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Merkle's Boner

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Merkle's Boner, otherwise known as The Curse of Fred Merkle refers to the notorious baserunning gaffe committed by rookie Fred Merkle of the New York Giants in a game against the Chicago Cubs in 1908. Merkle's failure to advance to second base on what should have been a game-winning hit led instead to a forceout at second and a tie game. The Cubs won the makeup game later, which proved decisive as they beat the Giants by one game to win the National League pennant in 1908. It has been described as "the most controversial game in baseball history."[1]

Situation Edit

The NL pennant race of 1908 was a three-team fight between the teams that dominated the league in the first decade of the modern era: the Pirates (pennant winners in 1901, '02 and '03), the Giants (winners in '04 and '05), and the Cubs (winners in 1906 and 1907).[2] The teams were clustered close together in the standings all year, with Pittsburgh never more than 2.5 games up or 5 back,[3], the Giants never more than 4.5 up or 6.5 back,[4], and the Cubs never more than four games up or six games back.[5] When play began on September 23, 1908, the Cubs and Giants were tied atop the NL standings (although the Giants had six more games to play, with an 87-50 record as opposed to the Cubs' 90-53), and the Pirates were 1.5 games back with an 88-54 record.[6]

Fred Merkle was nineteen years old in 1908, the youngest player in the National League.[7] He played in only 38 games all year,[8] eleven of which were at first base as the backup for regular Giants first baseman Fred Tenney.[9] On the morning of Sept. 23, Tenney woke up with a case of lumbago, and Giants manager John McGraw penciled Merkle in at first base. It was the very first big-league game Merkle ever started.[10]

The gameEdit

Future Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson started for the Giants; Jack Pfiester started for the Cubs.[11] As was customary at the time, the game had only two umpires: Bob Emslie on the basepaths and Hank O'Day behind the plate calling balls and strikes.[12]

The Giants were the home team. Mathewson and Pfeister matched zeroes through four. In the fifth, shortstop Joe Tinker whacked a ball into the gap, and when right fielder Mike Donlin couldn't stop it from going past him and bounding deep into the cavernous outfield of the Polo Grounds, Tinker circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run that gave Chicago a 1-0 lead. It was the first homer by Tinker and the first homer off of Mathewson since a homer by Tinker off of Mathewson on July 17.[13] The Giants evened things up in the sixth when Buck Herzog singled, advanced to second on an error, advanced to third on a sacrifice by Roger Bresnahan and scored on a single by Donlin. The game was still tied 1-1 when the Giants came to bat in the bottom of the ninth.[14]

The bonerEdit

File:Merkles Boner game Polo Grounds Sept23 1908.jpg

Pfiester remained on the mound for Chicago. Cy Seymour led off with a groundout to second. Devlin singled, putting the winning run on base. Moose McCormick grounded sharply to second, but Devlin's aggressive slide prevented a double play and allowed McCormick to reach first base safely.[15] With two outs, Fred Merkle came to the plate. Merkle, who only came to bat 47 times in the entire 1908 season,[8], singled down the right-field line. McCormick, the winning run, advanced to third base.[16]

Shortstop Al Bridwell batted next. Bridwell swung at the first pitch from Pfiester, a fastball, and drilled a single into center field. McCormick scored easily, and the game appeared to be over, a 2-1 Giants victory. Giants fans poured out of the stands and mobbed the field. Merkle, advancing from first base, saw the fans swarming onto the playing field and turned back to the dugout without ever touching second.[17] 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".[18] However, in 1908, this force out rule usually wasn't enforced on walkoff hits.[19][20]

However, shortstop Johnny Evers saw an opportunity to have the rule enforced. He shouted to center fielder Solly Hofman, who, amidst the chaos caused by thousands of celebrating Giants fans, retrieved the ball and threw it to Evers. According to one account, Joe McGinnity, a Giants pitcher who was coaching first base that day, intercepted the ball and threw it away into the crowd of fans. Evers retrieved the ball—or found a different ball—and touched second base. Umpires Emslie and O'Day hurriedly consulted under the stands. Emslie was unable to render a decision, as he had dropped to the ground to avoid being hit by Bridwell's line drive. 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 and O'Day ruled that the run did not score. The force out of Merkle, being the third out of the inning, nullified Bridwell's single and McCormick's game-winning run.[21]

