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The Day Fred Merkle’s Life Changed Forever
“I wish I’d never gotten that hit that set off the whole Merkle incident. I wish I’d struck out instead. It would have spared Fred a lot of unfair humiliation.” -Giant Al Bridwell, whose hit led to the Merkle incident.
This week is the 109th anniversary of the Merkle game. On September 23, 1908, the Cubs and Giants were tied for first place and the Pirates were 1.5 games back. Fred Merkle, the youngest player in the National League, had appeared in only 38 games. On that morning, Fred Tenney, the Giants’ regular first baseman, woke up with a case of “lumbago,” and manager John McGraw penciled in Fred Merkle to replace him. It was his first big-league start. Christy Mathewson started for the Giants against Jack Pfiester for the Cubs. The game had only two umpires: Bob Emslie on the bases and Hank O’Day behind the plate. It was scoreless through four innings until Joe Tinker hit an inside-the-park home run in the fifth. The Giants tied the game in the sixth on Mike Donlin’s single which scored Buck Herzog. The game remained tied 1–1 when the Giants came to bat in the bottom of the ninth.
After Cy Seymour grounded out, Art Devlin singled. Moose McCormick then grounded sharply to second, but Devlin’s hard slide prevented a double play and McCormick reached first safely. With two outs and McCormick on first, Fred Merkle singled down the right-field line with McCormick advancing to third. Next up was Al Bridwell who hit Pfiester’s first pitch for a sharp single to center. Umpire Emslie was knocked on his “keister” avoiding the ball as McCormack scored easily from third with the apparent winning run.
But wait! As Giants’ fans poured out of the stands and mobbed the field, Merkle, advancing from first base, veered toward the club house without touching second. Here’s what happened next:
“Evers shouted to center fielder Solly Hofman, who, amid the chaos caused by thousands of celebrating Giants fans, retrieved the ball and threw it to Evers. According to one account, Joe McGinnity, who was coaching first base that day, intercepted the ball and threw it away into the crowd of fans. Evers retrieved the ball—or found a different ball—and touched second base. Umpires Emslie and O’Day hurriedly consulted and O’Day, who saw the play from home plate, ruled that Merkle had not touched second base, and on that basis Emslie ruled him out on a force and O’Day ruled that the run did not score. Five years later, Merkle admitted that he had left the field without touching second, but only after umpire Emslie assured him that they had won the game.” (quote from Wikipedia)
Of course, if someone had warned Fred Merkle, already considered one of the Giants’ smartest players, that Rule 59 suddenly would apply and supersede tradition for the first time in baseball history, he certainly would have trotted a few more steps and touched the bag. No one told him, so he didn’t feel the necessity to do so. The rule had never been enforced. As author Mike Cameron makes clear in his book, “Public Bonehead, Private Hero”:
”Merkle’s failure to touch second base was considered customary at the time. When National League President Harry Pulliam changed the ruling following the eerily similar ‘Gill Game,’ a mere three weeks before, he failed to immediately disseminate his decision to the ballplayers. ‘Did you have to touch second base or didn’t you?’ At the time, it just wasn’t clear. This ambiguity set the stage for the tragic chain of events of which Fred Merkle was the ultimate victim. It was a result that could easily have been avoided; Pulliam’s inaction regarding the Gill play was the equivalent of lighting a fuse to a bomb. It’s dangerous to have rules on the books which are not enforced, or to have one set of rules written down and another acted out.”
Or to change custom without telling everyone!
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Photo Credits: All from Google search
Information: Excerpts edited from the Fred Merkle Wikipedia page.