Fred Merkle
Fred Merkle

 

If you were among the millions who watched the dramatic seventh game of the World Series last year, you might have come away thinking you saw the greatest game of all time. The game was a nail-biter, as the Chicago Cubs finally won their first World Series after 108 long, excruciating years! How could it get any better?

However, if you go back to 1908—the very season when the Cubs won their previous championship—you will come across a game just as suspenseful and much crazier. In fact, it was one of the craziest games of all time.

It is also a story of grudges and grace.

The Cubs and the New York Giants were battling over who would win the National League title and face the Detroit Tigers in the 1908 World Series. This crucial game was in the bottom of the ninth inning tied 1 to 1, and the Giants were at bat with two outs and a man on first base. The batter: 19-year-old Fred Merkle, the youngest player in the National League. Merkle rapped a single, keeping the game alive and moving Moose McCormick to third base.

The next batter, Al Bridwell, smacked a single as well, bringing in what appeared to be the winning run. The New York crowd at the Polo Grounds assumed the Giants had just won this monumental game, and they swarmed the field and celebrated wildly.

But not so fast.

Exactly what happened next has been hotly debated. But one thing was certain: Fred Merkle was called out at second base, and the winning run didn’t count.

You see, when Merkle saw McCormick scoring, he didn’t bother touching second base and simply jogged off the field, figuring the game was over. Although this was not an unusual thing to do, the Cubs’ second baseman Johnny Evers knew that the rulebook technically said the runner on first had to touch second.

So, even with the field swarming with fans, Evers tracked down the game ball, stepped on second, and the umpire called Merkle out.

Some people said the ball that Evers had in his hand when he forced Merkle out at second base was not the real game ball. They claimed that the Giants’ pitcher saw what Evers was trying to do, grabbed the game ball, and hurled it into the stands. Seeing this, a Cubs’ player tossed a completely different ball to Evers, which he used for the force out.

In the chaos on the field, no one knew what really happened. But the fans soon discovered that the Giants’ winning run did not count.

With the crowd on the field and darkness setting in, the game was declared a tie, and to Merkle’s dismay the Cubs and Giants finished the season tied for first place. A playoff game between the two teams followed, which the Cubs won, sending them to the World Series instead of the Giants.

Poor Fred Merkle. He was forever saddled with the nickname “Bonehead Merkle.”

People never let Merkle forget what had happened for the rest of his career, even though he was instrumental in three Giants’ pennants from 1911 through 1913. He lost hair and weight, and he moaned, “I’m sorry, it’s my fault” over and over during the one-game playoff. Years later, even his daughter was taunted at school and called “Bonehead.”

After retiring, Merkle avoided baseball and the bad memories, but he was talked into returning to a Giants’ old-timers game in 1950, where he received a standing ovation. Hopefully, he gained some sense of grace in an unforgiving world on that day. You can find a picture of Fred Merkle at Merkle’s Bar and Grill, not far from Wrigley Field.

We humans have a nasty habit of holding grudges, but this bitterness poisons the soul. The irony is that those who do not know how to forgive wind up harming themselves as much as the other person. No wonder forgiveness is such a big deal to Jesus.

It took decades before some fans would forgive Fred Merkle. They failed to realize that forgiveness is a powerful, cleansing act. As Frederick Buechner once wrote, “For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence.”

In contrast, holding grudges for years can be even more painful than waiting 108 years for your favorite team to win a championship.

By Doug Peterson

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