The play was immediately controversial. Different newspapers told different stories of who had gotten the ball to Evers and how. Christy Mathewson insisted that "Merkle touched second base. I saw him do it." One newspaper claimed that Cub players physically restrained Merkle from advancing to second. Retelling the story in 1944, Evers insisted that after McGinnity (who wasn't playing in the game) had thrown the ball away, Cubs pitcher Rube Kroh (who also wasn't in the game) retrieved it from a fan and threw it to shortstop Tinker, who threw it to Evers. (By rule, after a fan or a player who was not in the game touched the ball, it should have been ruled dead.) A contemporary account from the Chicago Tribune supports this version.[22] However, eight years prior to that, Evers claimed to have gotten the ball directly from Hofman. Five years after the play, Merkle admitted that he'd left the field without touching second, but only after umpire Emslie assured them that they'd won the game. In 1914 O'Day said that Evers' tag was irrelevant: he'd called the third out after McGinnity interfered with the throw from center field.[23] Future Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem said Merkle's Boner was "the rottenest decision in the history of baseball"; Klem believed that the force rule was meant to apply to infield hits, not balls hit to the outfield.[24]

Replayed game Edit

O'Day ruled the game over on account of darkness.[25] The game ended a 1-1 tie. National League president Harry Pulliam upheld the ruling. On October 2, Pulliam rejected the Giants' appeal of O'Day's ruling and the Cubs' call for a forfeit victory and again upheld the umpires, declaring the force play on Merkle valid and the game a tie.[26] The Cubs-Giants-Pirates pennant race continued to the final days. The Giants were forced to end the season by playing ten games in seven days due to rainouts.[27] After Merkle's boner, the Giants won 10 of their last 15 games to finish 98-55. The Cubs win eight of their last ten after the Merkle game to also finish 98-55. The Pirates, who beat the Dodgers 2-1 on Sept. 23 to gain a half-game on their rivals, win nine of their last ten to force a makeup game with the Cubs on October 4. The Cubs beat the Pirates 5-2, leaving themselves tied with the Giants and with the Pirates a half-game back of both teams at 98-56, and thus eliminated.

On October 6 the National League Board of Directors agreed with its umpires and with Hank Pulliam, making a final ruling that Merkle had failed to touch second base and that the force rule was correctly applied.[28] This left the Cubs and Giants tied at 98-55 and required a makeup game in order to decide the National League pennant. In order to decide the pennant (and a spot in the World Series), the teams had to replay the tie game on October 8. Mathewson, scheduled to start the game, said "I'm not fit to pitch today. I'm dog tired."[29] The crowd was estimated at forty thousand, the biggest in baseball history at that time.[30] Pfeister pitched for the Cubs again in the rematch,[31] but was removed from the game in the first inning after hitting Tenney, walking Herzog (who was promptly picked off), giving up an RBI double to Donlin, and walking Seymour. Future Hall of Famer Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown entered the game in relief and got out of the jam with only one run allowed.[32] In the Cub third Tinker led off with a triple and scored on a single by Johnny Kling. Evers walked, Frank Schulte followed with an RBI double, and Frank Chance followed with a two-run double.[33] From there Chicago cruised to a 4-2 victory, becoming champions of the National League for the third straight year. New York was left without a title they thought was theirs.

AftermathEdit

The Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series, beating Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers four games to one. Over a century later, it remains the last championship in Cub franchise history. The Pirates won the 1909 World Series, also against Cobb's Tigers. The Giants would return to the World Series in 1911, lose, and then lose again in 1912 and 1913. John McGraw's club would not win another championship until 1921.

