Thursday, September 23, 2010

September 23, 1908: Touch all the bases...

NEW YORK - It was a huge spot for any big league hitter, much less for a 19-year-old in his first full season in the majors. Fred Merkle was the youngest player in the National League in 1908, getting only 41 at bats in spot duty throughout the season. But he filled in for regular first baseman Fred Tenney on September 23 when the Giants hosted the Cubs in a must-win game for both teams. An afterthought when the game began, a play he made - or rather, didn't make - in that game would live in forever in baseball history.

The pennant races in both leagues in 1908 were among the most exciting in baseball history. In the American League, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and St. Louis all had a chance to take the title entering the final week of the season, while the National League race featured a three-team showdown between old rivals New York, Chicago, and Pittsburg. With so many teams still in the hunt, every September game felt like a World Series game, and that was the atmosphere in the Polo Grounds when the Giants and Cubs met in the third game of a four-game series.

The Giants had held a 4.5 game lead just five days before, but two losses to the Pirates followed by a Cubs doubleheader sweep on the 22nd had brought the Giants back to earth, and they entered play on the 23rd tied with the Cubs atop the standings. Hoping to stem the losing streak, they sent Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson to the mound. The Cubs responded with Jack Pfiester, known as Jack the Giant Killer for his habit of beating the Giants in big games.

Both pitchers lived up to their reputation, as the game was tied 1-1 entering the ninth. After the Cubs went down without scoring in the top of the inning, the Giants had their chance. With two outs, Moose McCormick walked, bringing up the young fill-in first baseman. In perhaps the biggest at-bat any 19-year-old had yet faced, Merkle came through, hitting a single to send McCormick to third. The crowd barely had time to calm down before Al Bridwell singled, allowing McCormick to head home and sending the crowd into a frenzy.

As McCormick raced to the plate, Merkle sprinted gleefully to the clubhouse, located in straightaway center field in the Polo Grounds. As delirious fans stormed onto the field, the rest of the players followed suit, hoping to get to the clubhouse doors before the large crowd made it impossible. Everybody was running, that is, except Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers, who was standing at second base screaming for the ball. He had noticed that Merkle hadn't touched second base, but had instead ran straight for the clubhouse. The rule that every player on base must touch the next base for a hit to count wasn't well-known or well-enforced in those days, but Evers knew the rule.

There is some debate as to what ball got to Evers. Some people say the ball that Bridwell hit was retrieved and thrown to Evers. Others say that Giants pitcher Joe McGinnity, noticing what was happening, picked up the ball and threw it into the stands, forcing the Cubs to retrieve another ball from their dugout. Wherever it came from, Evers ended up standing on second base with a ball, showing it to umpire Hank O'Day. O'Day called Merkle out then, seeing the thousands of people on the field and noticing the fast-fading daylight, called the game a tie.

Giants manager John McGraw was furious, insisting that his team had been robbed of a victory. The National League, though, upheld the call, declaring the result valid and saying that if the game had any impact on the final standings, it would be replayed after the season was over. Well, in a season like 1908, it wasn't too surprising that the game had to be replayed. After finishing in a dead heat, the Giants and Cubs met again in the Polo Grounds on October 8 to replay the Merkle game. In another Mathewson-Pfiester matchup, the Cubs came out on top, 4-2, going on to beat the Tigers in the World Series. They haven't won a championship since.

For Merkle, his failure to touch second base would haunt him for the rest of his career. It became known almost instantly as Merkle's Boner, and he suffered the nickname Bonehead for as long as he played. For his part, McGraw refused to blame Merkle for the Giants loss, probably in part because it used to be fairly common practice for players to not touch second on game-winning hits.

After another year as a bench player, Merkle became the Giants starting first baseman in 1910 and had a good career, eventually playing in five World Series for three different teams. But he never won a World Series, and he never lived down his infamous play.

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