Any discussion of the biggest gaffes in Major League baseball history usually starts in 1908 and involves a New York Giants first baseman named Fred Merkle. Merkle had a long career, making his debut in 1907. Before retiring in 1926, he played for the New York Giants, Brooklyn Robins, Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees. Over that time he produced a career batting average of .273. He played in more than 1,600 major league games and had 1,580 base hits.
But none of those hits proved to be as memorable as his baserunning on Sept. 23, 1908 in a game between the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs at the Polo Grounds. This was a big game. The two teams were tied atop the National League standings and the season was fast drawing to a close. When Giants first baseman Fred Tenney turned up unfit to play, Merkle got his first major league start.
The score was tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth and things were looking good for Merkle. With two out and a runner on first he slapped a single, moving the potential winning run to third base. When the next batter, Al Bridwell also singled, the apparent winning run crossed the plate. As Giants fans ran onto the field to celebrate, Merkle, rather than running to second, headed straight to the clubhouse. Cubs second baseman, Johnny Evers, came up with a ball (in the confusion there are conflicting views on whether it was really the game ball), touched second base and Merkle was called out, nullifying the run.
The next day’s New York Times, under the headline “Blunder Costs Giants Victory,” described it like this:
“Censurable stupidity on the part of player Merkle in yesterday’s game at the Polo Grounds between the Giants and Chlcago placed the New York team’s chances of winning the pennant in jeopardy. His unusual conduct in the final Inning of a great game perhaps deprived New York of a victory that would have been unquestionable had he not committed a breach in baseball play that resulted In Umpire O’Day declaring the game a tie.
“With the score tied in the ninth inning at 1 to 1 and the New York’s having a runner, McCormick. on third base waiting for an opportunity to score and Merkle on first base looking for a similar chance, Bridwell hit into center field. It was a fair hit ball and would have been sufficient to win the game had Merkle gone on his way down the base path while McCormlck was scoring the winning run. But instead of Merkle going to second base to make sure that McCormlck had reached home with the run necessary to a victory, Merkle ran toward the clubhouse, evidently thinking that his share in the game was ended when Bridwell hit the ball into safe territory…
“Umpire O’Day finally decided that the run did not count, and that inasmuch as the spectators had gained such large numbers on the field that the game could not be resumed O’Day declared the game a tie.”
Writing in the Sept. 25 Washington Post, reporter Ed Grillo, suggested Merkle had no reason to be in such a hurry: “It was because Fred Merkle was anxious to get to the clubhouse on Wednesday that the New York and Chicago clubs got into a muddle. Just because he was in such a great hurry to get his uniform changed for his street clothes a riot almost ensued and yet Merkle, like most ball players, had nothing to do after the game was over.”
The Louisville Courier-Journal on Sept. 30 sympathized: ““There isn’t a sorer man in baseball than Fred Merkle, the Toledo boy with the Giants. Fred’s foolish play in the game which robbed New York of a victory after the Cubs had been beaten may cost the New Yorkers a pennant. If it does, what a sorry chap Merkle will be. The play only illustrates that baseball is complicated and so full of surprises that it always pays to play every point of it for all it is worth.”
How complicated would it have been to run to second base? One can only imagine. The Giants did in fact lose out on a trip to the World Series that year. This, of course, was an era with no wild cards and multiple playoff series. It was the regular season champion of the National League versus the regular season champion of the American. The Cubs and Giants finished the regular season tied for first place. In a one-game playoff on Oct. 8 at the Polo Grounds, the Cubs won 4-2. They would go on to defeat the Detroit Tigers by four games to one in the World Series. Then it would be another 108 years before the Cubs were crowned champions again.
Baseball’s dumbest plays:
Chicago Cubs vs. New York Giants, Sept. 23, 1908
New York Giants vs. Washington Senators, Oct. 10, 1924
St. Louis Cardinals vs. New York Yankees, Oct. 10, 1926
Philadelphia Phillies vs. Pittsburgh Pirates, July 4, 1976
Arizona Diamondbacks vs. San Francisco Giants, May 27, 2003
Minnesota Twins vs. Chicago Cubs, June 12, 2009
The Fred Merkle story is one of baseball’s best and has so many fascinating twists to it. One of my favorite follow-ups to it is that after the game Fred Merkle asked Giants manager John McGraw to remove him from the team because of his gaffe. McGraw refused. A notorious tough guy, McGraw was quite forgiving, basically reassuring Merkle that everyone makes mistakes, and he never wavered in his support of Merkle.
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Umpire Hank O’Day was eventually voted into the National Baseball HOF in Cooperstown. Umpires selected to officiate one game playoff (Jim Johnstone & Bill Klem) were offered a bribe before the game, reported to be offered by the NY Giants team physician.
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This is quite a story and very well told. I did not realize this was Merkle’s first major league start. It’s a shame that such a fine career will always be defined by a rookie mistake.
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