Green: Merkle's blunder paved way for Cubs' title vs. Tigers

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News
Fred Charles Merkle as pictured in 1926.    As a New York Giants player he is the man who is credited with a baserunning error  which caused a playoff and loss of  the National League pennant.

Baseball collects its treasures as memories, as traditions, as nostalgia, as anecdotes passed from one generation and onto the next. And then forward march to our kids, and now our grandkids.

And the season of 1908 remains a treasure, an object of baseball art, a valued chunk of history. It remains a treasure even if there is nobody left ticking on earth in 2016 to remember it and its details and its controversy. No one left to supply eyewitness details and some juicy anecdotes as the current Cubs are now lightning in a new baseball season.

That year, 1908, was the last ball season that the Chicago Cubs won a World Series.

Teddy Roosevelt, that election year, was our president. Radio was a brand new method of communications. The Internet and television -- and lighted baseball parks -- were miracles yet to be discovered in the future, the distant future.

The United States has been victorious in two World Wars in the interim between back then and now.

And the Chicago lament, it seems, has continued forever.

The Cubs won the World Series by hook, and perhaps also by crook, — 108 years ago — over the Detroit Tigers and a young Ty Cobb. They won it over Hughie Jennings, the manager, and Sam Crawford and George Mullin in five games. They won it with Mordecai (Three-Finger) Brown and player/manager Frank Chance and Joe Tinkers.

And the Cubs reached the World Series certainly because of the quickly observant and reputedly feisty Johnny Evers.

They won because they had won the National League pennant on the basis of a goof up, a misstep, a baserunner’s faulty misjudgment. The Cubs were winners because Fred Merkle neglected to touch second base; the failure cost the New York Giants a victory and the pennant.

Merkle’s Boner has been etched into the now 141 seasons of Major League Baseball as the most flagrant gaffe in the sport’s preciously documented history.

It was the first baseball story that I remember — passed on from my father’s generation to mine. And in 2016, it has stuck fixed in my memory bank for 80 years.

I could picture Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie who grew up in Toledo, striking a single. The hit sent Harry “Moose” McCormick from first to third. And the story remains fresh for me, as I picture Al Bridwell hitting a single — an apparent safe base hit — into center field.

There are fresh visions of McCormick trotting home with the run — an apparent run — that gave the Giants a vital 2-1 victory — an apparent victory — in the heated 1908 pennant race.

And there are the ancient pictures, clung to by an 8-year-old new baseball addict, of Merkle running toward second and then veering off as the New York fans poured onto the field of the Polo Grounds. They cheered in jubilation; their Giants had just gained some control of the hectic three-club pennant race with the Cubs and Pirates.

Merkle's beeline

Except, Merkle, seeing McCormick touch home plate, failed to continue to second base. He just headed for the clubhouse.

That was the custom of the era, guys neglected to touch second on the apparent walk-off hits — any force out would be waived.

But this time, Evans screamed for the ball.

He was thrown a baseball and he stepped on second base.

Hank O’Day, one of the two umpires, called Merkle out. O’Day ruled that play a legitimate force out. The Giants’ winning run was nullified.

Fans had clogged the field in the dusk of the late afternoon. The Giants were already in their clubhouse celebrating a victory over the pursuing Cubs.

O’Day called the game due to darkness with the crowd on the field. He ruled it a tie, Cubs 1, Giants 1.

And when the 1908 season ended, the Cubs and Giants were tied in the pennant race with Pittsburgh eliminated.

The Cubs and Giants were required the replay the game due to what remains known in baseball archives as Merkle’s Boner.

Frank Green, my dad, was a kid of 12 in October of 1908 when this weird slice of baseball history was being enacted.

“They had to play the game over because Merkle never touched second base,” my father told me so many years ago.

Tagging up

“I skipped school that day. I stood on Coogan’s Bluff behind the Polo Grounds and I watched the game from there.

“And the Cubs won all because of Merkle.”

The Cubs won it, 4-2, with Three-Finger — he had lost two fingers off his pitching hand — pitching most of the game in relief. He beat the Giants and John McGraw for the pennant.

Dad, in telling his son the story with all the details of Merkle’s boner, didn’t seem particularly happy that his Giants had lost — still, 28 years later.

This was my indoctrination into baseball in 1936.

And vivid images of the Cubs and Three-Finger and Evers have stuck with me in flashback mind-pictures through eight decades.

All is vivid — except for the mystery of the baseball that Johnny Evers clutched when he touched second base to force out the recalcitrant Merkle in 1908.

“Evers never had the real ball,” my father told me. “He got a dirty ball and used that.

One story was that the Giants’ Joe McGinnity intercepted the baseball as it was being returned from center field and threw it away into the stands. Another story maintains that Evers retrieved the ball from the fan who grabbed it. And a third story is that, Solly Hofman, the Chicago center fielder, threw the actual baseball into the infield. Tinker, the shortstop caught it, and threw it to Chance, the first baseman, who relayed it to Evers.

A bit of a switch on Tinkers to Evers to Chance — the double-play poetry entitled “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” by New York sports columnist Franklin P.  Adams. The 1910 poem remains a segment of still popular baseball lore.

Now, well, the Cubs — a futile franchise for most of the past 108 years -- have been the highlight of this young baseball season.

The best team in big-league baseball. Headed toward the National League pennant and the World Series.

The end of an era of futility.



Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter