The Merkle Play: An excerpt from “Waiting for the Cubs”

The account of “Merkle’s Boner” detailed by Charles Dryden in the September 24, 1908 edition of the Chicago Tribune is close to most versions one reads or hears today. In fact, the term “Merkle’s Boner” was probably coined by Dryden who wrote in the first paragraph of his account: “In the ninth round Merkle did a bone-head base running stunt identical with the recent exhibition which Mr. Gill … gave at Pittsburg (sic) three weeks ago.” The colorful writing of the era helps immerse us in the spirit of the times, and the insanity of the Merkle play itself. I will use Dryden as our base, although Giants fans would protest that he was biased, which he no doubt was. But this memoir is written by a Cub fan so tough luck. We pick up the account in the bottom of the ninth. Score tied, Cubs one Giants one. The Giants come up to bat at the Polo Grounds in New York. The game is tied 1-1. The Cubs, Giants, and Pirates are all within a game of each other at the top of the National League with about a week left in the season.

The parentheses are mine, added to make the article easier to follow a hundred years later.

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Round 9 for the Giants opened with the out of Seymour. Then Devlin singled and [next batter] McCormick forced him [two out]. [Fred] Merkle’s safety to right put McCormick on third [men on first and third]. On the first ball pitched Bridwell pasted a neat but not gaudy single to center. McCormick crossed the plate [with the apparent winning run], but Merkle, who was at first base, ran half way down to second, then turned and hot hoofed for the clubhouse.

Unless the said Merkle planted a hoof on second base, Bridwell could not be credited with a hit, and McCormick could not score. The Cubs and Hank O’Day were primed for the situation, having been through it once before, in Pittsburg (sic). With one voice the Cubs set up a yelp like a cage of hungry hyenas and O’Day, working behind the plate, ran to the pitching slab [rubber] to see what came off at second base. Capt. Donlin realized the danger about to overtake the Giants, so he set off after the fat headed Merkle while McGinnity, who was coaching at third base [for the Giants], butted into the fracas coming off at the middle cushion.

Facts Gleaned from Survivors
The facts in the case gleaned from active participants and survivors are these: [Cub center fielder] Hofman fielded Bridwell’s knock and threw to Evers for a force play on the absent Merkle. But McGinnity, who was not in the game, cut in ahead and grabbed the ball before it reached the eager Trojan [Evers, who came from Troy, NY]. Three Cubs landed on the iron man [McGinnity’s nickname was “Iron Man”] from as many directions at the same time and jolted the ball from his cruel grasp. It rolled among the spectators, who had swarmed upon the diamond like an army of starving potato bugs.

At this thrilling juncture “Kid” Kroh [of the Cubs – a pitcher and not in the game either!], the demon southpaw, swarmed upon the human potato bugs and knocked six of them galley-west. The triumphant Kroh passed the ball to [Cub third baseman] Steinfeldt after cleaning up the gang that had it. [Cub shortstop] Tinker wedged in, and the ball was conveyed to Evers for the force out of Merkle, while Capt. Donlin was still some distance off towing that brilliant young gent by the neck.

Some say Merkle eventually touched second base, but not until he had been forced out by Hofman, to McGinnity, to six potato bugs, to “Kid” Kroh, to some more Cubs, and the shrieking, triumphant Mr. Evers, the well known Troy shoe dealer. There have been some complicated plays in baseball, but we do not recall one just like this in a career of years of monkeying with the national pastime.

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In my favorite version, based on Evers’ own account given years later to John Carmichael for his book My Greatest Day in Baseball (1945) and the one I relate often, the fan who caught the ball tossed by McGinnity was a tall gentleman wearing a brown bowler. Cub Harry Steinfeldt and Floyd Kroh chased him down and fought him for the ball. But he was a tenacious Giant fan and wouldn’t let go until one of the Cubs pounded the bowler over his eyes. While attempting to regain his vision, he dropped the ball. It rolled among the storming feet of the celebrating fans followed by and groped at by a crawling Floyd Kroh, who eventually grabbed it, stood and relayed it to Tinker who then threw it to Evers.

The New York Herald reported, after describing the essence of the play as Dryden did:

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Chance ran to O’Day, claiming the run did not count … A riotous mob at once surrounded the couple, and … everyone recognized a good opportunity to get a shot at the umpire. Those within reach began pounding him on all available exposed parts not covered by the protector, while … attackers on the outskirts began sending messages by way of cushions, newspapers and other missiles.

A flying squadron of real police … rushed O’Day to McGraw’s coop under the grandstand and Chance was escorted off the field…

O’Day, under the press of circumstances, did not render a decision on the field, but after he had dressed he told a reporter of the Herald that Merkle had not gone to second and the run did not count…

Merkle said after the game that he had touched second en route for the clubhouse, and McGraw refused to say any more than that the game had been won fairly.

… all our boys (the Giants) did rather well if Fred Merkle could gather the idea into his noodle that baseball custom does not permit a runner to take a shower and some light lunch in the clubhouse on the way to second. Then again … an enormous baseball custom has had it from time immemorial that as soon as the winning run has crossed the plate everyone adjourns as hastily and yet nicely as possible to the clubhouse and exits.

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This last observation is agreed to by just about every baseball historian who has since written about the incident. It was common practice since baseball’s earliest days that runners in force play situations need not continue to the next base on a game-winning, walk-off hit. However, few agree, to this day, on what actually happened. This version appeared in the New York World: “… Umpires O’Day and Emslie admitted to newspaper men that they had not seen the play. O’Day was back of the catcher when the riot started and endeavored to reach first base, where Chance was struggling in the clutch of a mob. Emslie was trying to save himself and his wig from being trampled.”

The New York Evening Mail quoted Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson: “If this game goes to Chicago by any trick … [and] we lose the pennant thereby, I will never play professional baseball again.

“I had started for the clubhouse when I heard Chance call to Hofman to throw the ball to second. I remembered the trick they had tried to play on Pittsburgh [the Gill play] and caught Merkle by the arm and told him to go to second. Merkle touched the bag. I saw him do it.”

Sam Crane of the New York Evening Journal backed up this version: “Merkle did make a run for the clubhouse to escape the onrushing fans … but he turned after going only a few feet and broke for second. Hofman did return the ball, but it went far over Evers’ head, hit Tinker in the back and went on to (Cub catcher Johnny) Kling. Merkle was then on second with Mathewson, and as Evers, Tinker and (Cubs’ pitcher Jack) Pfiester all rushed toward second, Matty (Matthewson), according to his own story, to which he will take an affidavit if such a ridiculous act is necessary, took Merkle by the arm and said: ‘Come on to the clubhouse; we don’t want to mix up in this,’ and both Matty and Merkle left the base together.”

In her book Crazy ’08, published in 2008, Cait Murphy describes the play as follows: “Now Hofman is tossing the ball toward Evers, and here comes … McGinnity, who rushes in from the first base coach’s box to intercept the ball. He gets it, shakes off a few Cubs and throws the ball into the stands. Another ball appears from somewhere, and there is Evers, standing in triumph, his hand clutching a  ball raised above his head …” Note that she moved McGinnity across the diamond from the third base line as described by Dryden who was at the game. But she’s not the only one. Time magazine, among others, in a March, 1956, article also had McGinnity coaching first. Frank Deford in his 2005 book The Old Ball Game states “Three different pitchers – McGinnity, Wiltse, and Mathewson – all seemed to have later remembered that they were coaching first.”

But Murphy must be from New York! Although she admits that there are multiple versions of the story, she leads with the one that says that the ball relayed to Evers wasn’t the game ball, giving that version an added air of authenticity. This interpretation echoes a 1961 description of the play by Lee Allen in his book The National League Story: “Joe McGinnity raced over from the Giant coacher’s (sic) box, wrestled [Cub Floyd Kroh] for it, and is believed to have thrown it into the stands. Somehow Evers obtained another ball, stepped on second, and raced over to the plate umpire, Hank O’Day.” Allen was from Cincinnati, long a bastion of Cub-haters like Marty Brennaman and Joe Morgan.

John Lund in his brief review of the season, 1908: a Look at the World Champion 1908 Chicago Cubs, describes it this way:   “Johnny Evers … called for the ball to be thrown to second to force Merkle … Frank Chance ran to cover second but before the throw could reach him the ball was intercepted by Giant pitcher Joe McGinnity, who threw it into the crowd in celebration before Chance could complete the force.” Nowhere does Lund mention that any ball at all made it to second base for a force play. And he’s an admitted lifelong Cub fan! His little book is not dated nor is a publisher identified, but the point is that even a Cub fan relates yet another version, not necessarily in support of the Cubs’ claim that they forced Merkle out.

National League President Harry C. Pulliam attended the game and saw the play. From what seat, I admit I don’t know and have not been able to find out. What’s clear is that he made his way to the umpire’s dressing room, called the “coop,” and spoke to O’Day and Emslie. O’Day confirmed his decision that Merkle was out, and that the game was tied and could not be resumed. Pulliam asked that the two umpires meet him at his residence in the New York Athletic Club to discuss the matter. That evening, O’Day scribbled a hand-written note, addressed to Pulliam, confirming that Merkle was out (original in the archives of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and reproduced in Allen’s The National League Story). But he as much as said that Merkle was out because McGinnity interfered with the play, not mentioning that the Cubs had forced him at second. So whether or not the ball that ended up in Evers’ mitt was the game ball became a moot point.

Pulliam backed the decision of the umpires, saying that if necessary the game would be replayed in the unlikely event that the Giants and Cubs ended the season tied for first place. Both teams protested – the Giants claiming they won the game outright, and the Cubs demanding that the game be declared a Giants forfeit because they could not make their field playable after the incident, nor did they show up to play a makeup game (as dictated by the rules) before the scheduled September 24 contest between the Cubs and Giants. Ironically, the Giants agreed that the game should either be declared theirs or forfeited. The protests would be reviewed by the National League board of directors, a group of owners who had final say concerning disputes. The appeal process would go on into the first week of October, up to the very end of the season.

(Admin note:  The Cubs and Giants ended the season with identical records. The Merkle Game was replayed on October 8, 1908, in New York. The Cubs won and went on to win the World Series, for the last time as of this writing. You can read more about the October 8 game in the book, and you should! More than 250,000 fans tried to get in. At least one fan died. Desperate fans tried to burn down an outfield wall to get in. Cub players were stabbed …)

One Response to “The Merkle Play: An excerpt from “Waiting for the Cubs””

  1. [...] the original 1908 “Merkle Play,” the most infamous event in the history of baseball, read this excerpt from Admin’s book, Waiting for the [...]