The New York Times game story for Sept. 23, 1908 blamed the loss on "Censurable stupidity on the part of player Merkle".[34] For the rest of his life he would live with the nickname of "Bonehead".[35] Merkle replaced Tenney as the full-time Giants first baseman in 1910 and was a regular for the Giants, Dodgers and Cubs for another ten years. He played in five World Series, all for the losing team.[36] Bitter over the events of the Merkle's Boner game, Merkle avoided baseball after his playing career finally ended in 1926. When he finally appeared at a Giants old-timers' game in 1950, he got a standing ovation.[35]

Spiritual Effect on the CubsEdit

The fact that 1908 was the Cubs' last World Championship year has left suspicious thoughts about the boner. There has been much credence that a spiritual force created by the September 23 events has plagued the Chicago team for more than a century. They've had many difficult experiences since taking advantage of Merkle.

Over the next 37 years, the Cubs played in seven World Series. They lost all of them and have not reached another one ever since. The team had also endured many seasons of low-level positions in the National League standings. One of these years was 1966, when the Cubs became the first team ever to finish a season behind the Giants' (now based in San Francisco) New York successor, the Mets.[37]

The Merkle effects were most evident in 1998. In a key game at Milwaukee during the National League Wild Card race, Cubs' left fielder Brant Brown dropped a fly ball that allowed the winning runs to score with two outs in the ninth inning. This error by Brown occurred on September 23, the 90th anniversary of the boner.[38] The Cubs would eventually win the '98 Wild Card, but only after defeating the Giants in a one-game playoff - a similar scenario to 1908.[39] The Cubs were then swept by the Atlanta Braves in the Division Series.

Other examples of the boner's lasting influence are:

  • 2008: On September 23, the Cubs lose to the Mets, 6-2, at New York (the site of the boner) on the 100th anniversary of Merkle.[40] The Cubs finish the season with the National League's highest winning percentage, but fail to win a single playoff game and are denied a championship in the boner's centennial year.

References Edit

  1. Murphy, p. 421
  2. Baseball Reference all-time NL win table
  3. 1908 Pirates page
  4. 1908 Giants page
  5. 1908 Cubs
  6. NL Standings after Sept. 22, 1908
  7. Vaccaro, Mike. The First Fall Classic. 2009, Doubleday E-book edition, eISBN 9780385532181, p. 232
  8. 8.0 8.1 1908 Giants stats page
  9. 1908 Giants fielding stats
  10. Murphy, p. 431
  11. Box score for game
  12. Murphy, pp. 425-6
  13. Murphy, p. 433
  14. Murphy, p. 434
  15. Murphy, p. 435
  16. Murphy, p. 437
  17. Murphy, p. 439
  18. MLB Official Rules, Section 4
  19. Sherman, Ed. "100-year Anniversary of 'Merkle’s Boner'", Chicago Tribune, September 23, 2008, p. 5. Retrieved on 2009-07-30.
  20. Murphy, p. 446
  21. Murphy, pp. 439-441
  22. "Scoring the Merkle Play", Norman Macht, The Inside Game, Vol. 8, No. 4, p. 6
  23. Murphy, pp. 442-444
  24. Murphy, p. 447
  25. Murphy, p. 450
  26. Murphy, p. 561
  27. Murphy, p. 543
  28. Murphy, p. 584
  29. Murphy, p. 591
  30. Murphy, p. 601
  31. Murphy, p. 608
  32. Murphy, pp. 609-610
  33. Murphy, 612-614
  34. "A Boner Buries The Giants", New York Times, Sept. 23, 1908
  35. 35.0 35.1 "Sadly, one play defined Merkle's career", Ed Sherman, ESPN.com, Sept. 23, 2008
  36. Fred Merkle stat page
  37. http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/NL/1966.shtml
  38. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MIL/MIL199809230.shtml
  39. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHN/CHN199809280.shtml
  40. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN200809230.shtml
  • Murphy, Cait (2008). Crazy '08, E-book, Harper Collins.

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