The Merkle Bonehead Play Revisited

Fred Merkle, 1B Ne w York Giants 1907-1916

Fred Merkle, 1B
Ne w York Giants

The infamous Merkle play. As they went into play at the Polo Grounds on September 23, 1908, the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs were involved in a tight three club race for the pennant with the Pittsburgh Pirates and were all set to play a big game each other for first place. Little did anyone know when they started to play that afternoon that they were about to be partners in the most controversial game conclusion in baseball history – one that would prove at season’s end to be a total reversal of fortune and misfortune for the visiting Cubs and homie Giants. The Cubs would end up winning the 1908 NL flag by a single game – a single game that always will be traced back to a “bonehead” play by a 19 year old Giants rookie name Fred Merkle, the cunning baseball rules acuity of Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers, the already primed to the particulars courage of future Hall of Fame umpire Hank O’Day and his partner Bob Emslie to stand up for rule that technically had the power to reduce the as-game-played outcome of a 2-1 Giants win and convert it into a 1-1 tie with a need for a total replay because of its importance to the pennant race.

For those who don’t know, here’s what happened:

The game was tied at 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, but the Giants had the potential winning run on third base in the presence of Moose McCormick and rookie Fred Merkle running at first. Merkle had been a lineup substitution this day due to an injury to the club’s veteran first base man, Fred Tenney. Merkle had not played much for the Giants prior to this date, but he had played long enough to know that the home team fans were a rowdy bunch that loved to storm the field after big Giant wins and pummel their congratulatory slaps across the backs of Giant players as they made their trotting run all the way to their field exit door in deep center field. Merkle “got it” as to why his mates hustled as soon as possible to get off the field. They all wanted to exit before the often drunken fan crowds swelled to block any hope of escaping the pain of celebratory contact.

When Giants batter Al Bridwell then hit the first pitch from the Cubs’ Jack Pfeister up the middle for an apparent clean walk-off single, McCormick tipped toed home from third with run and a 2-1 Giants victory. The Giants fan roar quickly converted to a vista of legs by the thousand as they lifted over grandstand boundary rails and began their joyful trek unto the field. As he ran to second base, rookie Merkle could somehow see, sense, or know that his teammates already were making their bee-lines to that faraway center field exit door. After he ran about half way to second on the batted ball, he decided it best to save as much dalliance time as possible. He simply took a hard right turn from his next base destiny (Why bother? The game’s over, right?) and run hard to field exit with everyone else.

Small problem for Merkle. The crafty Cub second sacker Johnny Evers was watching the whole thing and – based upon what he had seen before in other games – and as recently as a Cubs game in Pittsburgh in which he watched a Pirates player escape with the same short cut on the rules, Evers apprised umpire O’Day, even that recently, what he planned to do, if he saw that kind of play go against the rules and his club again, and he even went over the rule with the official without knowing that the two of them would soon enough be reunited in another game situation in which it would occur in a very high stakes situation.

Official rule 4.09 states that “A run is not scored if the runner advances to home base during a play in which the third out is made … by any runner being forced out”. And even though most players knew the rule, they simply had formed a cultural “wink” and looked the other way on hits that soared into the outfield and out of normal infield play reach. They simply ignored without protest that base runners who peeled away without actually sanctifying a safe hit by removing all force out possibilities at second or third was somehow OK.

It’s one of  the oldest rules in human behavior. People don’t obey laws that aren’t enforced. If that happens often enough, people start to treat that law as though as it either did not exist or had been repealed. And, as all good lawyers know, laws that are ignored, but still exist on the books, are sometimes useful in advancing the causes of their clients.

Johnny Evers was a baseball “lawyer” of the first order – and his clients were the Chicago Cubs, including himself. And that was the insider reaction within the man – as soon as the Giants “apparently” won the game on Bridwell’s hit. Evers knew instantly – and on the solid soil of knowing a neglected rule that clearly states that the Giants had not scored because young Mr. Merkle had not done what he needed to do to eliminate the force out possibility. – Merkle had not completed the business of running to second base and touching the bag. That’s all it would have taken. Had he done so on that fateful day in 1908, had he continued on to touch second base, he would be no more famous today than Al Bridwell, the man he robbed of a hit and game-winning RBI in a game that, as all such “bonehead” plays will do, had gone so far eventually as to “merkle” the Giants out of the 1908 NL pennant.

Sadly, there were no smart phones with video and still photo cameras back in the day. Everything that happened at game’s end is the product of conflicting, not-always-honest reporting by players and fans. The following version is our best guess of what we can know after all these years. – As soon as Evers spotted Merkle bugging away from his required trip to second, he started yelling and waving to center fielder Solly Hofman to throw him the ball. It was a move that did not go unnoticed by Giants pitcher Joe McGinnity, who just happened to have been coaching at first at game’s end. As he crossed onto the field to leave too, McGinnity had a good view of Merkle cutting away from his run to second and he knew exactly what Evers had in mind when he covered second anyway and yelled for the ball.

Pacing his run toward Evers. McGinnity got there in time to intercept the throw from Hofman. After that action, it gets really fuzzy as to what actually happened to the real game ball. A most popular report was that McGinnity threw the game ball into the stands and that it was captured by a fan. Some said that the fan kept the ball. Others said that Evers either retrieved the ball from the fan – or else, just got another ball and called it the game ball. There many other variants, including an Evers statement at one time that there was no interception – and that he caught the ball directly from Hofman and stepped on second base for the sake of establishing grounds for a Merkle force out and a negation of the McCormick run, the Bridwell single, and the Giants 2-1 win.

