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Poor Mr. Merkle

Posted by Bob Ryan, Globe Staff  September 23, 2008 10:44 AM

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For those of us who like to fancy ourselves as amateur baseball historians, Sept. 23 is an annual Holy Day. But this year it has an extra special meaning, because Sept. 23, 2008 is the 100th anniversary of the single most famous (alleged) boo-boo in all of American sports. It's the 100th anniversary of Merkle's Boner.

One hundred years ago today, New York Giants rookie Fred Merkle, a 19-year old first baseman from Watertown, Wisconsin, was on first base via a single in the ninth inning of a 1-1 game with the Chicago Cubs. Moose McCormick was on third. When Al Bridwell singled, McCormick scored, apparently winning the game for the Giants by a 2-1 score.

But alert Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers (the Hall of Famer immortalized in Franklin Pierce Adams's poem "Baseball's Sad Lexicon" with the reference to "Tinker to Evers to Chance") noticed that Merkle, rather than advancing to second base as McCormick scored, had turned around and headed to the dugout. Indeed, that was the universal custom of the day.

Ah-ha! Two weeks earlier, Evers had been involved in a similar play in which a man on first had not touched second on a winning single. He protested to the base umpire, who offered him no satisfaction. That umpire was Hank O'Day, and guess who was working the bases on that September afternoon, 100 years ago today?

I think you see where this is going.

Again Evers protested, and this time Hank O'Day paid attention. The only problem was that Evers needed a baseball with which to make his claim of a force out official, and that was a bit of a problem. There are varying accounts of what happened from that point on. Kevin Baker has a pretty detailed story in today's New York Times, and there are many other accounts available. Legend has it that third base coach Joe (Iron Man) McGinnity, realizing what Evers was up to, somehow obtained the ball and threw it into the stands. Some say he threw it clear out of the Polo Grounds. Somehow or other Evers got a ball --- almost undoubtedly not the ball --- stepped on second, and now the fun really began.

Let's back up a minute. This was not just another game. The Giants, Cubs, and Pirates were embroiled in a torrid three-way pennant race. Every game mattered. It was, in fact, a fabulous year for baseball in general. The American League had its own three-way battle, featuring the Tigers, White Sox, and Indians, a race punctuated by Addie Joss's pennant race perfect game for the White Sox.

Back to the Polo Grounds. There were people all over the field. There was no hope of resuming the game, even if umpire O'Day said he wished to do so. What he did, in so many words, was take it under advisement. At 10 p.m. or so, he declared the game to be a tie.

The Giants and Cubs, of course, wound up in a tie for first. The makeup game was played Oct. 8 at the Polo Grounds, and it was won by the Cubs, 4-2. The Cubs went on to win the World Series in five games over the Tigers. It was their third consecutive World Championship, and they looked to be in line to win a few more with a great core group.

Oops.

Fred Merkle was blamed for everything, a ridiculous position for anyone to take, for the kid was only doing what everyone did in those days. But "Merkle's Boner" it was, and so it has remained. The truth is had the second base/ump duo in question been anyone but Johnny Evers and Hank O'Day, the protest would have been laughed at.

Fred Merkle played in the bigs for 16 years. He wasn't a great player, but he was a good one. He would play in five World Series for three different teams, including the 1918 Cubs, wihout being fortunate enough to be on the winning side.

Absent his unfortunate decision, the Giants would have won the 1908 pennant. And the centennial of the last Cubs World Series victory would have been last year, not this year. Really, now. No other sport can come up with this stuff.

Next thing you'll tell me somebody on the Red Sox will rip a double down the left field line and have it turn into a killer out when the ball hits the umpire when a confused and startled runner gets thrown out in a rundown.

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About bob ryan's blog Opinions, observations and anecdotes from Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan.
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Bob is an award-winning columnist for the Globe and the host of "Globe 10.0" on Boston.com.

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