Alternate baseball: chapter fourby Shane Tourtellotte
February 27, 2013
The previous chapters in this series of alternate-history scenarios in baseball have followed a general pattern. An obscure cause leads to a major change in the baseball history we know, with surprising ramifications down the road that alter the shape of the whole game. Each of these scenarios has been quite straightforward, one cause leading to one chain of effects.
Today, I'm throwing a change-up. My target is the fabled Merkle game, but there are so many ways to change this bit of baseball history, I could not settle on one. Rather than letting the highly contingent nature of the incident balk me, I'm going to embrace it. The branches of history will, instead of radiating outward from this point, converge inward upon it. (Okay, there will be branchings outward, for reasons I will make clear in time.)
Just about everyone reading here knows the Merkle story, but may not know the same amount. To cover all the background and the nuances of the event could fill a book, and has done so on multiple occasions. (See References and Resources for two fine examples.) To get everyone on the same page, I'll try to distill the story, and some critical immediate background, into a few paragraphs before moving on to the altering of that history.
Merkle's Boner: the short, short version
The 1908 National League pennant race was a classic three-way tussle among the Giants, Cubs and Pirates. On Sept. 23, the Cubs and Giants played at the Polo Grounds, with New York mere percentage points ahead (and Pittsburgh 1.5 games back). It was 1-1 entering the bottom of the ninth. New York got runners on the corners with two outs, the Giant at first being teenage rookie Fred Merkle in his first major-league start.
Al Bridwell lined a ball cleanly into center field, and the winning run came home. Merkle, though, turned toward the center field clubhouse before touching second, to avoid the spectators swarming onto the diamond. (This was normal: Polo Grounds fans exited via the field.) Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, igniting a massive kerfuffle the details of which have never been agreed upon. Eventually, Evers tagged second with a baseball in hand. Umpire Hank O'Day (who got into the Hall of Fame a few months ago) ruled Merkle out, and the game a tie.
O'Day was alert to the play because Evers had tried it before. In a Sept. 4 game in Pittsburgh, the Pirates beat the Cubs 1-0 on a 10th-inning, two-out single—but the runner on first, rookie Warren Gill, turned to the bench before touching second. Evers got the ball back to force Gill, but O'Day, the lone umpire for the game, had himself turned from the field once the apparent game-winning run crossed home. He refused to rule Gill out on a play he had not seen, but the incident got him thinking, and watching.
Under intense pressure from both teams and seemingly everyone on Earth who cared about baseball, National League president Harry Pulliam upheld O'Day's rulings. When the season ended with the Giants and Cubs tied atop the standings, they played the do-over game at the Polo Grounds to decide the pennant. An exhausted Christy Mathewson, who pitched over 110 innings in the final 37 days of the season, couldn't hold the line. The Cubs triumphed 4-2, and went on to their second, and last, victory in the World Series.
And that's the story ... at least until I get my hands on it.
Four escapes for Fred
Scenario No. 5.1.1
Change: The Chicago Tribune doesn't answer a letter.
During 1908, Sunday editions of the Chicago Tribune printed letters to the sports editor under the title "Inquisitive Fans." On July 19, it ran this speculative question from one Joseph Rupp.
In the last half of the ninth, with the score tied, two men out and a runner on third, the batter hits to left and the runner scores. The batter, seeing the runner score, stops between home and first. The ball is thrown to first baseman, who touches his base before the runner reaches it. Can runner score on this?
The answer was succinct.
No. Run cannot score when third out is made before reaching first base.
This looks pretty elementary to us, but we've been marinating in the culture of baseball longer than the fans of 1908 had. By itself, it had no bearing on future events: no games turned on a batter failing to touch first. But it probably got the gears turning in the mind of one of the game's smartest players, Johnny Evers.
Evers was almost a walking stereotype, a bantam middle infielder who compensated for his small body with a constant application of brainpower to his play. Some joked that his favorite bedtime reading material was the baseball rulebook. True or (probably) not, it sounded plausible because it reflected reality. Anyone who has seen the diagrams and calculations peppering his co-written Touching Second can see he was always thinking. (I've expressed doubts about the anecdotes in that book, but that doesn't denigrate the work put into the on-field analysis.)
