Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Top This, Fred Merkle!

Today is the 100th anniversary of one of baseball's most controversial and misunderstood events, the so-called "Merkle's Boner," the celebrated failure of a 19-year-old rookie to touch second base on what would have been a game-winning single. The controversy raged at the time; did Fred Merkle touch second or not, and was the ball used to touch the base and create a run-negating force play the actual ball that was hit for the single? The misunderstanding has boiled over ever since, as Merkle was mocked during his career and never lived down the legend of his lapse, despite the facts that: 1) he did what every player of his time did, namely flee the field as soon as the game-winning hit occurred, to avoid being stampeded by happy hometown fans; and 2) instead of villifying Merkle, we should instead be praising Johnny Evers, the Cubs second baseman whose knowledge of the technicalities of the rules and insistence on alerting umpire Hank O'Day to what might happen allowed O'Day to make the correct call. Evers' ploy, which can be viewed as either a sore-loser stunt or a brilliant exploitation of a loophole, worked, but nobody remembers him for it. Merkle takes the rap, and that's all anybody has cared about.

But I'm not here to harp on Merkle. I want to celebrate the anniversary of another New York Giants blunder, or "boner" if you prefer the term used at the time, which occurred on September 23. This one happened in 1905, so New York fans who witnessed the later disaster might well have been reminded of the earlier one. In both cases, Evers was the one who cashed in the oversight. Also in both cases, the loss was ultimately felt by Hall of Fame immortal Christy Mathewson. In 1908, the Merkle game had to be replayed at the end of the season with the pennant on the line, and Matty was outpitched by Three Finger Brown that day and suffered one of his most bitter defeats.

In 1905, Matty was a more direct victim of a teammate's fuzzy thinking. This time it brought to a crashing halt a magnificent 15-game winning streak which included five shutouts and six starts where he gave up three hits or less. He was coming off a 2-hitter--raising his record to a whopping 29-6--when he faced the Cubs at Chicago's West Side Grounds. He faced fellow 25-year-old Carl Lundgren, a soon-forgotten hurler who had a 13-5 record that season. They dueled all afternoon, and the game was scoreless in the bottom of the 7th inning when the Giants wandered into the first of two September 23rd "Twilight Zone" episodes. Follow this play:

There were two outs, and the Cubs had two runners on, Johnny Evers at second and Jimmy Slagle at first. Doc Casey hit a ground ball whichBill Dahlen, a longtime star shortstop [who was just put on the short ballot of 10 candidates for the Hall of Fame's next Veterans Committee election] fumbled. Dahlen scrambled after the ball, grabbed it, and raced to second base just as Slagle arrived. It was what is today called a bang-bang play, where the umpire stationed only a few feet away doesn't always know who reached the base first. In 1905, however, there was only one umpire working the game; that decade saw the transition from one umpire to two. Just by coincidence, Emslie, who lasted 35 years as a major league umpire, also worked the Merkle game in 1908.

In 1905, as the only umpire, Emslie was stationed behind the plate, and when a ball was hit he had to race forward to get the best view he could. We don't know how close he was to the photo-finish at second base, but we do know that Dahlen did what many infielders have done before and since, namely try to "buy" the call. As he crossed the base, he acted as if there was no question that he had beaten Slagle to the bag, and did what an infielder would naturally do after recording the final out of the inning. He rolled the ball across the infield. The problem was that Emslie called Slagle safe. Mathewson was walking off the field when Dahlen rolled the ball behind him. By the time he made a dash to retrieve the ball, the alert Evers rounded third and raced home to score. The Giants surrounded Emslie and berated him for not believing Dahlen, but he stood his ground and the run counted. It was the only run of the game.

So Dahlen's attempt to fake out the umpire cost Christy Mathewson a 1-0 defeat that ended a 15-game winning streak. Brutal. But don't feel too bad for Matty. He finished the season with a 31-8 record and topped himself in the World Series by tossing an astonishing three shutouts in the space of six days as the Giants trounced the Philadelphia Athletics.

As for Dahlen, he remained the Giants shortstop through the 1907 season, when as a grizzled veteran of 37 he witnessed the debut of 18-year-old Fred Merkle. Did he impart any wisdom to the youngster? Probably not, or he would have advised him to watch out for the sneaky little imp named Johnny Evers.

1 comment:

Cindy Thomson said...

Thanks for this. Another person who could be blamed. Interesting.