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"Merkle's Boner," 100 years later
September 23, 2008 8:53 AM   Subscribe

One hundred years ago today, September 23, 1908, the Chicago Cubs played the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. In one of the best seasons in baseball history, the two teams were in a hot pennant race - separated by one game with two weeks left in the season. What happened next is one of the most famous blunders (if it even was a blunder) in baseball history.

When the Giants’ Al Bridwell drove the ball into the left field gap, Moose McCormick scored easily from third. The Giants and their fans – thinking they won the game – rushed the field, in what was reported at the time as “a scene of wild riot, the like of which has never been seen on any baseball field in the world.” The Giants’ runner on first base – a 19 year-old kid named Fred Merkle - ran straight for the clubhouse door without touching second base (a common reaction at the time). The Cubs tried to get the ball back to the infield for a force out at second base, but the ball was intercepted by a Giants coach and thrown into the crowd. The umpires called Merkle out by rule (contemporary accounts note that the ump heard “catcalls and hisses and threats of violence” until he was taken off the field by police), and the game ended over the Giants’ protest in a tie. The Giants lost six more games in the next two weeks to end the season tied with the Cubs for the National League pennant. The two teams played a tiebreaker, the Cubs beat them and went on to win in their last World Series for 99 years (and counting – but maybe not for long), and Fred Merkle became a “bonehead” for the rest of his life. The sting stayed with him until 1950, when he returned to the Polo Grounds for an old-timers’ game and the fans treated him to a long ovation. He died 6 years later, with a predictable obituary. Some say the Cubs are cursed not by billy goats or black cats or Bartman, but by the ”Bonehead” who gave them their last world series. More: a brilliant song by folk singer Chuck Brodsky. Another one by Dan Bern. Keith Olberman sums it up nicely. The box score from the game.
posted by AgentRocket (30 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
By an odd coincidence, tonight the Cubs are playing the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. and I've got tickets! LET's GO METS!!

(also, good post)
posted by jonmc at 8:55 AM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Great post.
posted by Jofus at 9:12 AM on September 23, 2008


Fun article!

Now, without any warning, and after a private conversation with a member of only one of the two teams, O’Day had decided to erase a longstanding practice.

Therein lies the issue. Merkle did what everyone always did, it was O'Day who changed standard practice. However, I can see why the league backed him up - the rulebook is the rulebook, end of story.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:12 AM on September 23, 2008


I love old-timey baseball. That it was acceptable for a player chasing a foul ball to be challenged with bottles, glasses, and a derby hat is mind-blowing. Not that I'd like to see players injured by debris, but come on. These days, you get thrown out of Yankee Stadium for suggesting that Sidney Ponson consider healthier dining options.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:16 AM on September 23, 2008


Damn. MSNBC doesn't have the Olbermann report from last night up yet, the one with the old video of him with a head full of dark hair, Geraldoesque mustache, and big 80s glasses.
posted by maudlin at 9:17 AM on September 23, 2008


I read the pretty darn good Crazy '08 earlier this summer and the author covered this incident in-depth. She presents a very good theory as to why the ump called Merkle out: this very same thing happened just the week prior at Pittsburgh. The other team was the Cubs and the ump was the very same one that called Merkle out. The Cubs raised holy hell then so the ump still had this rule fresh in his mind.
Also, that last game between the Cubs and the Giants was officially a replaying of the game, not a tie-breaker. The National League ruled that the Merkle game was to be replayed and so they did.
Excellent post.
posted by NoMich at 9:21 AM on September 23, 2008


Great post. I always felt bad for Merkle; like elwoodwiles, I can see why the league backed the ump, but Merkle deserved the crap he got even less than Buckner.
posted by languagehat at 9:25 AM on September 23, 2008


I'm not sure what the rulebook said at the time, but it was a bad call by the ump. The ball in question was overthrown by the fielder, picked up by the Cubs' 3rd base coach, tossed into the stands, recovered by a Giants player, and finally used to make the force out at 2nd base. I don't think that's a legal out.
posted by rocket88 at 9:28 AM on September 23, 2008


Here's an All Things Considered interview with Cait Murphy, author of Crazy '08.
posted by mikepop at 9:39 AM on September 23, 2008


If the ball was dead when a non player picked it up, then the ball was dead and Merkle was not out.

It's as simple as looking up the rules for dead ball. Perhaps the rules on necrotic balls have changed since then, I don't know.

It was a bad call by the ump. I can see why people like to argue over this, but some people still think the Earth is flat.

