It Took One of the Craziest Games of All Time

 

With baseball’s All-Star game just around the corner, I can’t resist a bit of baseball history–one of the most bizarre games in the long history of the game.

I am a White Sox fan, but this game involved the cross-town rivals, the Chicago Cubs. It was 1908, and the New York Giants were battling the Cubs for the National League pennant when the two teams squared off against each other on September 23.

The 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 a huge 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.

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 rule technically said the runner on first had to touch second. So, even with the field swarming with fans, Evers retrieved the game ball, stepped on second, and the umpire called Merkle out. The 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 followed, which the Cubs won, sending them to the World Series instead of the Giants, and poor Fred Merkle was forever saddled with the nickname “Bonehead” Merkle.

Some people said that the ball Evers had in his hand when he forced Merkle out at second base was not even the 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. So the Cubs relayed a completely different ball to Evers for the force out. Another account said it was the Cubs’ first baseman, Frank Chance, who noticed Merkle’s mistake, not Evers.

However it transpired, the game ended in a tie, the Cubs went to the World Series, and people never let Fred 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” during the one-game playoff with the Cubs. 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, one block from Wrigley Field.

The Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series, but they have not won a championship since.

By Doug Peterson

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