On September 23, 1908, at the Polo Grounds in New York City, there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. The New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs were battling for the National League pennant, with the score tied at 1-1. The Giants had two men on base: 19-year-old Fred Merkle on first and Moose McCormick on third. Al Bridwell slapped a single up the middle, scoring McCormick.
Meanwhile, Merkle, thinking the game was over, ran to the Giants’ clubhouse without touching second base. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed this, and after retrieving a ball and touching second base he appealed to umpire Hank O’Day, who would later manage the Cubs, to call Merkle out. Since Merkle had not touched the base, the umpire called him out on a force play meaning that McCormick’s run did not count.
At the time, running off the field without touching the base was common, as the rule allowing a force play after a potential game-winning run was not well known. However, Evers, who was noted as an avid student of the official rules of the game, had previously attempted the same play only a few weeks earlier, in Pittsburgh, with the same Hank O’Day umpiring. In that instance, O’Day had not seen whether the runner tagged second, so he declined Evers’ appeal, but he apparently was alert to the possibility in the New York game. The outcome ensured that the rule was known to everyone afterward.
The run was therefore nullified, the Giants’ victory erased, and the score of the game remained tied. Unfortunately, the thousands of fans on the field (as well as the growing darkness in the days before large electric light rigs made night games possible) prevented resumption of the game, and the game was declared a tie. The Giants and the Cubs would end the season tied for first place and would have a rematch at the Polo Grounds, on October 8. The Cubs won this makeup game, 4-2, and thus the National League pennant.
So the run in critical game run didn’t count. Giants manager John McGraw was furious at the league office, feeling his team was robbed of a victory (and a pennant), but he never blamed Merkle for his mistake. Yet from that time forward Fred Merkle picked up the name, “Bonehead Merkle.”
But that’s not the end of the story…
The Cubs went on to win the World Series that year, but they have not won another one since.
Fred Merkle got a second chance and went on to play for 14 more seasons, including five trips to the World Series. It seemed to help that Merkle’s manager, McGraw, never blamed Merkle for his mistake.
One more thing…
Mike Cameron, a sportswriter, went on to write a book about the life of Fred Merkle entitled, “Public Bonehead, Private Hero.” The book recounts that while the Giants cried foul; baseball fans and the press never tired of recounting the “bonehead episode” and seeing Merkle relive the ignominy. The press focused all of its muckraking venom on the unfortunate Fred Merkle and christened him “bonehead” for the remainder of his life. Yet the cartoon character that was Fred Merkle in the public eye was the opposite of the sensitive intelligent man who went on with his life and career with courage and determination.
Even those of us given “second chances” may have to continue to live with the narrow view of those who cannot forget about our infamous mistakes the first time around. Fortunately, God forgets about our sin and mistakes and separates them “as far as the East is from the West” (Psalm 103). How about that, Michael Vick?