The Cubs were in town the Sunday this paper came out, at the tail end of a long home stand. Evers would have had no trouble finding and reading this column. A run being erased on a batter being late to first base would have been no surprise to him. What he apparently did was take the next step, and realize that a forced runner who neglected to take the base ahead would produce the same result.
Such a scenario could only occur in the bottom of the ninth, or a later, inning. Only the apparent end of the game could induce a runner to abandon the basepath. What we now call "walk-off" wins don't happen every day, and from July into September, Evers likely went through dozens of games without anyone falling into the trap. Then, in the bottom of the 10th in Pittsburgh, with two out and the bases loaded, Warren Gill did.
No direct link has ever been discovered between the letters column and Evers' stratagem, but it appears highly probable, at least more probable than Evers hatching the idea solely on his own at close to the same time. If the letter hadn't run, Evers' imagination would have been running in some other direction. Warren Gill, and Fred Merkle, would have been spared.
Scenario No. 5.1.2
Change: The Pittsburgh Pirates don't get desperate at first base. Or get desperate sooner.
The Pirates were a very good team in 1908, but they did have holes. Right field was patrolled most of the year by rookie Owen "Chief" Wilson, who posted a ghastly .546 OPS (74 OPS+) in 1908. Player-manager Fred Clarke stuck with the youngster the whole season, something he did not do at first base.
First base had been solid just two years before, when 21-year-old Jim Nealon debuted impressively there. However, his play declined in 1907, and he played his last game ever that September. In a spooky foreshadowing of Lou Gehrig's fate, Nealon's career was cut short by illness: tuberculosis in his case. So terrifying was the "White Plague" in that age, the specifics of his illness were just not talked about. He was sick, and that was that. Some observers, though, probably could read between the lines.
Nealon's replacement was newcomer Harry Swacina, who handled the last few weeks of the '07 season at first. He handled it dreadfully, with a .472 OPS (47 OPS+), but the Cubs had already run away with the pennant, so Clarke could afford the extended tryout. Swacina got the nod on Opening Day of 1908, and did not reward his manager's confidence. Even in the ultimate deadball environment that was the 1908 National League, his .216/.238/.261 batting line was a horror. It might serve for a super-fielding shortstop or catcher—but Swacina was a first baseman!
Five weeks of this was enough. Clarke swapped one untested 26-year-old for another, plugging in rookie Jim Kane. Kane did better, which isn't to say that he did well. He'd end the season, the only one he'd have in the majors, at a 93 OPS+. Four weeks of this discouraged Clarke, who was well into a pennant dogfight by this time. He tried Swacina again for a week, then Kane for a few days, then went to someone else altogether.
Alan Storke had been away from the team until now, but he had a good excuse. He was attending Harvard Law School, and his semester had just finished. Right after the traditional Fourth of July doubleheader, Clarke made Storke the starting first baseman. This lasted for two weeks, until Swacina got his third chance. He frittered that away, and Storke got his second chance. He held the job for about three weeks, and then Clarke went to Plan D.
Storke wasn't that bad, at least not on the curve we're rapidly learning to expect from these Pirates. His season OPS+ matched Kane at 93. Clarke probably felt he had to do something, though; the Giants had just come into Pittsburgh and won three straight, overhauling the Pirates for first place. He put Warren Gill at first base, a domino set in place. (And the Giants promptly beat them to make it four straight.)
Gill was, if anything, less promising than his three predecessors. He was 29, an awfully advanced age to be starting one's career in the bigs. He would do a hair better than Kane and Storke by modern measurements, a 96 OPS+ against their 93. However, he did it the wrong way to be appreciated in 1908, but the right way to be appreciated today: with on-base percentage. He batted just .224 with no power, but in 102 plate appearances drew 11 walks and got hit by pitches six times, giving him an on-base of .366.
Today, we'd love that. Then, it earned him a return to the bench after three weeks, Alan Storke getting his third chance. But Gill had been in the lineup long enough to fall afoul of Johnny Evers' plans, and be rescued by Hank O'Day's diverted attention. (He got on first via one of his six plunkings. See how important on-base is?)
It was really a pitiful display, Clarke flailing around to find someone, anyone, who wouldn't embarrass the team at first base, and never quite succeeding. There was no stability after Swacina's first five weeks, no chance to settle into the position, find one's feet, and get into a rhythm that might produce acceptable output.
Clarke could have given someone else a longer chance to stick at first base. Alternatively, he could have given Gill his first chance ahead of the later chances of his other three first basemen. Either of these actions would have put somebody instead of Gill on the basepaths on the crucial day, somebody who would have run that 10th-inning hit out to second base.
Result 5.1: Merkle misses second, but the Giants still win.
In the first scenario, nothing apparently happens. Nobody challenges Gill or Merkle. No controversy is stirred. The tripwire in the rulebook remains where it's always been, unseen, waiting for someone to discover and exploit it.
And one season or another, somebody would do it. Conceivably Evers could still be the discoverer; conceivably Merkle could still be the ultimate victim. More probably, it will be other names attached to the act, in a game that, by the law of averages, won't have any real bearing on a pennant race. Instead of having its own chapter in baseball history, the play will be a footnote, if the umpires on hand even allow the appeal.
The second scenario postpones the sequence of events. It's at the Sept. 23 game against New York where Evers will make his first attempt to pull the touching-second trick. The complication here is that there are two umpires, O'Day and Bob Emslie. Maybe this time, somebody will be watching what the runner at first does, rather than O'Day alone missing it as in Pittsburgh.
I think not, though. Two umpires means divided duties, neither one trying to see everything on the field. O'Day wouldn't have been forewarned of what was coming, and would have been leaving matters on the basepaths to Emslie. As for Emslie, Bridwell's hit past second came so close to striking him, he went tumbling in the dirt. It was as much as he could do to recover and make sure Bridwell reached first base. Merkle would have been out of his thoughts for the crucial instant. He would not have been able to confirm whether Merkle touched or missed second, any more than O'Day was in Pittsburgh in our timeline. At least, that's possible enough for our purposes.
Evers would make his appeal, the umpires would deny it, and New York would pocket the game. But O'Day and Emslie, and perhaps other umpires around the league, would have gotten a nudge about the possibilities of this play. But what are the odds that the same kind of scenario could recur yet again before the season's end, and that the Cubs could capitalize?
Well ... step forward to Cincinnati exactly one week later, where the Cubs are playing the Reds. In the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and the bases loaded, Reds shortstop Hans Lobert strokes a single that drives in the winning run. Might the runner ahead of Lobert have missed second? Might Evers get his second chance?
Alas, so close and yet so far. The Reds were down a run, not tied, when Lobert smote his game-winner. It was the man on second, not third, who was the winning run. The man on first, with no reason to quit the field early, would have gone cleanly into second base. It would have been too perfect, even for a sport that sometimes gives you such perfection.
Instead, we reach the same ending with both scenarios. The Giants win on Sept. 23, giving them the winning one-game margin in the three-handed pennant race. The Cubs settle for a second-place tie with Pittsburgh, secured by a win against the Pirates in the final game of their season. The Giants still had three games to play in Boston, but swept them.
If we could only contrive a way for the altered circumstances to cause New York to lose one against Boston. That would have left all three teams at 98-56 for the season, bringing glorious chaos as the league tried to figure out how to break that tie. But contrivance is all it would be. With Merkle's miss at second ignored, the Giants win the pennant, and that is that.
Now, if Gill's miss had not been missed ...
Scenario No. 5.2.1
Change: Frank Rudderham hangs onto his job a week longer.
Umpiring in 1908 was stunningly primitive compared to what we have today. Instead of stable crews of four umpires for each game, the 1908 majors would sometimes have two umpires temporarily teamed for a series or two, and sometimes only one umpire to cover the entire game. And in the National League, the single-umpire games were more common than the dual-umpire ones, by a three to two margin.
