The 1908 Cubs/Giants game in which Fred Merkle failed to touch second base and was eventually called out, forcing the game to be declared a tie and replayed after the season was over, is one of the most famous games in Cubs history. Indeed, it’s one of the most-discussed games in major-league history.
In the more than a century that has passed since that game was played, it has been assumed that there were no photos taken that day available.
Over the weekend SABR researcher Alex Cheremeteff tweeted this photo (reproduced above) that he says is from that game:
9/23/1908: Two outs, bottom of the 9th inning @ the Polo Grounds. 1-1 game and a dead heat for the pennant. Fred Merkle takes his lead off first base as Frank Chance holds him on. Moments later, Merkle's life would forever be changed.— Alex Cheremeteff (@AlexCheremeteff) January 6, 2018
(Cubs 1, Giants 1) #MerkleGame #NYC pic.twitter.com/8WtmoVP8Rh
“Moments later.” So why isn’t there a photo, or photos, of the chaotic scene that ensued?
On the website OOTP Developments, a poster who identifies simply as “Merkle923” has a detailed analysis of this photo and why Charles Conlon, perhaps the greatest baseball photographer of the early 20th Century, might have missed what happened next:
[Al] Bridwell connected on the first pitch, scoring McCormick and sending Merkle not to second but to the Giants’ clubhouse, which required a hard right somewhere before he got to the next base, and sending them all into infamy when the Cubs convinced the umpires to call him out and nullify the run in this game with the two teams virtually tied for first place.
And Charles Conlon missed it.
If he photographed Merkle inching off the bag in the bottom of the ninth on September 23, 1908, he had to have almost immediately thereafter, closed up his heavy, cumbersome camera and begun to move off the field just as Bridwell singled. While the most famous rhubarb in sports history unfolded, Conlon had to have been moving away from it, trying to lug the camera and the glass plates he had exposed that day safely off the field.
Bridwell’s hit, Merkle not reaching second, McCormick scoring, the crowd pouring out of the stands, the Cubs refusing to leave the field, the Giants dragging Merkle back from the clubhouse to touch second, rival pitchers Joe McGinnity and Floyd Kroh wrestling for the ball, McGinnity throwing it into the stands, Johnny Evers somehow producing a new baseball and tagging second with it, umpires Hank O’Day and Bob Emslie ruling an hour later that Merkle was out - Conlon missed it the way those folks in the parking lot that you see suddenly jamming on their brake lights in highlights of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series missed Kirk Gibson’s homer.
So not only is this an image from “the Merkle game” taken just seconds before the most dissected play in history but it suggests that the story that there are no photos of it isn’t just wrong, it may have been deliberate. Because if you’re Charles Conlon, do you really want anybody to know “Oh, yeah, I photographed that game but I left with two out in the bottom of the ninth”?
Read the entire linked article — it’s an excellent description of why the researchers agree that this photo was indeed taken just before all hell broke loose at the Polo Grounds in New York that afternoon.
The key to understanding this is the statement about Conlon’s camera and the “heavy glass plates” that were, at the time, the way most professional photographs were made. While photographic film existed in 1908, these plates were still used in situations as the one Condon was in on September 23, 1908, a professional photography shoot. Photographic film for such purposes wasn’t in common use until about a decade later.
It’s too bad that Conlon couldn’t have stuck around for just a few minutes longer, although the time needed to change those heavy glass plates might have meant he’d have missed the key action anyway.
But assuming the researchers are correct, we now have at least one photo from that fateful game. (Love the socks on Frank Chance, incidentally. Think the Cubs should go back to that look?)
Merkle, as you might know, eventually wound up playing for the Cubs, in fact, played for them in the 1918 World Series. In his 16-year career he played in five World Series (1911-12-13 for the Giants, 1916 for the Dodgers and 1918 for the Cubs). His teams lost all of them.