Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Absolving Fred Merkle: It's Been 100 Years


September 23, 1908, 100 years ago today: The New York Giants thought they'd beaten the Chicago Cubs, 2-1, in a big game in a dogfight of a 3-way Pennant race that also involved the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Only they hadn't. Al Bridwell had singled home the winning run, but the fans came running onto the field at the Polo Grounds in New York. And the runner on 1st base, a 19-year-old rookie named Fred Merkle, got scared, and ran for the clubhouse that stood behind the center field fence.

He didn't touch 2nd base.

This had happened many times before. The rule stating that a player had to get to the base was usually not enforced under such circumstances. You know: "Everybody does it."

But Cub 2nd baseman Johnny Evers saw this, and yelled for the ball, got it, stepped on 2nd, and got the attention of umpire Hank O'Day, who called the force play at 2nd. This time, the rule was enforced, Merkle was out, and the run didn't count.

Play could not be restored. By all rights, the Giants should have been declared losers by forfeit for an inability to control their home grounds, but instead it went into the books as a 1-1 tie.

I won't bore you with the details of the recriminations that went back and forth between the Giants and the Cubs, and between the Giants and the National League office, other than to say it was ugly, and it looked more like Republicans vs. Democrats than rival sports teams. I'll cut right to the chase: The NL race finished in a tie between those 2 teams, with the Pirates just 1 game back. And the league office ordered the September 23 game replayed on October 8.

Despite having Christy Mathewson, perhaps the greatest pitcher the game has ever known and the most popular athlete of the time, starting that game, the Giants lost, 4-2, with the Cubs bringing in for relief one Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown, known as Three-Finger Brown because of a childhood accident that left him with only 3 usable fingers, and as a result with a nasty curveball.

Merkle was 19, and for the rest of his life, he was known as "Bonehead," and the play became known as "Merkle's Boner." He played on until 1922, and was hardly a bad player.

In 1950, the Giants held an old-timers' day at the Polo Grounds, and invited Merkle. He accepted. When introduced, the fans -- most of them not old enough to have been there 42 years earlier, but nearly all having heard his sad story -- gave him a standing ovation.

Merkle deserved a better fate even than that. Even his manager, John McGraw, said it wasn't his fault. McGraw, along with Connie Mack 1 of the 1st 2 managers elected to the Hall of Fame, said it was the team that let Merkle down, not vice versa. If one of the sorest losers in the game's history could forgive Merkle, and later Giants fans could...

Baseball still thinks of him as the Bonehead. And for a man who has been dead since 1956 and is unable to defend himself, that's just not fair.

In the spirit of ESPN, let me give you...

The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Fred Merkle for the New York Giants Losing the 1908 National League Pennant.

5. Fred Tenney's Injury. Tenney was the Giants' regular 1st baseman, but was hurt, and Merkle was his replacement. If Tenney hadn't gotten hurt, he would've played, and his experience might've won a game that would have canceled out the September 23 game. Which brings us to...

4. Merkle's Teammates. The Giants played 16 games between the September 23 "Merkle Game" and the October 8 "Merkle Playoff." They went 11-5, including winning their last 3, which suggests they had the character to get over it.

But the last of those 5 losses was a 3-2 game against the Philadelphia Phillies on October 3. The Phillies, contrary to their history, weren't a lousy team that year (they were over .500), but they weren't in the same class as the Giants, Cubs and Pirates. The Giants still should have won it, and then there wouldn't have been a Playoff. They also had 7-0 and 7-1 losses that they could have avoided if they, rather than the Cincinnati Reds and the Phils, respectively, had scored early. The Giants tried to step up and bail Merkle out, but they couldn't.

3. John McGraw. Like too many later managers -- in recent times, Tommy Lasorda in 1978, Whitey Herzog in 1985, John McNamara in 1986, Dusty Baker in 2003 and Mike Scioscia in 2005 come to mind -- he lost his cool, and couldn't get his own head back on straight, let alone his players' heads. Some people thought McGraw was the greatest manager ever. Not in 1908, he wasn't.

2. Christy Mathewson. Even 100 years later, it seems sacrilegious to blame "The Christian Gentleman." But the Giants would have won that "playoff" on October 8 if he had just pitched like Christy Mathewson -- instead of like Christie Brinkley.

1. The Cubs Were Better. Okay, maybe Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers weren't really worthy of Hall of Fame induction, but they were among the best shortstops and 2nd basemen, respectively, of their time. Frank Chance was not only one of the best managers but one of the best 1st basemen. And their pitching was superb, led by Three-Finger Brown, who, like Chance (as a manager if not as a player), was a genuine, no-doubt-about-it Hall-of-Famer.

The Cubs had previously won the Pennant in 1906 and the World Series in 1907. They would beat Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers again in the 1908 Series, and would win another Pennant in 1910 before age caught up with them. The Giants were in the middle of a "drought" that would extend from 1905 to 1911 before they won another Pennant, and until 1921 before they won another Series. The Cubs were good, they were experienced, and they were tough. The better team won.

*

Though the Cubs won that 1908 World Series, for whatever reason, or collection of reasons, they have never won another. They have even not won a Pennant since 1945. Some speak of the Curse of the Billy Goat. But did the Cubs win that 1908 Pennant unfairly? Is there a Curse of Fred Merkle? After all, the Goat Curse came in 1945. How do you explain the Cubs' 0-6 record in World Series play from 1909 to 1944?

I don't think Merkle was a mean enough person to put a curse on the Giants, even if such a thing were possible. I think the Cubs' century-long drought has been attributable to bad management.

But the weird thing is that, on this 100th Anniversary of the Merkle Game, the Cubs are back in New York, to play the Mets, the team that replaced the Giants (and the Brooklyn Dodgers). And both teams are in postseason contention. The Cubs have already clinched the NL Central Division and home-field advantage through the NL Playoffs. The Mets could win the NL Wild Card, setting up a Division Series matchup with the Cubs.

And both of these teams have a history of bizarre things happening to them, including the Black Cat Game of 1969 that symbolized the Cubs' September Swoon and the Mets' Miracle.

Could one more bizarre moment happen? We already had the Cubs coming from behind last night against the Mets, including a grand slam by the Cub pitcher, Jason Marquis -- a native New Yorker (from Staten Island)!

Who knows.

But we who are baseball fans, instead of blaming Fred Merkle for his "boner," or even forgiving him, declare that there's nothing to forgive. Let him rest in peace.

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