Six umpires comprised the full NL staff in 1908, and they weren't always up to that complement. Jim Johnstone missed the first five weeks of the season, and was not replaced for that span. As August turned to September, Frank Rudderham was fired by the National League. It took over two weeks to find his replacement, Brick Owens, who himself would have to be replaced for the final four games of the season.
Rudderham umpired less than one full season in the NL, and unsurprisingly was a frequent target for player complaints. His short and undistinguished career did at least leave behind one good story (and I emphasize "story"). In a late May game, Mike Donlin of the Giants argued over being called out at first, suggesting that Rudderham should consult an oculist he knew to treat his defective vision. "Possibly you are right," Rudderham is said to have replied. "I cannot see you for the rest of the game." Ejections are much less witty nowadays.
His departure also left behind a hole in the umpire staff—one into which the Warren Gill game very likely fell. Had Rudderham not been fired on September 1, he probably would have been calling the Chicago-Pittsburgh game with Hank O'Day. There would have been an extra set of eyes on the field, someone who might have seen that Gill missed second base.
The conclusion that Rudderham would have been in Pittsburgh follows from the method the NL used to assign umpires. The marquee teams of the league, the Cubs, Pirates, and especially the Giants, received preferential treatment in having two umpires assigned to their games. This chart, showing the teams in order of their finish in 1908, illustrates the point. (Total games played vary due to ties. The bracketed teams tied for second.)
Team CHI [PIT NY] PHI CIN BOS BRO STL Total games played 158 155 157 155 155 156 154 154 Games w/two umpires 78 73 113 58 50 38 53 29
New York, as the biggest-market team, got easily the most two-umpire games, and probably had a spillover effect in getting nearby Brooklyn more such games than they otherwise would have. Aside from that, it's a near-perfect line from top to bottom, most to least. This wasn't pure anticipation by the league. From 1903 to 1912, the Giants, Cubs and Pirates had 28 of a possible 30 top-three finishes. (New York was actually fourth in 1907, but it was still New York.)
When two of the Big Three were playing each other, the chances skewed even better in their favor. Of the 56 games played in that group while there were six NL umpires rather than five, all but three of them had two arbiters. Those three were Chicago-Pittsburgh games, and both dates (one was a double-header) were the first days of a series, with a second umpire joining the next day to complete the stand. (The second umpires may have had slow train connections.)
Had Frank Rudderham avoided the axe for a few more days, it's almost certain he would have been assigned to the game in Pittsburgh on Sept. 4 with Hank O'Day. It isn't quite guaranteed he would have been there: if other umpires could miss their trains, so could he. But the odds were well on his side, and we'll go with that.
As for the pivotal play where Gill pivoted away, it's no cinch that Rudderham would have caught it. But as the base umpire, with baserunners where they were, he would have been near second base, the vital place. Assuming he didn't have to dodge Chief Wilson's hit the way Emslie did Bridwell's, he would have been right where he needed to be to see that Gill headed back to the dugout rather than going the full 90 feet.
(It could also be that Rudderham would have had duty as the plate umpire that day, putting O'Day on the basepaths; umpires often but not always alternated positions game by game. I'm even more confident O'Day would have caught Gill's move.)
Rudderham making this call would have been potentially an immense controversy. (I'll cover the "potentially" part later.) Ironically, it could also have solidified a job that was dangling by a frayed thread. In both the Gill and Merkle cases, NL president Pulliam made a point of backing his umpires. It could have been tough to fire Rudderham at the same time he confirmed his hotly disputed call. Rudderham would have lasted out the year, and then maybe been quietly replaced in the off-season.
Scenario No. 5.2.2
Change: Hank O'Day obeys his thirst an inning earlier.
O'Day wasn't watching Gill at the crucial moment for two reasons: He thought the game was over, and he needed a drink. And I don't mean alcoholic, although that might have come later, especially after arguing with the high-strung Evers.
When Chief Wilson (yes, the awful rookie Clarke stuck with) dropped his liner into short center and Clarke crossed the plate, O'Day headed to the players' bench to get some water. Recaps of the incident annoyingly do not mention which bench, though one can deduce it was Pittsburgh's. Cub Joe Tinker ran from the infield to alert O'Day to Evers standing on second with the ball. Had O'Day been filling up at the Cubs' bench, one imagines some substitute would have pointed out Evers trying to get his attention.
