30 the next day, an hour and a half before the regularly scheduled game, throwing five pitches and claiming a forfeit and a $1,000 fine against the Giants for refusing to play. The league would have none of it as this was not the replay game as declared by Pulliam. Not to mention there were no umpires, no fans and only a couple Giants on hand to witness the event.).
Quietly, the Pirates remained in contention. They sported what was probably the most balanced pitching staff in the NL that year, with Nick Maddox (23-8), Vic Willis (23-11), Howie Camnitz (16-9), Sam Leever (15-7) and Lefty Leifield (15-14) keeping the Bucs on pace with New York and Chicago. On October 2nd the Pirates took the lead by a half game by sweeping the Cardinals in St. Louis for their seventh win in a row. Lefty Leifield won the opener 7–4 and Howie Camnitz won the nightcap 2–1 on homers by Honus Wagner and George Gibson. Only percentage points separated New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh:
(Games to play: 2)
New York 95-54 ½ .6375 (Games to play: 5)
Chicago 96-55 ½ .6347 (Games to play: 3)
Pittsburgh would go on to win 8 in a row with a 3-2 win over the hapless Cardinals, but they would lose to the Cubs in Chicago in their season finale on October 4th, 5-2. (One might argue they lost to the Cubs and their overflow crowd – the Cubs hit 4 ground-rule doubles into the crowd that normally would have been in the field of play and more than likely outs. In another incident, with the bases loaded, Pirates first baseman Eddie Abbaticchio hit a line drive that was ruled foul and struck a woman. When the woman sued the Cubs for damages, she testified the ball had been fair.)
“Bosh to those 202 hits and all that stuff,” Honus Wagner said. “What does it all amount to when we didn’t win the game. I’m going to kill eleven thousand birds this Winter to try to forget it.”
The Cubs rolled after the Merkle game, losing only two more games the rest of the season (the day following the Merkle game in New York and a 6-5 loss to the Reds). Their run included, on September 26th, with the Cubs just a half game in back of New York, Ed Reulbach becoming the only pitcher to throw two shutouts in one day, blanking host Brooklyn 5-0 and 3-0. Reulbach allowed five hits in the first game, and tightened the screws even more in the second, giving up only three hits and a walk. But the Cubs did not control their destiny. They had to wait on New York.
The Giants finished the season 10-5 after the Merkle game. Respectable, for sure, but it was not enough with the Cubs playing at such a torrid pace. Their problem, in the final two weeks, was not Pittsburgh, nor was it Chicago. It was their own pitching staff and the fourth-place Phillies. By season’s end, McGraw had an erratic staff and Christy Mathewson. He kept going to the well because he didn’t trust his other pitchers. Mathewson was mighty in 1908, but he went 3-2 after the Merkle game and that wasn’t enough. One of his two losses came in Philadelphia against a rookie recently called up from the minors, lefthander Harry Coveleski. The rookie beat the Giants three times in five games and earned himself the nickname "Giant Killer."
When the Giants entered their season-ending series at the Polo Grounds against Boston, the Cubs had already finished off the Pirates the day before. The Giants needed a sweep in order to force a tie. They did so, handily, polishing off Boston 8-1, 4-1 and 7-2. Like it or not (and, most certainly, the Giants did not), they were tied with Chicago and the replay had become, essentially, a one-game playoff, would decide the winner of the National League.
Cub manager Frank Chance pegged Jack Pfiester, his nickname lost to Harry Coveleski, but his pennant hopes intact, as the game’s starter. He said he would keep “Three Finger” Brown in the bullpen in case Pfiester got into trouble against Mathewson. On the train to New York, Chance was confident. He said,
(Allow me, Gentle Reader, to interrupt the essay to ask all of the Cub Faithful to please, please sit down and to be certain there are no sharp objects within arm’s reach. Thank you.)
“Whoever heard of the Cubs losing a game they had to have?”
According to published reports, nearly 250,000 fans showed up at the Polo Grounds. Professional baseball had most likely not had a game before this filled with as much built-up drama, tension and emotion. The game sold-out by 1:00 for the 3:00 game, but still fans tried to storm the gates. Fireman with high-pressure hoses knocked down fans trying to scale the walls. Nearly 40,000 fans watched from Coogan's Bluff, telephone poles and other vantage points. One reporter wrote, “Never in the history of the game have there been so many to see a game who didn’t see it.” One fan, fireman Henry McBride, fell to his death from a girder at the 155th Street Station.
Before the game, the Giants had a plan, which hinted at their collective state of mind. Mathewson was tired, and said after the game he had nothing on the ball. They decided to have “Iron Man” McGinnity pick a fight with Chance early in the game. Chicago would feel the loss of P.L. more dearly than the Giants would of their aging pitcher. Chance, however, didn’t take the bait. Even though “Iron Man” cursed him, spat upon him and stepped on his feet, Chance walked away.
The Giants weren’t the only abusive parties at the game. The fans heaped profanity and abuse on the visiting Cubs all day. “I never heard anybody or any set of men called as many foul names as the Giants fans called us that day,” said “Three Finger” Brown, “from the time we showed up till it was over.”
