September 23rd, 2008

krazy koati

These are the saddest of possible words

A century ago, the Cubs and the Giants were running neck-and-neck for the National League pennant. So the Cubs-Giants game (at the Polo Grounds --- the third Polo Grounds, not precisely the Polo Grounds you're thinking of) on the 23rd of September was just the sort of thing you like if you care for baseball: two strong teams playing each other in a game which could reasonably decide the season.

Bottom of the ninth inning, two outs, score tied 1-1, two outs. ``Moose'' McCormick is on third base; Fred Merkle on first; Al Bridwell is batting. Bridwell hits a single, and McCormick runs to home, scoring the game-winning run. Fans run out on the field and the players start heading in. With few games left in the season and the standings almost tied it's an important win for the Giants. Except ...

Johnny Evers, second baseman for the Cubs, knows something about the rules. He yells at outfielder Solly Hofman to throw him the ball, and runs to second base, and then argues to umpire Hank O'Day that Merkle --- who left the base paths before touching second --- is forced out, and therefore McCormick's run doesn't count. The umpire (who hadn't yet declared McCormick's a run) rules for Evers, Merkle is out, the score is still tied, and the game is theoretically going to the tenth inning except that it's getting dark, there's thousands of people on the field, the umpire and coaches had to hide in the umpire's room to argue the call out, and nobody has any idea how to get control back except they've called in the police to try to do something.

Theoretically they could have resumed the game from the top of the tenth, then or another day, but the National League ruled this a tie and had them re-play the entire game. The Cubs won the replay, and with that one-win edge on the Giants (and Pirates; it was a tight race) went to the 1908 World Series which inaugurated the Cubs' 100-year rebuilding program.

And Fred Merkle earned the nickname ``Bonehead'' that would stick with him the rest of his life.

He got a really bum rap, as I see it. Yes, technically Evers was right about the game not being over when McCormick had touched home while Merkle hadn't reached base safely. But Evers was rules-lawyering; the game in practice wasn't played that way. Evers even tried the same force-play-after-the-game-winning-run gimmick a few weeks before --- and with the same umpire --- but didn't get his way. And in the confusion of things it's not even clear whether Evers got the game ball, if the ball wasn't dead, or whether he just grabbed any ball and bluffed. (It's even conceivable Merkle touched second base safely, although in a 1913 interview he said he didn't.) You can see all sorts of potential for baseball karma in this incident.

Not everyone blamed Merkle --- John McGraw, Giants manager, held it against National League officialdom --- but the name stuck and even for a while produced a derisive verb. It's hard not to feel compassion for Merkle, a pretty good (if never leading) player, who at one moment seems to have just done his job normally and found himself the instigator of a mistake that would be remembered a century later. I think it might be a good idea to take a bit of time for sympathetic thoughts to all those people who are just there and suddenly discover themselves at the base of the avalanche.

Trivia: Umpire Hank O'Day was assigned a security guard following his call. Outraged New York fans stole the guard's star and club. Source: Crazy `08: How A Cast Of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created The Greatest Year In Baseball History, Cait Murphy.

Currently Reading: The Pacific War 1931 - 1945, Saburo Ienaga.