O'Day had likely been thirsty for a while, and waiting for the game's end to do something about it. Visiting one bench or the other for a drink during the game would smack a bit of favoritism, exposing him to the other team's carping and jockeying, the bane of an umpire's existence. Waiting until the game ended was an act of even-handedness, and self-defense.
Sometimes, though, the body's needs override such niceties. O'Day could have been a little more parched, or a little less resistant, when the ninth inning, the usual conclusion of a game, ended without a winner. Irked at the natural opportunity being denied him, he might have accepted possible future sniping just to get that drink.
Had he done so, there would have been no added impetus to turn away from the field at the crucial moment in the 10th. His gaze could have been in the right direction at the right time. Right for Evers, that is. Totally wrong for Warren Gill.
Result 5.2: Warren Gill is called out for missing second, and maybe becomes Bonehead Gill for eternity.
Both sub-scenarios produce the same result. Gill is called out on a force play, and the winning run is taken off the board. Hopefully the Pirates and fans don't cause such a ruckus that the umpires have to forfeit the game to Chicago, and play continues into the 11th inning.
Here's the trouble: Tere is no knowing how the game will end, just because we know it didn't end in the 10th. The Cubs could win; the Pirates could make good Gill's goof and win; darkness could fall before a decision is reached and the game could end a tie. Beyond that, extended play could fatigue players, especially pitchers, enough to affect future games (as I've discovered, that's more than a theoretical effect).
One result we can count on is that the ruling will get massive coverage in the press. The dangers of not taking the next base will be clear to every player—and if they aren't, their managers will make it clear. Fred Merkle will not be hanging any early turns for the clubhouse, meaning the Giants will win that game.
If Pittsburgh makes good the lost run and wins on the 4th—and the teams are otherwise unaffected&madsh;that means the Giants capture the pennant. It also means Gill's notoriety is mercifully brief, his team having promptly overcome the mistake.
If the Cubs win on the 4th, though, Warren "Bonehead" Gill is the man who cost the Pirates the pennant. Never mind that the loss would put Pittsburgh two full games down to end the season, not one, meaning he didn't lose the pennant by himself. The whole city would interpret it the other way, and the country would likely follow their lead.
The effect on Gill's career would be ... pretty much nothing. Gill was out of the regular lineup by mid-September, and never played again in the majors after 1908. He'd probably hear the "Bonehead" epithet back in the minors, but coming from players who had never reached the majors and never would, it might not sting so badly. Without a long presence in the bigs reviving memories of it, the "Gill's Boner" refrain might fade a lot faster than it did for Merkle. He could eventually get on with his life, wherever it took him.
The incident might have a far different effect: inaugurating the "Curse of First" in Pittsburgh. One first baseman, Gill, skews a pennant race with a baserunning blunder. Then in March 1910, Alan Storke, his teammate/competitor at first, dies after a failed lung operation. Two weeks after that, Joe Nealon, whose tuberculosis left the hole at first base, dies of his illness.
Once is random; twice is coincidence; three times is a pattern. First base for the Pirates could have gotten a reputation as a more malevolent version of the "holes" that sometimes open up on teams, like third base did for the White Sox in the decades between Willie Kamm and Robin Ventura. There wouldn't be anyone who seriously stuck at the position for more than a decade, but at least none of the succeeding players died in their mid-20s.
If the Gill game ended in a tie, then things get even more interesting. The Cubs' and Pirates' schedule ended with the teams playing a single game in Chicago on Oct. 4. The two clubs would have had identical 97-55 records, with the Giants percentage points ahead at 96-54. In our timeline, Chicago won that game when it had huge pennant implications for the Cubs and Pirates alike. Same here, and I'll assume the Cubs repeat that win to move a game ahead of Pittsburgh, and a half-game ahead of the idle Giants.
That leaves the replay of the tied Gill game. The NL rule at the time was that unresolved games had to be replayed if they had a bearing on the pennant race. (The AL didn't have this rule, and its races kept getting decided by games that weren't played.) No matter how New York did in its final series in Boston, the replay would have such implications, so the teams would promptly hop the train back to Pittsburgh, the race still white-hot.