Pfeister didn’t survive the first inning. Obviously rattled he hit Tenney, walked Buck Herzog, struck out catcher Roger Bresnahan (Herzog was picked off on the same play). The next batter “Turkey” Mike Donlin doubled, scoring Tenney. Pfeister walked the next batter and Chance had seen enough. He called in Brown, who had pitched in eleven of the Cubs’ final fourteen games. Brown stuck out Devlin to end the inning. (Some sources say he struck out Cy Seymour; Brown is quoted as saying he struck out Devlin. Who are we to argue with a guy who had good stuff?) Brown said later, “I was about as good that day as I ever was in my life.”
Chicago scored four times off Mathewson in the third, highlighted by Joe Tinker’s lead-off triple and capped by Chance’s two-run double. New York scratched back with a run on a Fred Tenney RBI in the seventh. The New York crowd was still pouring abuse down on the Cubs and, as the game progressed, on each other. The game was stopped “for a time” because of fights in the stands. A newspaper the next day reported seven men had been “carted away, raving mad.” All the while, Brown kept his composure and allowed only four hits in relief. He retired the Giants in order in the eighth and ninth. Pennant: Cubs.
And then they ran for their lives.
“Some of our boys were caught by the mob and were beaten up some,” Brown later recalled. Chance was hit in the throat; Pfiester slashed in the shoulder. The Cubs had to be driven to their hotel in a paddy wagon, guarded by six armed officers.
“My team merely lost something it won three weeks ago,” said McGraw. He added, “It’s criminal to say that Merkle is stupid and to blame the loss of the pennant on him. In the first place, he is one of the smartest and best players on this club and in not touching second base, he merely did as he had seen veteran players do ever since he’s been in the league. In the second place, he didn’t cost us the pennant. We lost a dozen games we should have won this year. Yes, Two dozen. Any one of them could have saved the pennant for us. Besides, we were robbed of the pennant and you can’t say Merkle did that.”
While his teammates and manager rallied around him, the public did not. A comedian at a Broadway vaudeville show joked that he called his cane “Merkle” because it had a bone head. The joke appeared in the newspapers and the public jumped on it. Merkle was a good, smart ballplayer, but he would never escape the nickname, or the blame.
McGraw, it must be noted, alluded to a point that cannot be ignored. Each team had some control over its own destiny, right up to the end. If Pittsburgh had beaten Chicago on October 4th, they would have won. Even without the Merkle game, had New York won the replay, or any one game against Harry Coveleski, the pennant would have been theirs. They didn’t. Chicago, on the other hand, faced back-to-back (albeit three days apart) must-win games and won them both.
The Cubs went on to rip Detroit, winners of the American League’s fantastic race between the Tigers, Cleveland Naps and Chicago White Sox, in 5 games. In their final three victories over the Tigers, the Cubs allowed but a single run. New Yorkers were not in an accepting mood. “The Cubs will be acknowledged as Champions,” said the New York Evening Journal, “but their title is tainted, and New York lovers of baseball will never acknowledge them as the true winners of the pennant.” The Cubs, regardless of the feelings in New York, were World Series Champions – and they have not won another.
In December of 1908 National League President Pulliam, who had been subjected to relentless criticism since his “replay” decision by McGraw, Chance, the Cubs, the Giants and the Giants fans, banned from baseball the Giants’ team physician, Dr. William Creamer, who had allegedly offered a bribe to umpire Bill Klem prior to the playoff game. There was a history of feuding between the office and the Giants and Pulliam, a man reported to be quiet and sensitive. The pressure of the situation appeared to be too much. In February 1909, Pulliam took a leave of absence from the NL office. He was said to be suffering from a mental breakdown. He committed suicide in July of 1909.
Towards the end of his life Al Bridwell told an interviewer he wished he’d never hit Jack Pfiester’s first pitch. “I wish I’d struck out instead,” Bridwell said. “If I’d done that, then it would have spared Fred a lot of unfair humiliation. Yes, I wish I’d struck out. It would have been better all around.”
In the end, Fred Merkle was almost right about his epitaph. In his New York Times obituary, published Saturday, May 3, 1956, the article’s sub-headline read, “Giant 1st Baseman’s “Boner” in Failing to Touch 2nd Led to Loss of ’08 Pennant.”
The Cubs, on the other hand, have watched each season since 1908 live and eventually die with the same obituary, whether it be written in October, September or mid-May. The Cubs were eliminated from the race yesterday, extending their World Series drought, which stretches back to 1908…
Someday, hope the Cub faithful, a late-October headline will read “CUBS WIN!” and the drought will be, at the very least, forgiven, and the year 1908 will become but a footnote. For Fred Merkle though, 1908 will be forever.
Sources: Pennant Races (Dave Anderson); Baseball-reference.com; BaseballLibrary.com; Baseball, An Illustrated History (Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns); The Glory of Their Times (Lawrence Ritter)
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