24 September 2008

Fred Merkle's B0ner, 100 Years Hence...

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of "Merkle's Boner", which while perhaps sounding a bit like the title of a stag film, was actually one of the more famous plays in baseball's first century, but sadly was not caught on film.

The Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants were coming neck-and-neck down the stretch in the final weeks of the season. Playing each other in a crucial game, tied at 1-1, Fred Merkle, the 19-year old firstbaseman for the Giants (though only trade-fodder for my All-Birthday Team) was on first when the apparent winning run was driven in from third on a single.

At the time, it was commonplace for fans to rush the ballfield after a dramatic win. Heck, with no walls in the outfield, half of them were standing on it already. Fearing for his safety, Merkle went straight to the dugout, but the Cubs realized that technically he was supposed to tag second in order for the run to count, since there were two out. When Chicago secondbaseman Johnny Evers noticed that Merkle had missed second, he signaled for the ball, stepped on second base, and umpire Hank O'Day called Merkle out, leaving the game tied, but impossible to play with all those fans on the field.

At the end of the season, with the two teams tied for the pennant, the Cubs won a one-game playoff, and eventually the World Series (their last postseason series victory of any kind, it should be noted). Ed Sherman's got a fairly concise piece on it over at ESPN.com.

SABR's Dead-Ball Era committee newsletter has a whole issue with various perspectives on Merkle's infamous play($?), including a comic strip! There's also a wonderful novel called The Celebrant, which I read a few years ago, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg, which follows Christy Mathewson's life, but which includes his fictionalized take on this famous game from 1908. In the book, one of the main characters, a Giants fan, actually catches the game ball and keeps it, which means that the one Evers uses to tag second base is not the right one, and that Merkle is not out. Technically, the game remains unfinished. Great book.

Merkle's career stats look pretty modest, mostly because he played in the Dead Ball era, and partially because he was a firstbaseman and our conception of what firstbasemen do has changed so much in a century. But Merkle was talented. He was the youngest player in the National League not once but twice, at ages 18 and 19, and he could hit. Not Mark McGwire kind of hitting, but a line-drive/contact type hitter who was also a nimble fielder and a good baserunner.
Put him in the National League today and he's a poor man's John Olerud, with less power but with 30-40 steals.

He was among the league leaders in homers, doubles, triples, steals, slugging percentage and batting average at various points in his career, though he never led the NL in any of them. Bill James ranks him #84 on his list of the 100 greatest firstbasemen in the most recent edition of the Baseball Abstract, just behind Wally Pipp, another underrated and now somewhat infamous firstbaseman. (Pipp famously sat out a game with a headache and lost his job to Lou Gehrig, who would not miss a day of work for 13 years.)

In any case, it seems that while the rules technically were enforced in calling Merkle out, that rule had generally not been enforced historically (including a similar play ruled exactly the opposite way by Hank O'Day just two weeks earlier) so it seems clear that Merkle does not deserve all of the blame, though perhaps he does deserve some.

It would be a fitting tribute, or perhaps just poetic justice, for the Cubs to lose the World Series on a technicality this year. That'll show 'em.

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