I’m not one to miss important anniversaries — something to keep in mind, ladies — and today is no exception.
It was 100 years ago this very day that Fred Merkle committed the most legendary boner in American history. Of course, it should be pointed out that prior to the invention of Viagra, the word boner was used as slang for a boneheaded mistake rather than an awkward protrusion in the midsection of your pants. So get your heads right out of the gutter and let me get back to explaining why we’re still talking about a boner a century after it occurred.
On Sept. 23, 1908, the Cubs were locked in a three-way pennant race with the Pirates and the New York Giants. (Yes, there was a time when the Pirates were involved in pennant races). The Giants were a game up on the Cubs at the time, and were on the verge of taking a two-game lead when it appeared they had beaten the Cubs in walk-off fashion at the Polo Grounds when Al Bridwell singled home Moose McCormick with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Good ole Moose, he was a ballplayer.
As Giants fans poured onto the field in celebration, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed Merkle’s boner. And not because they were standing right next to each other. You see, it seems that the 19-year-old Merkle forgot that he had to advance to second base on Bridwell’s walk-off hit. He just went straight to the clubhouse. So Evers called for the ball from the outfield and stepped on second for the force out.
Now, before you say “Only DeSean Jackson would be stupid enough to pull a stunt like that,” keep in mind that it was common practice at the time, kind of like leaving your glove on the field between innings or pitchers throwing complete games nearly every start. And it was only Merkle’s first career start as a first baseman (or as they were called back then, first baggers).
Evers had tried the same thing at the end of a game a couple weeks earlier, and the umpire didn’t give him the benefit of the call. This time, though, they decided to actually follow the rulebook and call Merkle out. Whether it was the actual game ball that Evers used to apply the force is another question — according to the accounts, several Giants players knew what he was doing and tried intercepting the throw from the outfield in the ensuing mob of fans that rushed the field.
Because there were already too many fans on the field — many of whom were not pleased when they caught wind of what the umpires were discussing — the game couldn’t be finished on Sept. 23. National League president Harry Pulliam decided the teams would have to replay the game at the end of the season if it ended up making a difference in the pennant race. Naturally, the Giants and Cubs finished the season in a tie for first, necessitating a re-do at the Polo Grounds. (Rather than continuing the game as suspended from where it had stopped, they just started it back up altogether).
Had the Giants won that game, Merkle’s Boner would have been a small footnote to history, like the time Steve Lyons accidentally pulled down his pants at first base. But they lost the game and the pennant, and Merkle’s Boner suddenly loomed larger than Smilin’ Bob’s.
With their pennant hopes revitalized by the Boner, the Cubs would go on to win their second straight World Series title. I’m a little cloudy on the history after that point, but I’m told that there was no three-peat.
If you are interested in more Boner-related minutiae:
- You know why baseball is great? Because 100 years after the Boner, we still have a box score from that game. How else would we possibly know Wildfire Schulte was 0-for-4 that day?
- Unlike Brant Brown, Merkle went on to have a productive career after his well-publicized gaffe. He finished 7th in MVP voting in 1910, and eventually ended up on the Cubs, whom he helped to the World Series in 1918… where they lost to Babe Ruth and the Red Sox.
- The Toledo Library will have Merkle Memorabilia on display until Sept. 30. Who knew?
- Here’s a copy of Merkle’s obituary. How would you like your obit to lead by talking about your boner? I bet John Holmes didn’t even have that happen.
- Merkle is laid to rest in Daytona Beach, in case you were wanting to visit his grave. Oddly enough, he died 36 years to the day before I was born. Not that this means anything — other than the fact I should go to his grave and perform some sort of bizarre ritual that will bring about the end of the Cubs 100-year drought.