Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TMFW 107 - A "Bonehead" Is Born and the Cubs are Champions

[NOTE:  Today's fact is much more a True Baseball Fact Wednesday, but I learned about the story from a great folk song that is linked below so I am counting it as an appropriate entry in TMFW annals.]

Tonight, I am headed to Wrigley Field to watch the Chicago Cubs play the Milwaukee Brewers.  The Cubs are having an excellent season. They are poised to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and as a result there's some outside hope that they could win the World Series.  Inevitably, stories about the Cubs' chances note that the team has not won a championship since 1908.  That's a 107 year drought; the longest in professional sports by a lot.  (By comparison, my hometown St. Louis Cardinals have won 11 since that time.)

The Cubs' last championship season brings us to today's TMFW.  It's the story of one of the most famous "mistakes" in baseball history, and it happened 107 years ago today.  To satisfy the "music facts" requirement, my favorite folk singer Chuck Brodsky tells the whole story nicely in his song "Bonehead Merkle."  You should listen to it.

It was September 23, 1908, and the Chicago Cubs were in New York to play the Giants at the Polo Grounds. 1908 was one of the closest seasons in baseball history, and the two teams were in a hot pennant race.  They were separated by one game (the Giants were ahead) with two weeks left in the season.

To set the scene: the game was tied 1-1 with two outs in the bottom of the 9th, with the Giants batting.  There were runners at the corners: Moose McCormick of the Giants (who represented the winning run) was on third base and Fred Merkle was on first.  Merkle was a 19-year-old Giants rookie and the youngest player in baseball at the time.  Al Bridwell was the batter.

Bridwell drove the ball into the left field gap for a hit, and Moose McCormick trotted in easily from third and scored.  The Giants had just won the game to extend their lead in the standings, and their fans rushed the field.  It was reported at the time as “a scene of wild riot, the like of which has never been seen on any baseball field in the world.”

In all of that mayhem, Merkle ran straight for the clubhouse door without touching second base.  This was a common reaction at the time for a "walk off" hit.  But in response, the Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers - famous for being part of the double play combo Tinker to Evers to Chance - fought the crowd to retrieve the ball and touch second for a belated force out.  As he was doing this, a Giants coach figured out what was happening, grabbed the ball away from Evers, and threw it into the stands.

Evers appealed to the umpire, who called Merkle out by rule for not touching his base.  Technically, that meant that the force out ended the inning and the winning run did not count, so the game was still tied.  The game should ordinarily have continued to extra innings.  But contemporary accounts note that the ump heard “catcalls and hisses and threats of violence” until he was taken off the field by police.  With no umpire, and a riotous crowd on the field, and impending darkness, the game was declared a tie.

The Giants protested that the rule had never been enforced - in fact, it hadn't - but the National League president Harry Pulliam upheld the decision.  In doing so, Pulliam announced that if the season ended in a tie for first place, the teams would have to replay the game to decide the pennant.  Sure enough, that's what happened.  The Giants lost six more games in the next two weeks to end the season tied with the Cubs for the National League pennant. They replayed the contested game and the Cubs won.  They went on to win the World Series, and undue blame and derision was heaped on Fred Merkle.  He was dubbed a "bonehead" by the New York press, the play became "Merkle's boner," the verb "merkle" became a slang word meaning to screw something up, and taunts of "bonehead!" or "don't forget to touch second!" followed Fred Merkle for the rest of his career.

The sting stayed with him until 1950, when he returned to the Polo Grounds for an old-timers’ game and the fans treated him to a long ovation. He died 6 years later, and his obituary predictably noted in the first sentence that he "was best remembered for a 'boner' that cost the New York Giants the pennant in 1908."  

Fred Merkle saw the rules change right in front of him, and became one of sports' most famous goats.  Some say the Cubs are cursed not by black cats or billy goats or Bartman, but by the ”Bonehead” whose sad technicality handed them their last World Series.  I think of him every September 23.   


BONUS FACT:  Surprisingly, Chuck Brodsky's song is not the only folk lament about Mr. Merkle's misfortune.  Dan Bern's great song "Merkle" describes the famous event over a repeated lyric of "Merkle should have touched second base."

BONUS FACT 2:  The noted political blowhard and baseball historian Keith Olbermann has written and spoken (watch that one; it's really good) very eloquently about Fred Merkle and the broader life meaning of his "boner" and its consequences.  I quite agree with his take.

BONUS FACT 3:  Just a stone's throw from Wrigley Field, you can drink a beer at Merkle's Bar & Grill.  It is named in "honor" of Fred Merkle, and their website includes a short biography and description of the infamous play.

BONUS FACT 4:  1908 was a sufficiently wild baseball year that it inspired two books.  The first is Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Best Year in Baseball History.  It's got 4.5 stars on Amazon, and was favorably reviewed in the New York Times.  Here's author Cait Murphy talking about her book and about Mr. Merkle to NPR's All Things Considered.  The other is More Than Merkle: A History of the Best and Most Exciting Baseball Season in Human History (as opposed to dog history or something, I guess.)  That one has less enthusiastic reviews, but pulls off a respectable 3 stars.

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