1908: Merkle's Boner

By Chris Rewers on Monday, October 4, 2010

The Cubs' chances of winning a second straight world championship and third straight National League pennant were not looking promising on Aug. 16, 1908 when Philadelphia right-hander George McQuillan outdueled the Cubs' Jack Pfiester in a 1-0 Phillies victory at Chicago's West Side Grounds.

The loss was their ninth in 12 games and dropped them to a season-high six games behind the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates and three behind the second-place New York Giants.

But the Cubs regrouped and closed August with nine straight wins - including a three-game series sweep of the Giants in Chicago - and as the calendars flipped to September the National League's usual suspects were gearing up for an intense three-team pennant race.

The Cubs and New York headed into September in a first-place tie. The Pirates, who had dropped to third after closing August with eight losses in 14 games, were just a half-game back.

During the first decade of the last century, the National League consisted of the haves (Cubs, Giants, Pirates) and the have-nots (Phillies, Reds, Braves, Dodgers, Cardinals). From 1901-13, the NL pennant was won by the Cubs (4 times), New York (5), and Pittsburgh (4). From 1903-12, those three teams occupied the top three spots of the NL standings eight times.

On paper, you could have argued that the Giants and Pirates were superior to the banged-up Cubs as the season entered the home stretch. The Giants had the best pitcher, Christy Mathewson, having his best season (37-11, 1.43 ERA). The Pirates possessed the best player, Honus Wagner, who was en route to his sixth of eight batting titles.

The Cubs had been ravaged by a series of injuries and many of their regulars missed significant time. Most notably, left fielder Jimmy Sheckard missed two months and was nearly blinded after an ammonia bottle was smashed on his face during a clubhouse fight with teammate Heinie Zimmerman in June.

But the Cubs had an intangible that many future Yankees teams, the Oakland Athletics of the early 1970s, the Cincinnati Reds of the mid-70s, and the Atlanta Braves of recent times were to have - and unwavering self-confidence.

"Whoever heard of the Cubs losing a game they had to have?" player-manager Frank Chance once asked.

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Frank Chance, "The Peerless Leader" (Library of Congress)

In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (The Free Press, 2001), the author noted that the Cubs won a single-season record 116 games in 1906 but that their 986 wins from 1904-13 is a major league record for any 10-year period.

In regards to the controversial selection to the Hall of Fame in 1946 of first baseman Chance, second baseman Johnny Evers, and shortstop Joe Tinker, James wrote:

"If you're going to say that these guys don't belong in the Hall of Fame, it seems to me, you have to deal somehow with the phenomenal success of their team. This team won more games, over any period of years, than the Yankees with Ruth and Gehrig, more games than the Dodgers with Robinson, Reese, Snider, and Campy, more games than the Reds with Bench, Morgan, Rose, and Concepcion - more games than anybody. When you start explaining their wins, as Ricky Ricardo would say, you've got a lot of 'splaining to do."

The Cubs opened September by taking three of four from the last-place Cardinals and then opened a crucial four-game series in Pittsburgh on Sept. 4. The Cubs and Pirates were tied for second, one game behind New York.

Cubs ace Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown and fellow future Hall of Famer Vic Willis hooked up in a tense pitcher's duel at Pittsburgh's Exposition Park. The game was scoreless in the bottom of the ninth and the Pirates had Fred Clarke on third and rookie Warren Gill on first with two outs. Chief Wilson lined a solid single to center. As Clarke crossed the plate, Gill took off for the center-field clubhouse ahead of his team's jubliant fans who stormed the field. An observant Evers called for the ball from center fielder Jimmy Slagle and stepped on second, seeking a forceout. Umpire Hank O'Day, who was working the game solo (then a common practice), refused to call Gill out, claiming he had not been watching whether Gill had touched the base or not. Evers argued fervently, but to no avail.

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Johnny Evers, "The Crab" (Library of Congress)

The Cubs split the four games with the Pirates, lost to Cincinnati on Sept. 7, and then rattled off seven wins in a row. But the Giants were even hotter. They opened September by winning 18 of 19 contests. After sweeping a doubleheader from Pittsburgh on Sept. 18, a confident New York club led the Cubs by 4.5 games and the Pirates by five.

