Remembering Fred Merkle’s Boner

Baseball has always been a superstitious game. It contains a novelistic past of hoaxes, jinxes, theories, and rituals. No other sport contains such fantastical fables as the curses of the Bambino, Black Sox, and Billy Goat. As with baseball, numbers are closely tied to superstitions—the phrases “seven years bad luck,” “seventh son of a seventh son,” and “three times a charm” come to mind. As the season winds down, it’s interesting that analysts refer to the “magic number” that a division-leading team needs to reach before clinching a playoff birth.

The number “100” typically signifies something of importance, particularly milestones like birthdays or anniversaries. It’s no secret that this year will be the 100th anniversary of the Cubs’ last World Series championship. Since then the Cubs have experienced Billy Sianis and his goat, Leo Durocher and his impromptu vacation, and Steve Bartman’s web gem. However, in 1908, the Cubs were granted a rare stroke of luck. Two days ago marked the 100th anniversary of what’s known as “Merkle’s Boner.” On September 23, 1908, New York Giants first baseman Fred Merkle obliviously committed a blunder that helped the Chicago Cubs win the pennant, and subsequently, the World Series.

On that Wednesday in 1908, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, 19 year-old Fred Merkle knocked a single into right field, advancing teammate Moose McCormick to third. Al Birdwell followed with a single of his own, allowing McCormick to score what appeared to be the winning run. In the thrill of victory, Merkle joined his fellow Giants in celebration. Unfortunately, he did not touch second base. This mistake was labeled “Merkle’s Boner” (when “boner” was synonymous with “bonehead,” instead of today’s more comedic definition). Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers quickly noticed what had transpired. Evers was an ardent student of the game and knew the rulebook back to front. Although accounts vary, Evers supposedly retrieved the game ball and stepped on second base. Since Merkle had gone directly to the Giants clubhouse, his failure to advance from first to second technically kept play alive. Therefore, Evers forced him out by touching the bag. Of course, nobody noticed. As was custom, Giants fans swarmed the old Polo Grounds after every victory. Soon, Umpire Hank O’Day and the National League’s board of directors came to the decision that Merkle was indeed out. Taking the game into extra innings was rendered impossible, and the game was ruled a tie.

The following game, which determined who would play the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, took place on October 8th. Fans flooded Coogan’s Bluff above the Polo Grounds and climbed atop the grandstands, barricading the sellout crowd. The scene was rife for a riot of epic proportions—certainly the most perilous the sport had seen at that time. Though the Giants brought out their ace Christy Mathewson, he was pitching with a dead arm. After the Cubs secured a 4-2 victory, they immediately rushed to their clubhouse. Pandemonium quickly ensued. Trying to exit, various Cubs players felt the wrath of the New York fans. Pitcher Jack Pfiester was knifed in the shoulder while Frank Chance sustained injuries after a punch to the throat. It took an entire police squad with guns drawn to quell the mayhem.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a ball game this out of control, with both fans and players contributing to this level of violence. With all that was riding on this game (and the fact that baseball was then the most popular sport in the country), it reduces the Pistons/Pacers fiasco to crying over spilt milk. The relationship between fans and players has always been fascinating, and it’s been displayed in dramatically different ways over the years. From this near bloodbath at the Polo Grounds, to Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron’s struggles, to the syringes thrown at Barry Bonds, fans have always made their presence felt. I’ve heard some of the nastiest things ever said at ball games and I’m always struck by two things. First is the often unexpected creativity involved, and second is the players’ ability to tune these insults out. Granted, today’s games are heavily monitored by security and there is only a slight chance of witnessing a violent altercation between a fan and player. (During the game I went to last Friday, stadium personnel guarded the entire field barrier when the teams switched sides.) Nevertheless, outlets such as chucking beer bottles, sending hate mail and email, and even blogging allow sports enthusiasts to place (or misplace) their anger. In examining this game from 1908, it’s unbelievable what used to happen instead.

The Cubs went on to defeat the Tigers in stride, capturing their second and last World Series championship. Now, a century later, it looks like the Rays, Red Sox, White Sox, Angels, Phillies, Mets, Cubs, and Dodgers will make the postseason. Of these teams, the Cubbies are the only one with a famous curse looming over their heads. It would be fitting to put it to rest on the 100th anniversary of their last championship. I don’t want to say anything else that could jinx their chances, so I’ll just leave it at that.

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