The Washington Nationals’ historic run to their first-ever appearance in the World Series brings to mind some famous events from baseball’s storied past. This story is one of my favorites because it carries a teaching that goes far beyond the diamond.
My wife and I didn’t realize we would be reliving a spooky historical inversion with the Chicago Cubs when I snapped on the radio on the night of October 14, 2003, as we neared the end of a daylong drive to our son’s home, near Atlanta, GA.
We tuned in to the Cubs Radio Network as the 6th game of the National League Championship Series was in the Florida Marlins’ half of the 8th inning. The Cubs, ahead 3-2 in games, held a 3-0 lead. There was one out. The Cubs were just five outs away from the World Series. As we turned onto the interstate in northern Georgia, The Marlins’ Juan Pierre drove a hit to the outfield that went for a double.
“Prior must be getting tired,” I remarked – speaking of the Cubs’ pitcher. “They should take him out and bring in their closer.”
The next hitter, Luis Castillo, ran the count full. Then Bizzarro, the ghost of strange historical coincidences, struck without warning. Castillo hit a pop foul toward the seats along the left field line. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou chased it, leaning into the first row to attempt a catch that would have made the second out of the inning. However, fan Steve Bartman also reached for the ball, touched it and prevented Alou from making the catch. The count stayed full. The next pitch was called ball four and Castillo went to first base.
Then the roof fell in for the Cubs. As their long-suffering fans watched in numb disbelief, the Marlins drove hit after hit around the field – ultimately winning the game, 8-3. The Cubs’ first World Series appearance since 1945, palpably close moments before, had gone a-glimmering.
The next night the Marlins swept into the World Series as 2003 National League champions by defeating the Cubs, 9-6. History had cruelly engineered a kind of rough equalization of an old baseball score, although only a few centenarians were around to recall it.
In 1908 the Cubs and the New York Giants had played to records of 90-53 and 87-48, respectively, when they met for the last game of a 3-game series on Sept. 23, 1908, at the Polo Grounds. In the ninth inning, with the score tied at 1, the Giants had men on first and third with two out. Al Bridwell struck a clean hit into center field which easily scored McCormick from third. The runner on first, Fred Merkle, needed only to tag second base for the winning run to be counted. But finding a mob of spectators rushing onto the field – “security” being somewhat different in 1908 than it is today – Merkle gave up his attempt to reach second and retired to the clubhouse. The Giants thought they had won the game.
But the sharp-eyed Cubs had noticed Merkle’s failure to reach second. Joe Tinker recovered a ball – it was never clear if it was the ball – and tagged second amidst the throng of fans. Umpires called Merkle out and pronounced the game a tie since the crush of spectators prevented additional play. The game was later appealed to the league office by the Giants and counter-appealed by the Cubs. After some deliberation the league announced agreement with the umpires’ decision on the field. This left the game tied. The League Commissioner ordered it replayed at season’s end, if necessary.
On October 8th, with the regular season over, the two teams were tied for first place with records of 98-55. The “Merkle’s Boner” game (as it was already being called) was replayed at the Polo Grounds before the largest crowd in baseball history (40,000), to that time. Thousands more watched from the elevated train tracks overlooking the park. (One man fell to his death.) The Cubs won, 4-2, and moved on to the World Series, in which they defeated the Detroit Tigers in five games.
Baseball aficionados have argued, ever since, about whether the inexperienced Merkle really had made a boneheaded play, or whether League President Henry Pulliam had unjustly cheated the Giants out of the Pennant. Many critics argue that such a decision would never be made today and should not have been made then. Officials’ loss of control over the field of play, say some, should have overruled the minor omission of Merkle not touching second.
Even at the time, no one argued that Merkle might have been forced at second by a close throw in normal circumstances – i.e., without the obstacle of a crowd of spectators. The Giants had clearly won the game, but they “wuz robbed” on a technicality.
I have seen film clips of the event. Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people rushed onto the field when the apparent winning run scored. Certainly no modern player would have attempted to pass through such a throng.
Comprehending all this, Giant manager John McGraw did not blame Merkle for his omission, and even made sure that Merkle got a $500 raise for the 1909 season. Merkle played pro baseball until 1926, compiling a batting average of .273 and driving in 733 runs. But his 1908 “boner” haunted him until his death in 1956. It was even mentioned in his obituary.
The legendary McGraw had a fine playing career, starting in 1891, and as a manager made many innovations, including the hit-and-run and the Baltimore Chop. He managed the Giants, 1904 through 1932, winning ten National League pennants and three World Series titles. An autocratic and combative figure, sometimes called “Little Napoleon,” McGraw fought opposing teams and managers with words and often with fists. In 29 full seasons as Giants manager he finished first or second 21 times and won 2,840 games. He died in 1935 at the age of 62.
League President Pulliam, caught in the middle of the unfortunate Merkle controversy, ended up the most tragically of all. Unable to deal with the criticism and bad feeling caused by his decision, he took his own life in July 1909.
The Cubs fielded many great teams over the next 40 years. They appeared in the 1910, ‘18, ‘29, ‘32, ‘35, ‘38 and ‘45 World Series, but never won another World Title. In 2003 they led the NLCS, three games to one over the Marlins, but Bizzarro decided that they weren’t finished paying for the injustice done to Merkle and the Giants in 1908.
In 2016 the Cubs finally won the World Series by defeating the Cleveland Indians in seven games. It was the Cubs’ first World Series appearance since 1945, and their first win since the Merkle-year of 1908.
The Bible says the sins of the fathers will be visited to the third and fourth generations. Remember Merkle and the Cubs the next time you think you’ve gotten away with something you know you shouldn’t have. And smile indulgently at anyone who says baseball is “just a game.”