In her fine recap of that terrific season, Crazy '08 (HaperCollins, 2007), Cait Murphy noted that on Sept. 20, the New York World estimated the chances of the Cubs or Pirates overtaking the Giants akin to that of a "snowfall on the Fourth of July." The World and New York Times both ran stories examining who the Giants might meet in the World Series.

"Sportswriters can be excused for saying stupid things; it is part of their job," Murphy continued. "What is unpardonable is that the Giants begin to preen."

"I can't see how we can lose unless we all drop dead," pitcher Red Ames said in mid-September.

"I don't see how we can lose unless everything goes wrong," catcher Roger Bresnahan added.

"I think we'll win now," Mathewson crowed.

"We will walk in," outfielder Cy Seymour proclaimed.

"I can't helping thinking we are sure to win," rookie reserve first baseman Fred Merkle told the scribes.

The Cubs trailed the Giants by two games when they arrived in New York for a four-game series on Sept. 22 and the Cubs served notice that they would be in the race until the end by opening the set with a doubleheader sweep to move into a first-place tie. Brown entered in the ninth of the opener and saved a 4-3 win for starter Orval Overall. Brown started the nightcap and went the distance in a 3-1 Cubs triumph.

First place was on the line on Sept. 23 as Pfiester squared off against Mathewson and it would turn out to be perhaps the most controversial game in baseball history.

A two-man umpiring crew was assigned to the game. Bob Emslie worked the bases and O'Day - the same umpire who had worked the Gill game on Sept. 4 - was calling balls and strikes.

Another major player in the ensuing drama was the 19-year-old Merkle who was making his first major league start. Regular first baseman Fred Tenney missed his only game of the season because of lumbago and was replaced by the inexperienced Merkle who had appeared in just 35 games and made just 40 at-bats up to that point.

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Fred Merkle

Pfiester and Mathewson were both superb. The Cubs managed a run in the fifth when Tinker circled the bases standing for an inside-the-park homer after hitting a gapper to left-center.

The Giants tied the game in the sixth on an RBI single by Mike Donlin.

Mathewson set the Cubs down in order in the top of the ninth and Pfiester appeared on the verge of escaping the bottom half without incident. With Moose McCormick on first and two outs, Merkle lined an opposite-field single to right. McCormick advanced to third as a standing-room-only crowd of over 20,000 roared with approval.

The next batter, Al Bridwell, lined a first-pitch fastball from Pfiester into center field. McCormick raced home with the winning run as the jubliant crowd poured onto the field. Merkle, hoping to avoid the rushing fans, took off for the clubhouse without touching second.

Perhaps the Gill game from earlier in the month was on the mind of O'Day because this time he was watching. Surrounded by the mob that had overtaken the field, Evers held a ball in his glove with his arm raised in a Statue of Liberty pose. Evers appealed to Emslie that since Merkle never touched second, he should be ruled forced out at second, nullifying the run. Emslie claims that he wasn't watching Merkle. But O'Day said he was watching Merkle and agrees with Evers. He called Merkle out.

How did Evers get the ball amidst the chaos? Legend says that Giants coach Joe McGinnity intercepted a throw to the infield by Cubs center fielder Solly Hofman and fired it into the throng. The ball was caught by a man wearing a bowler hat, but it was wrestled away from him by Cubs pitcher Rube Kroh. Kroh ran back onto the field with the ball and handed it to Tinker. The Cubs shortstop ran to the bag and handed it to Evers.

Evers gave a much simpler account to Liberty magazine in 1936. He said he ran to the outfield, was handed the ball by Hofman, and fought his way through the crowd back to second base.

With dusk fast approaching and the impossibility of clearing the field in a timely matter, O'Day declared the game a tie. The Giants filed a protest of the umpire's decision with the league office, but that night NL president Harry Pulliam upheld O'Day.