I don't know how you'd restart play in a situation like that, either. If they don't make the forceout due to a dead ball, Merkle could advance to second, but the point is moot, since the game winning run just came in. The game is over. You could keep playing, but what would be the point?
posted by Xoebe at 9:49 AM on September 23, 2008


I'm not sure what the rulebook said at the time, but it was a bad call by the ump. The ball in question was overthrown by the fielder, picked up by the Cubs' 3rd base coach, tossed into the stands, recovered by a Giants player, and finally used to make the force out at 2nd base. I don't think that's a legal out.

Actually picked up by the Giants' 3rd base coach and recovered by a Cubs' player.

But I think that the Giants' coach throwing a live ball into the stands would certainly cause the runner to be out.

I think technically the ump was correct, but it was evidently the first time this situation was strictly done by the book, instead of the custom.
posted by nightwood at 9:52 AM on September 23, 2008


the rulebook is the rulebook, end of story.
Unless, of course, you are George Brett.
posted by joaquim at 10:06 AM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


That article is a simple reminder as to why I love baseball. All that's missing is a friend, a cozy bar, and a couple of beers, and you have a long evening of great debate.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:07 AM on September 23, 2008


He, in turn, took a look at the Giants fans still swarming around the field and told Evers he would make his decision that night. At 10 p.m., back in the relative safety of his hotel room, he did: Merkle was out.

How could this possibly have been allowed? By all accounts, this is the first time this rule was ever enforced. I won't argue for a second that it shouldn't be enforced, but this seems like a super questionable time to start. At the very least, the game should have been resumed at the top of the tenth, rather than having a brand new game.

Great post. Nice to hear a fresh take on this classic bit of baseball lore.
posted by SpiffyRob at 10:27 AM on September 23, 2008


Awesome post. Thank you. :)
posted by zarq at 10:32 AM on September 23, 2008


The umpire was so busy forcing Merkle into a boner, he forgot he was committing one himself.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:46 AM on September 23, 2008


...but Merkle deserved the crap he got even less than Buckner.

...when he returned to the Polo Grounds for an old-timers’ game and the fans treated him to a long ovation...


Brings to mind the ovation Buckner received at the '86 Red Sox Reunion in 2006 and the emotional four-minute one he received when he threw out the first pitch at the season opening at Fenway this year.
posted by ericb at 10:54 AM on September 23, 2008


Yes, I was thinking of that as well. It's nice when the fans decide to forgive all. (My wife was just complaining to me about the Patriots getting booed at home when they've been so successful, and I said "They played a shitty game, even they admit it. If you don't want to get booed when you fuck up, go into another line of work." But Merkle didn't even fuck up in the first place, except by the most rigorous of standards. He had no reason to think he was doing wrong.)
posted by languagehat at 10:58 AM on September 23, 2008


"Hitler would have never invaded Poland
Merkle should have touched second base
Monica Lewinsky woulda married Dan Quayle
Merkle should have touched second base
My mother and my dad woulda raised me as a wolf
Merkle should have touched second base
Godot woulda shown up in the second act
Merkle should have touched second base "

Man, I love Dan Bern!

The opposite of Merkle's Boner was this play. That was when the Mets came up large in high-pressure situations, unlike last night against the Cubbies. Where's that black cat when you need him?
posted by ericbop at 11:09 AM on September 23, 2008


I love old baseball stories. Nothing beats the quirkiness of some of the old players and old teams.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:32 AM on September 23, 2008


Baseball history is fascinating. We make such a big deal of milestones, but so much of its statistics contain anomalies that reshape how we think of that history. Just now we're going back and re-evaluating players.

-For example, people could never understand why Wade Boggs was batting lead-off for the red sox and they got slammed for it. Why? He wasn't fast! But at the time people didn't understand OBP and its incredible importance. Boggs was getting on base 300 times a year!

-People saying Curt Schilling doesn't deserve the hall of fame because he doesn't have enough wins (216) or any cy-youngs or no-hitters. What Curt Schilling DOES have though is a host of 1, 2, 3 hitters, an incredible career WHIP, outstanding postseason stats, pitched for some bad teams too, and the only reason he never had cy youngs is because he happened to pitch in the era of Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux. Consider the following, if you look the combined statistics (WHIP, Ks, Wins, etc) , Curt Schilling was in the top 3 pitchers in baseball every year for 11 years.

That's being one of the best pitchers of your generation even if you didn't get enough of the BS milestones. It's absurd, baseball writers know far less then they ought to.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 11:38 AM on September 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


baseball writers know far less then they ought to.

Just wanted that repeated so I could admire it.

Also, thanks for reminding me of the "grand slam single," Ericbop. The rest of that postseason was so painful I'd wiped it from my memory.

