This is the first in what I intend to be an offseason series, looking at significant games in Cubs history. Now, this isn't a new idea, and you probably have a pretty good idea of what you think are key games in the history of this franchise.
What I'm going to try to do here is look at games that you might not have heard of; games that meant something at the time but have faded into history, or games that might not have seemed important at the time they were played, but became critical later on.
I'm intending to try to do one game from each season starting in 1908. Whether I manage to do that or not is something I can't promise at this point; there are probably seasons that you'd rather forget, or maybe there are some seasons where more than one game is worth writing about.
You are all likely familiar with the Merkle Game, the September 23, 1908 Cubs/Giants game in which Fred Merkle, on first base when an apparent game-winning hit was made, went directly to the clubhouse instead of stepping on second base. In the chaos that ensued, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers found a baseball -- it wasn't the ball that was hit, because that wound up being flung into the crowd -- stepped on second base, and told umpire Hank O'Day that Merkle should be forced, and thus out.
This wasn't the custom of the time. The reason that O'Day ruled in the Cubs' favor, and why that game was declared by the National League office as a tie, eventually replayed after the season ended and won by the Cubs, giving them the NL pennant, was an identical event that happened about three weeks earlier.
That's the game I'm writing about here. It happened on September 4, 1908 in Pittsburgh. The Cubs entered that day with a 74-48 record, in third place, but just one game out of first place, behind the Pirates (74-47) and the Giants (73-45). The game went scoreless into the bottom of the ninth inning; the Pirates loaded the bases with two out. Here's what happened next, according to SABR's biography of Evers:
On what appeared to be a game-winning hit to center, the runner at first, Warren Gill, left the field without bothering to touch second base. Evers, standing on second, called for the ball and demanded that umpire Hank O'Day rule the play a forceout, which would nullify the run and send the game into extra innings. Gill's maneuver was customary in those days, and O'Day refused to make the call that Evers was seeking. "That night O'Day came to look me up, which was an unusual thing in itself," Evers recalled many years later. "Sitting in a corner in the lobby, he told me that he wanted to discuss the play. O'Day then agreed that my play was legal and that under the circumstances, a runner coming down from first and not touching second on the final base hit was out." Evers' account may not be trustworthy, especially given O'Day's exceptionally reclusive nature and the lengthy period between the event and the retelling, but the incident undoubtedly had a pronounced effect on the umpire, as was demonstrated by subsequent events.
Essentially, what biographer David Shiner is saying is that O'Day would rule the way Evers suggested if a similar play happened again.
It did just 19 days later in the Merkle Game, and now, of course, that has become required in baseball -- on game-winning hits, you have to touch all the bases required by the hit in order for any such runs to count. A modern example of this was the apparent game-winning grand slam hit by Robin Ventura for the Mets that ended Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS; the game was tied 3-3, and Ventura hit the ball over the right-field fence for what should have been a 7-3 win. But Ventura's teammates mobbed him before he got to second base, and eventually it was ruled that just one run had scored, and Ventura's hit became dubbed "the Grand Slam Single".
Anyway, the Cubs did wind up losing that September 4, 1908 game 1-0, putting them two games out of first place, as the Giants won. Perhaps that loss energized them; from September 5 through the end of the season, the 1908 Cubs went 25-6 (with two ties, the Merkle Game and a 0-0 tie with the Phillies on September 19) and won the pennant in the makeup of the Merkle Game tie. If not for that, we'd now be lamenting 105 years without a World Series title, instead of 104.