Pulliam declared that the game should be made up on Oct. 8. The Cubs weren't completely satisfied with the ruling. They argued that the game should have been called a forfeit against the Giants because of their failure to clear the field.

The Giants beat the Cubs 5-4 the next day to retake first place, but the three-team heat continued into October. On Oct. 1, the Giants and Pirates were tied for first, a half-game ahead of the Cubs. First place changed hands five times with all three teams occupying the top in the season's final week.

The Cubs opened October by winning three straight at Cincinnati.

The Giants, meanwhile, split four with the Phillies as Philadelphia rookie left-hander Harry Coveleski started and won both New York losses. The 22-year-old Coveleski, pitching every other day, claimed three of his four victories on the season in a five-day span against the Giants.

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Harry Coveleski (Library of Congress)

The Pirates swept a three-game series at St. Louis and then headed to Chicago for a Oct. 4 makeup game. New York, which had played two less games than its rivals, was off but had a three-game makeup series at home scheduled with Boston, Oct. 5-7.

Pittsburgh (98-55) led the Cubs (97-55) by a half-game and New York (95-55) by 1.5.

A Sunday crowd of 30,247 - a then Cubs single-game record - packed West Side Grounds to see a matchup of aces Brown and Willis. The Cubs scored in the first inning on an RBI single by Frank Schulte and were ahead to stay en route to a 5-2 victory. The great Wagner had two hits for the Pirates, but the shortstop also committed two costly errors. The Cubs vaulted a half-game ahead of the Pirates.

Pittsburgh now had to sit and wait. They could tie for first with at least two Giants losses to lowly Boston and a Cubs loss on Oct 8. Two New York wins over Boston and one over the Cubs would force a three-way tie. A Giants sweep of the Braves would eliminate the Pirates.

The Giants topped the Braves 8-1 on Oct. 5, 4-1 on Oct. 6, and 7-2 on Oct. 7 to move into a first-place tie. The Pirates were eliminated and the stage was set for a winner-take-all contest between the Cubs and Giants at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 8.

A well-rested Mathewson got the starting assignment for the Giants while the Cubs countered with Pfiester.

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Christy Mathewson (Library of Congress)

But Pfiester was on a very short leash. He was pulled by manager Chance with two outs in the first after a hit batsman, an RBI double by Donlin, and two bases on balls. In came Brown, pitching for the 12th time in 15 games. Brown was his usual fantastic self, allowing just one run over 8 1/3 innings.

Mathewson, meanwhile, was met with disaster in the third. Tinker led off the inning with a triple and scored the tying run on a Johnny Kling double. A two-out single by Schulte knocked in Kling with the go-ahead run and Chance soon followed with a two-run single to give the Cubs a 4-1 lead.

Brown completed the 4-2 Cubs victory by setting down New York on four pitches in the ninth.

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Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown

After the final out, the Cubs ran for their lives to the clubhouse. Some members of the team were scathed.

"Some of our boys got caught up by the mob and beaten up some," Brown remembered. "Tinker, (Del) Howard, and Sheckard were struck. Chance was hurt most of all. A Giant fan hit him in the throat and Husk's voice was gone for a day or two in the World Series that followed. Pfiester got slashed on the shoulder by a knife."

Police, with their revolvers pulled, guarded the Cubs clubhouse and a police escort drove them first to their Manhattan hotel and then to the train station. The Cubs waited to celebrate their third straight pennant until after they boarded their train for Detroit.

The Cubs rolled over the Tigers in the World Series for the second straight year, winning in five games. The Cubs stole a record 15 bases and Tinker hit the first Series homer in five years. Brown and Overall each won twice.

Overall struck out 10 and allowed just three hits in a 2-0 Series-clinching win on Oct. 14. With two outs in the top of the ninth, Detroit's Boss Schmidt hit a tapper in front of the plate. It was fielded by the catcher Kling who fired to the first baseman Chance to record the final out.

The Cubs have not won a World Series since, but at the time it was considered to be an anticlimactic, ho-hum event. A crowd of just 6,210 witnessed the historic event at West Side Grounds.

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