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Merkle's Boner refers to the notorious baserunning mistake committed by rookie Fred Merkle of the New York Giants in a game against the Chicago Cubs in 1908. Merkle's failure to advance to second base on what should have been a game-winning hit led instead to a forceout at second and a tied game. The Cubs later won the makeup game, which proved decisive as they beat the Giants by one game to win the National League pennant in 1908. It has been described as "the most controversial game in baseball history."
The NL pennant race of 1908 was a three-team fight among the teams that dominated the league in the first decade of the modern era: the Pittsburgh Pirates (pennant winners in 1901, 1902 and 1903), the Giants (winners in 1904 and 1905), and the Cubs (winners in 1906 and 1907). The teams were clustered close together in the standings all year, with Pittsburgh never more than 2.5 games up or 5 back, the Giants never more than 4.5 up or 6.5 back, and the Cubs never more than 4 games up or 6 games back. When play began on September 23, 1908, the Cubs and Giants were tied for first place (although the Giants had six more games to play, with an 87–50 record as opposed to the Cubs' 90–53), and the Pirates were 1.5 games back with an 88–54 record.
Merkle was 19 years old in 1908, the youngest player in the National League. He played in only 38 games all year, 11 of which were at first base as the backup for regular Giants first baseman Fred Tenney. On the morning of September 23, Tenney woke up with a case of lumbago, and Giants manager John McGraw penciled Merkle in at first base. It was the first big-league game Merkle had ever started.
Future Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson started for the Giants; Jack Pfiester started for the Cubs. As was customary at the time, the game had only two umpires: Bob Emslie on the basepaths and Hank O'Day behind the plate.
The Giants were the home team. Mathewson and Pfiester both pitched shutouts through four innings. In the fifth, Cubs shortstop Joe Tinker hit the ball into the outfield, and when right fielder Mike Donlin could not stop it from going past him deep into the cavernous outfield of the Polo Grounds, Tinker circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run that gave Chicago a 1–0 lead. It was the first homer hit off of Mathewson since a homer by Tinker on July 17. The Giants tied the score in the sixth when Buck Herzog singled, advanced to second on an error, advanced to third on a sacrifice by Roger Bresnahan and scored on a single by Donlin. The game was still tied 1–1 when the Giants came to bat in the bottom of the ninth.
Pfiester remained on the mound for Chicago. Cy Seymour led off with a groundout to second. Art Devlin singled, putting the winning run on first base with one out. Moose McCormick grounded sharply to second, but Devlin's aggressive slide prevented a double play and allowed McCormick to reach first base safely on a fielder's choice. With two outs and McCormick on first, Fred Merkle came up to bat. Merkle, who only had 47 plate appearances in the entire 1908 season, singled down the right-field line. McCormick, the potential winning run, advanced to third base.
Shortstop Al Bridwell came up to bat next with two outs and runners on the corners. Bridwell swung at the first pitch from Pfiester, a fastball, and drilled an apparent single into center field. McCormick ran home from third, and the game appeared to be over, a 2–1 Giants victory. Giants fans poured out of the stands and mobbed the field; fans sitting behind home plate customarily crossed the field to exit the ballpark via the outfield in this era. Merkle, advancing from first base, saw the fans swarming onto the playing field. He turned back to the dugout without ever touching second. Official rule 4.09 states that "A run is not scored if the runner advances to home base during a play in which the third out is made ... by any runner being forced out". However, in 1908, it was the usual practice of defensive teams to not appeal to an umpire for enforcement of this force-out rule on walkoff hits.
Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers saw an opportunity to have the rule enforced. He 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, a Giants pitcher 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.
The play was immediately controversial. Newspapers told different stories of who had gotten the ball to Evers and how. Christy Mathewson, however, who was coaching first base for the Giants, acknowledged in an affidavit that Merkle never made it to second. One newspaper claimed that Cub players physically restrained Merkle from advancing to second. Retelling the story in 1944, Evers insisted that after McGinnity (who was not playing in the game) had thrown the ball away, Cubs pitcher Rube Kroh (who also was not in the game) retrieved it from a fan and threw it to shortstop Tinker, who threw it to Evers. (By rule, after a fan or a player who was not in the game touched the ball, it should have been ruled dead.) A contemporary account from the Chicago Tribune supports this version. However, eight years prior to that, Evers claimed to have gotten the ball directly from Hofman. Five years after the play, Merkle admitted that he had left the field without touching second, but only after umpire Emslie assured them that they had won the game. In 1914 O'Day said that Evers' tag was irrelevant: he had called the third out after McGinnity interfered with the throw from center field. Future Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem said Merkle's Boner was "the rottenest decision in the history of baseball"; Klem believed that the force rule was meant to apply to infield hits, not balls hit to the outfield.
