19to21: October 7, 2008
Back to the Beginning: When the Cubs Weren't Cursed
19 to 21
No, that’s not how many apples the Cubs swallowed last week, it’s
Baseball...Then and Now
Let’s see, there’s a fairly obscure Elton John song, “60 Years On.” But, that doesn’t quite capture the level of futility. No, we need to go farther back, maybe to the 16th Century, and Michael de Nostradame. An interpretation of his famous quatrains, The Centuries of Nostradamus by Al Stewart. (Heaven only knows, everyone else has creatively interpreted to esoteric Renaissance prognosticator, why not a singer/songwriter?) Centuries. One hundred years…
In the east the wind is blowing
The boats across the seas
And their sails will fill the morning
And their cries ring out to me
Oh, the more it changes
The more it stays the same
And the hand just re-arranges
The players in the game
Maybe it wasn’t the Spanish Armada, but Cubs fans should have seen something coming last week. Should have seen the hand re-arranging the players in the game. Instead of Wilson and McCarthy and Hornsby and Hartnett and Grimm and Borowy, they were Zambrano and Piniella and Dempster and Ramirez and Fukudome and Theriot and Soriano and Harden. A century after the most famous (and possibly unjust) baseball game in history, a century after the Cubs last won the World Series, it was indeed a case of “the more it changes, the more it stays the same.” Without even Hack Wilson or Steve Bartman to blame, the best team in the National League in 2008, the best team by far, has extended its World Series drought to an even 100 years. And without even putting up much of a fight.
The reasons for the current version of the Cubs pulling off one of the more shocking Mets of all time (because the act of a team choking in the clutch is now eponymous with the New York National League team), falling in three straight games by a combined score of 20-6 to the Dodgers, are legion. And that’s just on the field. When you suffer that bad a beat down, there’s enough blame to go around for everyone, although Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano are not bad starting points. Off the field, there’s the, by now, beat to death Billy Goat Curse that dates from 1945. And while it’s true the Cubs haven’t even trod upon World Series sod in 63 years, the real bottom line dates back a century, to 1908. Just what is it about 1908, anyway?
One fact for certain, both pennant races in 1908 were classics, and were instantly recognized as such. Although we’re focusing on the National League, it’s worth reporting that the American League, if anything, had a more exciting race, with no less than four of the eight teams (the Tigers, White Sox, Naps and Browns) within two-and-half games of first on September 1. After Labor Day the Brownies, who were led by Rube Waddell having his last big year, fell back, but the other three teams battled down to the last day. The Tigers had actually led the race for most of that time, falling out of first on September 21 for the first time in two months. At that point Cleveland (they were known as the Naps after player/manager Nap Lajoie) took over, only to relinquish the lead back to Detroit a week later. And there it stood on the morning of October 2. The Tigers had a half-game lead on the Naps and a game-and-a-half on the Sox. In Detroit, the Tigers came from behind to beat the Browns, 7-6, with a young Ty Cobb scoring the winning run, while in Cleveland, Sox ace Ed Walsh struck out 15 in eight innings of four-hit ball, and lost because Addie Joss threw a perfect game… possibly the greatest pitcher’s duel in major league history. After play on October 4, the status quo was the same, except that the Tigers had a game lead on the Naps. On October 5, the Tigers lost to the Sox and the Naps split a doubleheader with the Browns, leaving Detroit with a half-fame lead over both of the other contenders going into the last day of the regular season.
How was that possible? Detroit had a game rained out earlier in the year, and the rules at that time did NOT provide for making up rainouts, even if it affected the pennant race. So, on October 6, Doc White of the White Sox faced the Tigers with a chance to win the pennant for Chicago, because a White Sox win would have put them a half game ahead of Detroit, and it wouldn’t have mattered what the Naps did in St. Louis. On the other hand, a Detroit win would assure them of the title, since, once again, whatever the Naps did didn’t matter. Alas for Chicago fans, the Sox made five errors and were two-hit by Wild Bill Donovan, and lost 7-0. The Tigers ended up a half game ahead of the frustrated Naps (who beat the Browns) and a game-and-half ahead of the frustrated Sox, who could have had the pennant if they’d played better in the biggest game of the year (sound familiar?)
That was the American League. In the National, the Cubs, Giants and Pirates staged a three-team race throughout the year, despite the fact that early season pundits had predicted an easy time for the defending World Series champion Cubs. That sounds odd, doesn’t it? Well, recall that this was the Cubs team that would win, starting in 1904; 93, 92, 116, 107, 99, 104, 104, 92 and 91 games – an average of 99.8 wins over nine years. Those were the good old, really old, days, weren’t they, Cubs fans? So, the Cubs were the heavy favorite in 1908 (sound familiar?), since the Pirates were seen as a one-man team (that man being Hones Wagner) and the Giants had been stumbling since their 1905 pennant, thanks in part to a couple of (relatively) off seasons by Christy Mathewson.
Although the Pirates did hold first place for a day in late August, the battle for first was mainly fought in Chicago and New York, with the ultimate denouement not coming until the final day of the season, on October 8, when the Cubs won the replay of a tie game (it wasn’t a playoff game, and it wasn’t a makeup game, it was the replay of a tie) from the Giants to win the pennant by a single game. As you probably know, the reason the replay was necessary was because on September 23, the Cubs and the Giants had played to what was eventually declared a tie what may well have been the most-discussed and controversial single contest in the history of American sports… The Merkle Game.
