In existence for nearly a century and a half, Major League Baseball has acquired the status of a national saga. The stories of its teams are handed down through generations as heirlooms. Even fans not interested in the history of the game hold a lifelong investment in the decades they personally witness.
Some individual games transcend team loyalties and acquire iconic status. Perhaps the earliest such game known to every fan is the Merkle Game between the Cubs and Giants on September 23, 1908, at the Polo Grounds in New York. From the perspective of baseball history in general, this is probably the most important game in which the Cubs have participated.
And it includes a team heirloom apart from the icon, the story of a man least known for his hitting, who hit the greatest pitcher of the time to the greatest detriment.
The pennant chases of 1908, in both leagues, are perhaps the wildest in the books. In the NL, the Cubs, Giants, and Pirates maintained a near three-way tie for the final month. When the Cubs met the Giants in New York on Wednesday, September 23, the teams were tied for first place, the Pirates 1½ games behind.
Christy Mathewson, already a legend, started for the Giants, Jack Pfiester for the Cubs. The first run, the only run the Cubs scored that day, was an inside-the-park home run in the fifth inning by shortstop Joe Tinker. Thereby hangs the heirloom.
Tinker’s career average against Mathewson was .291 (.379 from 1906-13), far above his overall lifetime average. The home run this day was the first Mathewson had allowed since July 17, to — Tinker. The Giants tied the game in the sixth.
Still tied in the bottom of the ninth, Giants runners were on first (Fred Merkle), and third, with two out. A clean base hit to center field scored the runner from third, giving the Giants an apparent clutch victory.
Here all heck breaks loose, in history as well as on the field that day. Like a similar incident at Wrigley Field a quarter-century later, it astounds that one action, seen by tens of thousands of witnesses, is irretrievably lost to any definitive resolution.
The “establishment” story is that rookie Merkle, following convention, did not technically complete the run-scoring play by touching second base, but headed immediately to the team clubhouse to avoid the usual (for that time) crush of fans mobbing the field.
Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers got a ball (not necessarily the game ball), and made contact with second base. Hank O’Day and Bob Emslie, the game umpires (and the two most senior umpires in the league), conferred and called Merkle out, the third out, a forceout, negating the run. They then declared the game a tie, due to the impossibility of resuming play under the circumstances. O’Day had refused to rule a runner out on an identical play nearly three weeks before, also involving Evers at second base. He had promised Evers to call the play by the book if it happened again.
The accounts of witnesses and participants to the Merkle events cover literally every possibility, and versions told by individuals changed, sometimes more than once, through the years. It’s not my purpose to sort all this out, that alone would be a longer article than this one. The league upheld the umpires’ decision through multiple appeals, and the tie stood.
Even here the game is not yet the stuff of legend; it was a controversial decision in the heat of a pennant race, but there was still more than a week left in the season, the tie could very well not need to be replayed.
And then everything that could possibly happen to make that replay necessary did. It reads like a cosmic conspiracy. The Giants played 16 more games (four doubleheaders!), going 11-5 to finish at 98-55. Phillies pitcher Harry Coveleski (brother of Hall of Famer Stanley), defeated New York three times in five days during that stretch to earn the soubriquet “Giant Killer.” The Cubs went 8-2 in their 10 remaining games, including a makeup with Pittsburgh, to also finish at 98-55. The Pirates won nine of their last 11, but came up a half-game short after losing the makeup to the Cubs, leaving the pennant to be decided at the Polo Grounds October 8. This is often incorrectly called a playoff, it was in fact the replay of the previous tie.
In the replay, one of the most dramatic games ever played, Tinker did it again, tripling to begin the winning rally against Mathewson that gave the Cubs the pennant. The World Series was a romp, the Cubs won what would be their last title for more than a century.
All because the Hall of Famer with the .262 lifetime average owned the best NL pitcher of the Deadball Era. That game could not happen today, of course. Part of its appeal is that it has the presence of myth, no film or even still photo is known to exist. (A possible game-action photo that purports to be Merkle leading off first base just before disaster has surfaced recently, written up here in 2018). Many years after Evers’ death, a baseball inscribed as the Merkle ball was found among his effects. It was last sold at auction for $76,375 in 2010.
But perhaps we can view the Merkle play by proxy. A game between the Midwest League’s Lansing Lugnuts and Great Lakes Loons in Lansing on July 1, 2013 had spooky similarities to the events of 1908. A fan captured it all on a smartphone camera, and it seems the ghosts of a century ago are at work:
If this had been rehearsed in advance it couldn’t have been captured more perfectly. The establishing shots, the scoreboard, the hit, the runner abandoning his path, the relay to second base, the argument at the plate, all flawlessly recorded. The Lugnuts, the “victim” if you will, lost the game in extra innings.
BCB reader Zeke is the official scorer for the Lugnuts and scored that game. His description of what happened that day seven years ago is in this comment to a FanPost about that game. The chaos in New York in 1908 was no doubt very much like what happened in Lansing, Michigan, nearly 105 years later.
Merkle’s name is now attached to one of the local Wrigleyville watering holes, he was even a Cub for four years and played for them in the 1918 World Series. His obituary in the New York Times mentioned the “boner,” almost 48 years after it happened. To swipe a phrase from H.L. Mencken, another joke played upon a poor mortal by the gods.