If Pittsburgh takes the replay, the Giants' sweep in Boston gives them the pennant. If the Cubs win the replay, or if they won the game on the 4th, we get a historic result beyond creating "Gill's Boner." Chicago and New York would end the season tied at 99-55. They would then, 38 years ahead of schedule, play the first playoff in major-league history.
1908 was an incredible season, feeding a baseball frenzy that shattered attendance records and overshadowed a Presidential election. Imagine extending it with a best-two-of-three showdown between teams from the two largest cities in America. The Merkle replay drew a throng that literally overran the Polo Grounds, maybe doubling its theoretical capacity. Even with Merkle mercifully anonymous, the Giants would see that again, with a parallel experience at Chicago's West Side Grounds.
Nobody can say how it would end with the teams, but the turnstiles would be spun to splinters by the time it was over.
The burdens of a blunder
Poor Warren Gill would be praying for a Giants triumph. If the Cubs pulled out the playoff, it would be his blunder that made it possible. He would be remembered forever, not only in Pittsburgh, but in New York for handing Chicago the extra win that made the Cubs' pennant larceny possible. The minimal restraint of not wanting to destroy a player on one's own team—it surely was minimal for Merkle—would never apply to Gill, but the full opprobrium of the press capital of America would.
The only relief for Gill, ironically, would be that he'd never play big-league ball again. Merkle was a long-time player, constantly in the public eye, and thus a constant target. Anonymity in the minors, or out of baseball altogether, would keep Gill's story from getting all that reinforcement. It might be better for him than for Merkle.
Or it might be worse. Thanks to manager John McGraw's unreserved support in the aftermath of his miscue, Merkle carved out a 16-season career. After Gill's blunder, he was gone. We know he would have been gone without the infamy, but he wouldn't. If we can say anything about human psychology, it's that Warren Gill would believe—no, he would know—that one mistake cost him his only chance at a career in the National League, along with making him an object of national ridicule.
It's a bit ghoulish to speculate about how much pain this would add to Warren Gill's life, so I won't go further. Consider it an indication, though, that the 5.1 scenarios that leave neither Gill nor Merkle a "Bonehead" might well save the life of the president of the National League.
Harry Pulliam was not the happiest of men. He had some enemies as NL president, and they made his tenure rough. His temperament, always sensitive, wore down under the strain, as he grew arbitrary and intolerant of opposition. This was a gradual process until September 1908, when the burden of ruling on the most controversial play baseball had ever seen was thrown onto his shoulders. He was ill-suited to bear it, and it may have broken him.
Cause and effect aside, it's certain that he was broken afterward. His mental state slid into utter collapse by February 1909, and he was temporarily relieved of his duties. He would return to work a few months later, and everyone would pretend everything was better. It wasn't. In July, he shot himself dead.
Speculation here can feel almost indecent. Pulliam was likely headed for a breakdown of some kind, as long as he stayed in such a stressful job. It was his ill fortune that the arguably precipitating event was so important, raised such extreme feelings from two powerful teams and all of their fans, and that so much of the resultant pressure bore down directly upon him as the ultimate arbiter.
Removing the touching-second controversy doesn't necessarily spare Pulliam's life, but it couldn't hurt. Some future crisis would come along to hammer at his equanimity, but it might only crack him, not crush him. He might have the chance to withdraw gracefully, escape the trap, and find some situation in life better suited to his emotional nature.
Changing "Merkle's Boner" to something else doesn't send the whole baseball universe careening in another direction, though it does have lasting effects. Depending on the scenario, the Giants likely win, and the Cubs likely lose, a pennant. The Giants probably add a World Series title as well. The Detroit Tigers fell to Chicago four games to one in real life, so one suspects they wouldn't turn that around and get Ty Cobb the world championship he never managed to grasp.
The Cubs, meanwhile, would count the generations of futility not from 1908 but 1907, the year they won what is now their only World Series. In some scenarios, they would never know how close they had really come to winning the second; in others, they might point to a denied appeal at the Polo Grounds as the start of a curse.