Also, GODDAM IT METS DON'T PISS AWAY ANOTHER SEASON AT THE LAST MINUTE FOR FUCK'S SAKE.
posted by languagehat at 11:47 AM on September 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Languagehat - "It's nice when the fans decide to forgive all."

I totally agree, and hope that, with a Cubs World Series championship this year, the fans at Wrigley may find it in their hearts to forget about Bartman.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 12:10 PM on September 23, 2008


If not them then the Amazins of course. I just can't see it though coz they have no bullpen to speak of.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 12:40 PM on September 23, 2008



Languagehat - "It's nice when the fans decide to forgive all."

I totally agree, and hope that, with a Cubs World Series championship this year, the fans at Wrigley may find it in their hearts to forget about Bartman.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 12:10 PM on September 23 [+] [!]


Watching this year when Bill Buckner thew the opening day pitch at Fenway was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life. He got a 15 minute standing ovation. He was really a great offensive first baseman and one error cost him his career (well, esteem-ly speaking).

The best part of the story is how John Macnamara was convinced to leave buckner (a somewhate noted defensive liability) in the field that inning so he could celebrate with team on the field and not come out of the dugout.

... Nice call John. Too bad your name doesn't live in infamy either.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 1:08 PM on September 23, 2008


The best part of the story is how John Macnamara was convinced to leave buckner (a somewhate noted defensive liability) in the field that inning so he could celebrate with team on the field and not come out of the dugout.

I'm still pissed at Davey Johnson for leaving Dwight Gooden in too long against the Dodgers in the '88 playoffs. I and everybody else in Shea could see he was done, and we were screaming to take him out, but no-o-o, Davey knew better and left him in long enough to give up some runs and lose the game. Man, that tore me up. I was so bitter I swore I wasn't going to watch the Series. Then I was in a bar with my girlfriend and some of our friends and the first game was on and out of the corner of my eye I saw Kirk Gibson stagger to the plate and I wanted to say "Hah, look at that, they're so desperate they're throwing gimpy old Kirk Gibson up there" but I didn't because they were deep in conversation and I was the only one who really cared about baseball, and I watched just a minute longer because I always liked Gibson back when he was a Tiger, and then (like half of America) I screamed "Holy shit, I don't believe it!" and yeah, I watched the rest of the Series, because when baseball calls your name, you listen.

I know that's a derail, but getting it off my chest felt good. Thanks for listening, barkeep; pour me another scotch, and pour one for yourself while you're at it.
posted by languagehat at 2:31 PM on September 23, 2008


Personally, I think 9/11 cost the Mariners the 2001 World Series. They were absolutely rolling until the attacks, then turned very ordinary in the ALDS and ALCS.

Thus, I blame Osama and Bush for the last 7 years of increasingly bad M's baseball. At least I can think that 2009 will be the dawn of something better, even if the same M's ownership will still be there signing worthless free agents, blowing out young pitchers' arms, and confusing fungible skills with meaningful ones.

Because, you know, denial is all I have left about this team. That and knowing that they'll draft Stephen Strasburg only to have him rip apart his labrum signing the contract.

The Seattle Mariners: The Cubs of the 21st Century.
posted by dw at 3:06 PM on September 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


About twenty years ago I read a book that followed the 1908 season using then contemporary newspaper clippings. The NYT account of what happened is homogenized from a dozen or so conflicting accounts, all of them outrageous, impossible to incredible and completely biased. Day by day the story got bigger with wilder recountings new witnesses with new claims and ever more tangled justifications by the players justifying what they did. Did McGinnity throw the ball in the stands? Or did the center fielder for the Cubs? Did the Cubs beat up crowd members to get the ball? Did they get the ball or just transpose another?

I had a math teacher who had played on the Cubs - perhaps because of him I became a hapless Cubs fan (I've never lived near Chicago). A number of years back I wrote a musical which included a piece called the Cubs Lament. An excerpt:

When Root pitched to Ruth
Then we learned the truth
He called it, he mauled it
It flew to Duluth.
He rounded the bases in a macabre sort of dance
Wherever are Tinkers and Evers and Chance?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:26 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


If i didn't read that in the NY Times (not that they always get it right) I would have never believed that story. I'm still not sure I believe it.
posted by jonmrich at 10:01 PM on September 23, 2008


GODDAM IT METS DON'T PISS AWAY ANOTHER SEASON AT THE LAST MINUTE FOR FUCK'S SAKE.

I have to respectfully disagree with you on this one, as I'm hoping they do. Though it wouldn't have mattered if the Brewers wouldn't have taken most of September off.
posted by drezdn at 10:08 PM on September 23, 2008


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