As is the case with many historical events, the most definitive sources as to what happened are contemporary accounts - in this case, the newspaper stories of the next day. Thanks to G.H. Fleming’s remarkable compilation of the day-by-day accounts of the 1908 National League season, “The Unforgettable Season,” we have all the important words that were written for publication on Sept. 24, 1908 in one place.
The score was tied 1-1 as the Giants came to bat in the bottom of the ninth against Jack “The Giant Killer” Pfiester. With two outs and man on first Merkle drove a long single to right. First and third, two outs. Al Bridwell then hit a line drive up the middle and the winning run came home. Or was it the winning run? Merkle started for second but, when he saw the ball land in the outfield and Moose McCormick cross home plate, he took a right turn towards to Giants’ clubhouse in deep center field, wishing to beat the hordes of fans that typically swarmed the field at the end of a game. Although technically Merkle had to go all the way to second, it must be stressed that what he did was a common practice in 1908, and every other season prior to that (though never thereafter). After all, the game was over when the other runner crossed the plate, right?
Not this time. Cub second baseman Johnny Evers, seeing Merkle leave the bases, pitched a royal fit (he was good at that) and called for centerfielder Circus Solly Hofman to throw him the ball. Hofman did so, throwing it in the direction of Evers. Now, things get murky. The general consensus is that Iron Man McGinnity, who was coaching third base, figured out what Evers had in mind, and, in some fashion (very possibly after a scuffle with several Cubs), got his hands on the ball before Evers did. This is known as interference, and, if so, Merkle would out, if indeed the game was still in progress. However, that’s far from certain, since there may well have been several other players in the drama, including various other Cubs as well as Polo Grounds fans. Only if McGinnity intercepted the ball while it was still legitimately in play – and that remains unproved to this day – would the right call be interference. (and besides, interference was never called on the play, anyway.) What does seem certain is that McGinnity, wishing to get rid of the evidence, threw the game ball in the direction of the left field stands. And yet, somehow, Evers ended up with a ball in his hands, standing on second base, and screaming for justice at the top of his lungs. (He was good at that, too.) Justice to Evers in this case meant a simple - maybe not that simple - force play on Merkle, that would become the third out and nullify McCormick’s winning run. As to how Evers got a ball in his hands, there are two scenarios. One is that Joe Tinker and third baseman Harry Steinfeldt retrieved the game ball the Iron Man tossed towards the stands. Perhaps more plausible is Charles Dryden’s account from the Chicago Tribune. Dryden wrote that Cub pitcher Floyd Kroh (he wasn’t in the game, either) retrieved the ball from a bunch of spectators and passed it to Steinfeldt who gave it to Tinker, who gave it to Evers. (Still another theory has it that Kroh took a ball off the Cubs’ bench and got it to Evers.) This, of course, is also interference on Kroh’s part, but, at this point, who’s counting?
Apparently not Bob Emslie, the base umpire, who fell flat on the ground avoiding Bridwell’s hit (so how long did he stay down, until the count of eight?), or maybe because the fans got on him so quickly that he couldn’t tell what happened. Plate umpire Hank O’Day, having had the exact same scenario presented to him just 19 days before by the same player in a Cubs/ Pirates game and having disallowed Evers protest on that occasion), well after the action subsided, made the fateful call (apparently from underneath the stands) that Merkle was out and McCormick’s run didn’t count - thus rendering the game, in effect, a 1-1 tie.
Well, John McGraw screamed bloody murder in the clubhouse, and regularly thereafter, and it took until Oct. 6 for the National League office to uphold what, at this point, 100 years later, seems to be the questionable, after-the-fact decision -- the Sept. 23 game was a tie. How bad a decision was it? The King of Umpires, Bill Klem, who fought many a battle with McGraw over the years, called it the rottenest decision ever made in baseball. This belated judgment came while the Giants were in the midst of sweeping three games from Boston, thus, at that point, coming from behind and tie the Cubs for first. When the Giants/Braves series concluded on Oct. 7, and with the regular season at a close, the Giants and Cubs were once again tied for first.
Another part of the Oct. 6 ruling was that the tied Merkle Game was to be replayed at the Polo Grounds, ASAP, or, in this case, Oct. 8. Note that this replay game (won 4-2 by the Cubs, and finally giving them the pennant by one game) was not a playoff game, but a replay of the Sept. 23. Although there was no provision in the rules for unplayed games to be made up, the Sept. 23 game was now a tie game, and it had to be replayed since it affected the pennant outcome.
But, should The Merkle Game have been replayed? Did not O’Day apply, in effect, a principle of selective enforcement of the force out rule on Sept. 23 against the almost universally hated Giants and McGraw? Wasn’t it patently unfair to have let Warren Gill of the Pirates do the exact same thing on Sept. 4, but then call Fred Merkle out (well after the game was over, and underneath the stands as well) for the same base running action 19 days later? Should McGinnity’s possible interference have mattered one iota?
No, no and no. McGraw and the Giants lost The Merkle Game on a technicality. They lost it under the Polo Grounds stands and in the offices of the National League. Not on the field. The Cubs would go on to dominate the Tigers in the 1908 World Series… and they haven’t won one since, losing in 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938 and 1945. It’s not the curse of a billy goat, it’s the Curse of John McGraw (and he could really curse, it might be added). Will it ever be lifted after a century, after 100 years? Maybe in The Year 2525…
-- John Shiffert