Merkle’s Boner: The Ultimate Curse

On October 7, 1945 Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis attempted to bring a billy goat through the gates of Wrigley Field during the World Series against the Tigers. Billy’s goat was turned away at the gate because the goat’s odor was bothering other fans, which left the tavern owner furious with Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley.

The Cubs were up two games to none against the Tigers before the billy goat incident, but in his rage Mr. Sianis declared “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”

The Cubs lost the 1945 World Series four games to three, and they haven’t been back to the Fall Classic in the 69 years since. The Curse of the Billy Goat had begun.

Or had it…?

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To fully understand “The Merkle Boner” we must first understand Major League Baseball Rule 59, which is now Rule 4.09. Rule 4.09 states:

One run shall be scored each time a runner legally advances to and touches first, second, third and home base before three men are put out to end the inning. EXCEPTION: A run is not scored if the runner advances to home base during a play in which the third out is made (1) by the batter-runner before he touches first base; (2) by any runner being forced out; or (3) by a preceding runner who is declared out because he failed to touch one of the bases.

“Merkle’s Boner” is one of the most controversial plays in baseball history. It changed the history of the game forever, and soiled the legacy of a solid ballplayer.

Fred Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie for the New York Giants made his first Major League start on September 23, 1908. The Chicago Cubs were two-time defending National League champions, and defending World Series champions. The Giants and Cubs were tied for first place when the two teams met that day at New York’s Polo Grounds.

The game was a classic pitcher’s duel between legendary Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson and the Cubs’ Jack Pfiester. Neither team was able to muster much offense against the two great pitchers. Heading into the bottom of the ninth the game was tied 1-1. With two out and Moose McCormick standing on first base for the Giants, Fred Merkle came to the plate. Merkle had yet to record a hit to that point in the game, but he was about to become an important person in Major League history.

Merkle lined a single to right field sending McCormick to third base. Al Bridwell came to the plate next sending a screaming liner into center field. As McCormick came home with the apparent winning run the Giants fans rushed the field in a wild frenzy. It was customary in these days for fans to exit the stadium through the center field gates, so it was not unusual for fans to rush onto the field after an exciting walk off win.

Fred Merkle did what every other player did during this time. He did not run to second, but instead made a beeline for the clubhouse to avoid the swarm of crazed fans engulfing the field. What happened next makes the Bill Buckner play in the 1986 World Series seem like a trivial event.

The story is recounted by Mr. O.C. Schwartz who attended the game with his father when he was eight-years-old. As Mr. Schwartz tells it the ball hit by Bridwell bounced twice before coming to Giants center fielder Solly Hofman. Hofman, realizing that the winning run was scoring as he fielded the ball, lobbed the ball into the infield. Giants third base coach Joe McGinnity, pitcher Christy Mathewson, and a fan were all in a battle with second baseman Johnny Evers to catch the ball. The fan won the ball from the players and tossed it into the stands along the third base line.

Merkle was halfway to the Giants clubhouse when Evers had somehow retrieved another ball from somewhere and touched second base. The umpires, “Blind Bob” Emslie and Hank O’Day, met in the middle of the infield with both teams managers, all of the players, and a throng of irate fans surrounding them. Emslie stated that the ball hit by Bridwell had nearly knocked him down, therefore he did not see if Merkle touched second base. It is then that O’Day, in one of the most controversial and courageous acts in the history of all sports, tells Emslie that Merkle did not touch second base. Emslie calls Merkle out, thus negating the run scored by McCormick. With dusk settling in and the hundreds of fans still on the field Hank O’Day calls the game a tie.

The Giants protested the game, but National League president Harry Pulliam backed his umpires and denied the protest. The National Commission, Baseball’s governing body at the time, also stands by Pulliam’s decision and the game remained a tie.

Fred Merkle was vilified by the fans for his mistake, and the play was quickly labeled “Merkle’s Boner” by an unforgiving press. The headline in the next day’s New York Times read “BLUNDER COSTS GIANTS VICTORY”, and the accompanying article began as follows:

“Censurable stupidity on the part of the player Merkle…”

Criticism of this kind was unheard of at the time, and it never ceased. Merkles daughter Marianne told of how her family was attending church service in Florida some 30 years after the infamous game when a visiting minister introduced himself. “You don’t know me, but you know where I’m from! Toledo, Ohio! The hometown of Bonehead Fred Merkle!”

Since that September 23rd game ended in a tie and both teams were tied for first place at season’s end a makeup game was scheduled featuring the same pitching matchup. This time, however, Mathewson’s arm was too fatigued to pitch and the Cubs won the game, and the National League pennant, by a score of 4-2.

The Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series, but legend has it they have been followed by “The Curse of Fred Merkle” ever since. Over a century later the Cubs have appeared in seven World Series, losing all of them. They have yet to return to the Fall Classic since “The Curse of the Billy Goat” in 1945, but they have been cursed for much longer than that.

Fred Merkle spent 16 productive seasons in the Major Leagues, but “Merkle’s Boner” has haunted the Cubs franchise for over a century.

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2 thoughts on “Merkle’s Boner: The Ultimate Curse

  1. wow stupid fans…wish they had instant replay back in those days it would have saved and merkle wouldn’t have been considered a bonehead

    Like

  2. Fans were rough and tough back then … and often played a role in wins and losses. They “stole” balls out of games (the great-great-grandparents of Jeffrey Maier apparently!), shot off guns to distract pitchers, threw bricks and fruit and bottles into the outfield during play, and sometimes pushed players out of their own dugouts so they could sit in the shade.

    They often ran onto the field to argue or fight with umpires and players, so it’s no surprise that they took over the field after the game and helped the ball “disappear” that day.

    It’s always a shame when a player is remembered for just one bad game. Merkle played 16 seasons and was a career .273 hitter, most of that during the Dead Ball Era — a fine career. Although in 1912, during the World Series, he made another “bonehead” baserunning error that led to a Red Sox victory.

    Nice post … it’s always fun to dig back into baseball’s rich past and find these wild and wooly stories.

    ~ Jackie

    Like

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