The only assured fact was that Merkle had not finished his run to second, but even he panicked at a later moment by briefly claiming that he had touched second base – in spite of all the eyewitness testimony to the fact he had not. Merkle quickly retracted. His “lying” was more a case of panic in the face of the fact that his life now had been altered into a notorious event for which he would always be signatured beyond anything else he might do. – In a real way, Fred Merkle was a much earlier baseball version of Bill Buckner.

Manager McGraw tried to help Merkle convert his contention into truth that night by having him return to the Polo Grounds and run again in the dark from first to second for an unmistakable touching of the bag. That way, by McGraw’s shifty mind as a mental reservationist, Fred Merkle could always be truthful when he answered “yes” to the following question: “Back on September 23, 1908, in the Polo Grounds, did you run all the way from first to second and actually touch the bag?”

Once Evers made the second base touch himself with “a ball,” and as described in one report on Wikipedia, “Umpires Emslie and O’Day hurriedly consulted and O’Day, who saw the play from home plate, ruled that Merkle had not touched second base, and on that basis Emslie ruled him out on a force and O’Day ruled that the run did not score.

Because the Giants had now vacated the scene of pandemonium on the field and the growing darkness, the game was declared a 1-1 tie, and home plate umpire Hank O’Day filed this report letter to National League President Harry C. Pulliam:

New York, Sept 23/08
Harry C. Pulliam, Esq.
Pres. Nat. League

Dear sir,

In the game to-day at New York between New York and the Chicago Club. In the last half of the 9th inning, the score was a tie 1–1. New York was at the Bat, with two Men out, McCormick of N. York on 3rd Base and Merkle of N. York on 1st Base; Bridwell was at the Bat and hit a clean single Base-Hit to Center Field. Merkle did not run the Ball out; he started toward 2nd Base, but on getting half way there he turned and ran down the field toward the Club House. The Ball was fielded in to 2nd Base for a Chgo. Man to make the play, when McGinnity ran from the Coacher’s Box out in the Field to 2nd Base and interfered with the Play being made. Emslie, who said he did not watch Merkle, asked me if Merkle touched 2nd Base. I said he did not. Then Emslie called Merkle out, and I would not allow McCormick’s Run to score. The Game at the end of the 9th inning was 1–1. The People ran out on the Field. I did not ask to have the Field cleared, as it was too dark to continue play.

Yours respt.

Henry O’Day

NL President Harry Pulliam upheld the decision that the game was a tie and he also ruled that it must be replayed because of its importance to the pennant race. It was not replayed until a day after the season ended on October 7, 1908 with the Giants and Cubs tied for first place with records of 98 and 55.

The following day, October 8, 1908, the Cubs and the Giants squared off at the Polo Grounds for the critical make-up game that had been necessitated by the Merkle “bonehead play” that led to them having both a win and the outright NL  pennant taken away. The Cubs finished the injury by winning the playoff game, 4-2.

Had there been no “Merkle bonehead play”, the Cubs would not have “1908” as their memorial measuring point for a 107-year old hex on World Series championships on the Chicago north side. They would’ve had to reference “1907” as the starting gate on their 108-year old hex.

The Giants, of course, were outraged with Pulliam. And it only worsened when it came home in reality that the Merkle game and the one-game loss of the pennant to the Cubs had been the easy-for-them to see reason that they had been deprived of a pennant and the chance for another World Series title.

The Giants never recovered from their resentment of Pulliam. When Pulliam later died of suicide from a bullet to the brain, Giants manager John McGraw joked that he didn’t think a bullet to the brain could have even harmed Pulliam. The Giants also were the only NL club to neither send condolences nor a representative to the deceased league president’s funeral.

Baseball makes for some strange bedfellows. Twelve years after the Merkle incident, Johnny Evers served as a Giants coach under McGraw. Underneath all the enmity that resulted from Evers primary role in their 1908 pennant loss, McGraw must have formed a deeper bond with the meaner side of the man that many called “the Human Crab”. Narcissists often fall into love or partnership with those are mirror images of themselves.

Hank O’Day later made in to the Hall of Fame as an umpire, but, in addition to his role in the 1908 Merkle game, O’Day may be best recalled as the only man in history to have been a baseball umpire, a baseball manager, and a baseball player. Given that scope, its no small wonder that he was a man who understood how important it is in baseball to “touch all the bases”.

One more irony. By the 1920 time that Johnny Evers now signed on as a coach for the New York Giants, Fred Merkle was now playing ball for the Chicago Cubs.

As for Fred Merkle, the man, he was a bright, honorable and good guy who never quite forgave himself for his 1908 base running mistake, but he also lived in hate for the word “bonehead” in negative references to that play, his assumed lack of intelligence, or his character. After a 16-year MLB career (1907-1920, 1925-26), Merkle retired as a player with a nice .273 career batting average.

Forty something plus years beyond 1908, into the early 1950s, Merkle returned to The Polo Grounds for a reunion and received a standing ovation and wild cheers from the now grown children and grand children whose family elders had seen him play back in the first decade of the 20th century. Their reception of him brought Merkle silently to tears. “I never thought the fans would ever be that forgiving,” Fred Merkle added, as though he expected those around him to be in need of an explanation for his emotional reaction.

Fred Merkle sounds like a very good man, but one of those unfortunate souls who becomes negatively labeled for life on the basis of one thing that happened in one day of his life.

Wouldn’t it be great fun to send some of our modern game coverage people back there to that day with their latest HD multiple cameras and actually travel to 9/28/1908 with the intention of covering that post-game retrieved baseball/bag-tag melodrama sequence? And if they could actually document what happened to the actual game ball, wouldn’t it be great also to know what ever became of that arcane little now famous artifact from baseball history? –  My guess is that it got played to death by kids on the streets and sidewalks of New York, but who knows, it may be molding away somewhere, anonymously forgotten in some ancient Bronx attic or basement.




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