Tuesday, September 23, 2008

At Least He's Remembered, Right?

One hundred years ago today, the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Chicago Cubs were locked in a tight pennant race. The Giants had started the year slowly, falling 6 1/2 games back by mid-June. With the front-running Cubs coming to the Polo Grounds, it seemed as if the Giants were on the cusp of falling out of the race. After dropping the first game of the four-game series, the New York nine rallied to win the final three and pulled within 3 1/2 games of the league lead. From there they began a slow but steady ascent back toward the top of the standings. Meanwhile, Chicago and Pittsburgh continued to battle it out.

The Giants took over first place in late August by taking four games from the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Up 3 1/2 games over both the Pirates and Cubs, the Giants set out for Chicago to try and bury the competition. Instead, Chicago swept them in three games to trim the lead to one half game with a month left to play. From that point on, however, all three teams were on fire. After being swept in Chicago, the Giants won 17 of 18 games. The Cubs won 18 of 24 games to stay in the race. Pittsburgh even got in on the act by taking 18 of 25. By the time the Cubs and Giants were set to play four games at New York's Polo Grounds on September 22, New York was ahead by two games in the standings.

That doesn't tell the whole story, however. The Giants had played six fewer games than the Cubs and actually had one fewer win, along with five fewer losses. Meanwhile, the pesky Pirates were hanging in there, three games (actually six losses) behind the Giants. The Cubs took both games of the series-opening doubleheader on September 22, tying them for the league lead. Coming into play on September 23, the top of the NL standings looked like this:

New York 87 50 .635 --
Chicago 90 53 .629 --
Pittsburgh 88 54 .620 1 1/2

The stage was set for one of the most controversial plays in baseball history. Giants ace Christy Mathewson and Cubs lefty Jack Pfiester had an old-fashioned pitcher's duel going through eight innings. After Mathewson blanked the Cubs in the top of the ninth, the Giants offense mustered up a rally that should've sent them back into sole possesion of first place. With two outs, Moose McCormick stood on first base. Striding to the plate was the youngest player in the league, Fred Merkle. Only nineteen years old, Merkle had started in place of regular Giants first baseman Fred Tenney. Despite his youth and inexperience and the pressure of a pennant race, Merkle singled to put runners on the corners for shortstop Al Bridwell. What happened next has gone down in baseball lore as "Merkle's Boner." There are a few details that change in different versions of the story, but I've tried to stick to the basics.

Bridwell singled, bringing Moose McCormick in from third base. As he touched home plate, jubilant Giants fans started to pour out of the bleachers and onto the field to celebrate the victory. Not wishing to get caught up in a sea of rowdy rooters, Merkle understandably headed for the center field clubhouse without touching second base. Alert Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed Merkle's gaffe and tried to find the game ball. Successfully procuring a baseball*, Evers got the attention of umpire Hank O'Day and stepped on second base. O'Day correctly called Merkle out and ruled that McCormick's run didn't count since the force out ended the inning. With thousands of Giants fans on the field and players strewn about between the dugouts, the field, and the clubhouse, the game was called a tie and postponed.

Giants players and manager John McGraw were (not surprisingly) livid after the game. Their "victory," the now-tied game, was rescheduled after the season if it was still needed. Hoping to avoid playing it, the Giants calmed down enough to win the next day's game. All three teams atop the standings kept close to one another for the next couple weeks, with a three-way tie for first existing as late as October 1.

The Pirates were first to finish their season, ending up with a respectable 98-56 record after October 4th. The Cubs were a half game ahead, at 98-55, with only the make-up game against the Giants to play. Meanwhile, the Giants were 1 1/2 games behind Chicago with three games against the lowly Boston Braves. Needing a sweep to keep their pennant hopes alive, the Giants delivered, tying the Cubs for first place before the make-up game. Had Merkle simply touched second base weeks before and had the season played out the same way, the Giants would have already won the pennant.

Still claiming they shouldn't have to play for something they'd already won, Giants players resignedly took the field at the Polo Grounds on October 8. They had momentum on their side, having just won three in a row. However, the Cubs were well-rested, having not played since the 4th. The rested club won out, as the Cubs edged the Giants by a score of 4-2 to capture the NL pennant. With the Giants' championship hopes dashed, fans didn't have to go far to find a scapegoat for their team's failure. Merkle's Boner has lived on for a century, inspiring ballplayers to know the rules of the game, causing countless numbers of young baseball fans to snicker, and ensuring Fred Merkle's name is remembered in baseball history.

Will anything like Merkle's Boner happen in any baseball game tonight? It's unlikely. For one thing, fans are no longer allowed to swarm the field after a victory, so players really have no need (or excuse) to avoid touching the proper bases on walk-off hits. However, with New York's current NL team hosting the Cubs in the midst of a race for the playoffs, you can't totally ignore the possibility of some crazy play and another unfortunate player going down in baseball history.

*Evers may or may not have wound up with the actual game ball. Some say Evers himself grabbed the ball from the outfield, some say the ball was thrown from the Cubs dugout, and others say the actual game ball was thrown into the crowd and Evers used a different ball to record the out. One account claims it wasn't even Evers who touched second base, saying it was Frank Chance who made the appeal.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Thanks! I've always wondered if Josh Paul would be remembered similarly, but it doesn't seem to be in the cards.