The New York Giants and Chicago Cubs were tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth with runners on first and third and two outs for the Giants. When Al Bridwell lined a pitch by Jack Pfiester into right-center for a single, Harry McCormick trotted home with the apparent winning run as bedlam ensued among the Polo Grounds multitude.
But wait: The runner on first, 19-year-old Fred Merkle, stopped between first and second when he saw McCormick cross the plate and headed for the clubhouse in center field.
It was Sept. 23, 1908, near the end of a fierce three-way National League pennant fight among the Cubs, Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates, and forever more the play would be known in baseball history as Merkle's Boner.
From the distance of nearly a century, it seems obvious that any ballplayer should have realized he needed to reach the next base to remove the possibility of a forceout. But Merkle was merely following an accepted practice of the day: When the winning run scored in the bottom of the ninth, the game was instantly over -- or so it seemed.
Unfortunately for Merkle and the Giants, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers -- immortalized earlier that season in Franklin P. Adams' "Tinker to Evers to Chance" poem -- was smarter than most ballplayers. Calling for a ball, any ball, he stepped on second base and claimed a forceout that negated the Giants' run.
Most fans left the old ballpark in Harlem thinking the Giants had won, thereby stretching their league lead over the Cubs to two games. Only when the next day's papers hit the streets did they learn the umpires and National League president Harry Pulliam had upheld Evers' claim. The game had ended 1-1 and would have to be replayed if the two teams ended the season tied for first place.
Which, of course, they did -- and the Cubs easily beat Giants ace Christy Mathewson two weeks later to win their third straight pennant. After that, they disposed of Ty Cobb's Detroit Tigers in five games to win their last World Series for at least 98 years.
And so, like the Cubs' subsequent futility, Merkle's Boner lives on.
"I wish I had never gotten that hit," momentary hero Bridwell said years later. "It would have saved Fred from a lot of unfair humiliation."
Ironically, Merkle made his first career start that day only because the Giants' regular first baseman, Fred Tenney, was hurt. Mercurial manager John McGraw believed in parking young players on the pine until they aged like fine wine. Merkle played in just 15 games in 1907, 38 in 1908 and 79 in 1909 before becoming a regular in 1910 and batting .292 in 144 games.
McGraw claimed until his death in 1934 that Merkle had been unjustly blamed for the Giants' loss of the 1908 pennant. Usually regarded as baseball's fiercest firebrand, McGraw repeatedly defended his young player and in so doing probably prevented Merkle from collapsing under the weight of public scorn. The Little Napoleon, as he was known in an era that cherished sporting nicknames, also insisted the Giants had been robbed because the ball that was thrown to Evers at second base was not the game ball.
According to the Giants, pitcher Joe "Iron Man" McGinnity somehow got hold of the proper ball and, in something of a snit and a tizzy, hurled it into the crowd.
Meanwhile, Evers was screaming at umpire Bob Emslie, working the bases, to call Merkle out. When Emslie ignored him, Evers charged through the gathering crowd on the field and addressed the same plea to plate umpire Hank O'Day.
Nobody seems to know whether O'Day responded on the spot. But incredibly, O'Day declared at 10 o'clock that night, that Merkle was out and the game was a tie.
McGraw, of course, went bonkers. "If Merkle was out and the ballgame was a tie, O'Day should have ordered the field cleared and the game resumed," the legendary manager was quoted in "McGraw of the Giants," Frank Graham's superb 1944 biography. "But he wasn't out, and we won the game and they can't take that away from us."
When the season ended, the teams were indeed tied with records of 98-55, a half-game ahead of the Pirates. The Giants won a coin flip to determine the site of the playoff game, so everybody trooped back to the Polo Grounds on Oct.8. The overflow crowd smashed down part of the fence in right field and threatened to overrun the field until driven back by a fire hose. Ultimately, Hall of Famer Mathewson yielded a crucial triple to Tinker and lost the most important game of his career 4-1 to Pfiester and Cubs ace Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown. (Matty finished the season 37-11 with a 1.43 ERA.)
Continually derided by sportswriters and fans, the luckless Merkle lost 15 pounds after the season. But he survived his awful moment to have a fine 16-year career (lifetime batting average: .273) with the Giants and three other teams.
"It is criminal to say Merkle is stupid and blame the loss of the pennant on him," McGraw always insisted. "He is one of the smartest players on this ball club and, in not touching second base, he merely did what he had seen veteran players do. ... He didn't cost us the pennant. We lost a dozen games we could have won that year -- yes, two dozen! -- and any one of them could have saved the pennant for us."
That may be true, but history likes convenient villains. So Fred Merkle took his place as the forerunner of a hapless horsehide group that also includes Mickey Owen, Johnny Pesky, Ralph Branca, Ralph Terry, Bill Buckner, Mitch Williams and many others. Call it Goatus Supremus.
Before his death at 67 in 1956, he lamented, "I suppose the epitaph on my tombstone will read, 'Here lies Bonehead Merkle.' ... I wish folks would forget. But they never will."