And in others, their success against Warren Gill might itself be considered the Cubs' downfall. If they won the Gill game on Evers' appeal, but lost the subsequent playoff to the Giants, many would consider it just desserts for a team trying to steal games through rules-lawyering rather than winning them on the field. (See also Martin, Brett, and pine tar.) Cubs' fans might have spent a century-plus trying to atone for an excess of smarts.
They might also have had fewer Hall of Famers to call their own. With a pennant and Series taken off the books, the Cubs of that era would look much less like a dynasty. Their infielders might have made a less suitable subject for Franklin P. Adams' poetry. Between his playing and managing, first baseman Frank Chance probably belonged in Cooperstown, but without the extra flag and the rhymes, Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers likely wouldn't make it. Evers could have outsmarted himself out of bronzed immortality.
Twins of fate
And what of the effect on Fred Merkle? Maybe he plays a little better without the albatross around his neck, but he had McGraw's fierce support, and that probably mitigated the on-field effects. He won't be usurping Evers' place in Cooperstown; his career will be solid, and just solid. He'll probably stick around in the coaching ranks longer, not having to take the sneers of youngsters who know him by one epithet. The effects on his spirits we can well imagine.
Was it his fault, really? His teammates all defended him, saying it was something any player would do. John McGraw, who detested mental mistakes, backed Merkle to the hilt.
They were interested parties in the controversy, but their opinions have to mean something.
The parallel case in our time is stark and obvious: Steve Bartman. Even more nameless than rookie Merkle, he did something at a vital juncture of the game that a lot of people would themselves do by sheer instinct. From that act, and the turns of luck that followed, a pennant that could have been won was lost. And just to drive the parallel home, the team that benefited the first time suffered the second.
"Anyone would have done it." That's the sentence that makes exoneration so easy. But not quite right.
A common mistake is still a mistake. A mess-up that probably won't affect anything is a mess-up that possibly will. A hundred such little errors happen every day that baseball is played, and it's blind luck whether one of them will amount to anything. That, or one guy reading the rulebook and figuring out something other people haven't.
Merkle does have one excuse Bartman could not claim. He was a rookie, the youngest player in the major leagues, still learning what to do in the bigs. A lot of that learning was by watching the veterans: McGraw probably advised him to do just that. One thing he learned early from them was "get to the clubhouse immediately when the game ends to avoid the mob on the field." He may even have seen a runner turn away from second base on a game-winning hit to do that very thing.
We're supposed to learn from mistakes, hopefully somebody else's. Unfortunately, Merkle learned to emulate that mental laxity, and it cost him.
Is that fair or unfair? Neither, really. It was contingency, that thing you say instead of "luck" when you want to sound smart. There was no reason why it should have happened to him rather than a hundred other ballplayers, and no reason why it shouldn't. It's like the lottery: Odds are someone will win, but the odds of a specific person winning are so long that it seems divorced from what should happen. To avoid a jostling throng, Merkle bought a ticket.
He would endure what followed about as well as any of us might, with a mix of grace, bitterness, and resignation. His tombstone doesn't read "Here lies Bonehead Merkle" as he feared it would, but most people who remember him today do so through that moment in September of 1908.
Fred Merkle made a mistake, and lived with the consequences. We all do that. Luckily, most of us don't make those mistakes under the gaze of a whole nation.
But we all can wonder what could have happened had those mistakes never been made. In Merkle's case, I'm just the latest. The first was surely Fred himself.
References and Resources
G. H. Fleming's The Unforgettable Season chronicles the 1908 NL race through the contemporary newspapers articles that originally told the tale. Cait Murphy's Crazy '08 is a more standard history, broader in scope, in an open, accessible style. Both come recommended.
Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference were helpful as always. Records of 1908 Pittsburgh starting first basemen came from files gathered by Mark Miller, a most fortunate find.
Shane Tourtellotte is a long-time, occasionally-nominated science fiction writer, currently living in Asheville, North Carolina. He will tell you all about the baseball novel he’s shopping if you give him an inch.