Unable to quickly clear the field of fans, O'Day ruled the game over on account of darkness. The game ended a 1–1 tie. National League president Harry Pulliam upheld the ruling. On October 2, Pulliam rejected the Giants' appeal of O'Day's ruling and the Cubs' call for a forfeit victory and again upheld the umpires, declaring the force play on Merkle valid and the game a tie. The Cubs-Giants-Pirates pennant race continued to the final days. The Giants were forced to end the season by playing ten games in seven days due to rainouts. After Merkle's boner, the Giants won 10 of their last 15 games to finish 98–55. The Cubs won eight of their last ten after the Merkle game to also finish 98–55. The Pirates, who beat the Dodgers 2–1 on September 23 to gain a half-game on their rivals, won nine of their last ten to force a makeup game with the Cubs on October 4. The Cubs beat the Pirates 5–2, leaving themselves tied with the Giants, and with the Pirates a half-game back of both teams at 98–56, they were thus eliminated.
On October 6 the National League Board of Directors agreed with its umpires and with Hank Pulliam, making a final ruling that Merkle had failed to touch second base and that the force rule was correctly applied. This left the Cubs and Giants tied at 98–55 and required a makeup game in order to decide the National League pennant. In order to decide the pennant (and a spot in the World Series), the teams had to replay the tie game on October 8. Mathewson, scheduled to start the game, said "I'm not fit to pitch today. I'm dog tired." The crowd was estimated at 40,000, the biggest in baseball history at that time. Pfiester pitched for the Cubs again in the rematch, but was removed from the game in the first inning after hitting Tenney, walking Herzog (who was promptly picked off), giving up an RBI double to Donlin, and walking Seymour. Future Hall of Famer Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown entered the game in relief and got out of the jam with only one run allowed. In the Cubs half of the third inning, Tinker led off with a triple and scored on a single by Johnny Kling. Evers walked, Frank Schulte followed with an RBI double, and Frank Chance followed with a two-run double. From there Chicago cruised to a 4–2 victory, becoming champions of the National League for the third straight year.
The Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series, beating the Detroit Tigers four games to one. Over a century later, it remains the last championship in franchise history. The Pirates won the 1909 World Series, also against Cobb's Tigers. The Giants then returned to the World Series for three straight years, 1911–1913, only to lose each year—to the first of Connie Mack's two Philadelphia Athletics dynasties in 1911 and 1913, and to the Boston Red Sox in 1912. John McGraw's club would not win another championship until 1921, when they defeated the emerging New York Yankees, featuring Babe Ruth, two consecutive years in the Yankees' first World Series appearances.
The New York Times game story for September 23, 1908 blamed the loss on "censurable stupidity on the part of player Merkle". For the rest of his life he would live with the nickname of "Bonehead". Merkle replaced Tenney as the full-time Giants first baseman in 1910 and was a regular for the Giants, Dodgers and Cubs for another ten years. He played in five World Series, all for the losing team. Bitter over the events of the Merkle's Boner game, Merkle avoided baseball after his playing career finally ended in 1926. When he finally appeared at a Giants old-timers' game in 1950, he got a loud ovation from the fans. All players, officials, coaches and fans who participated in, or witnessed the famous Merkle Boner game are now deceased.
Merkle's Bar & Grill, a popular Wrigleyville bar just one block south of Wrigley Field in Chicago, is named after Fred Merkle, and features his image prominently in the bar's logo and interior. The bar's website recounts the story of Merkle's infamous baserunning gaffe, and its e-mail list is titled "The Bonehead".
On July 1, 2013, a minor-league game between the Lansing Lugnuts and Great Lakes Loons featured a very similar play, in which an apparent game-winning single for the Lugnuts was nullified when the runner at first joined the celebration instead of advancing to second. The Lugnuts lost in extra innings.