Since the Cubs are heavy favorites to win the World Series this year, which worries me (rarely in the prolonged joke that is the modern Major League post-season does the best team actually win the World Series, and it usually doesn't even get there; unlike the regular season, the post-season is all about luck and timing) it was inevitable that minds would wander back to the last time the North Siders won it all, in 1908.
They won the National League pennant that year by one game over the Giants- the New York Giants back then. 1908 was arguably the greatest single season in baseball history, and not just because the Cubs won it all. Would you believe six teams still in contention (counting both leagues) with only two days left in the season? George Will does a fine job of reviewing some of the highlights of that remarkable year in his review of Cait Murphy's wonderful book (which I highly recommend) Crazy '08.
Anyway, the National League pennant that year was decided by one of the most controversial games in baseball history. It shouldn't be. Alas, the ever-insufferable Keith Olbermann, who seems to make a career of being wrong about things (though I concede that he is right about Donald Trump) once did a pompous TV tirade about how the Cubs behaved in a depraved fashion in that game, and that their draught of subsequent championships was karma or divine retribution or something,
What happened was this. The game was played at New York's Polo Grounds and was tied 1-1 with two out in the bottom of the ninth. With "Moose" McCormick on third and rookie first baseman Fred Merkle on first, New York shortstop Ed Bridwell singled sharply to center. McCormick raced home with the apparent winning run.
It was then that Merkle committed the blunder that would light him down in baseball history to the latest age as "Bonehead" Merkle. Thinking that since the winning run had crossed the plate the game was over, Merkle left the field.
Keep this in mind because it's important: he never touched second base. Never. Not to this very day.
The fans swarmed the field- a usual event at the time since fans sitting behind home plate had to cross the field in order to exit the Polo Grounds. Rather than negotiating the crowd, Merkle simply turned around and walked to the Giants' dugout.
What happened next is in dispute. Everyone agrees that Cub second baseman Johnny Evers waved his arms and called for Chicago center fielder Solly Hofman to throw him the ball. He did.
Some accounts say that the throw reached Evers. Others state that Hofman threw it into the crowd, but that Evers retrieved it. Still others claim that Giants pitcher and coach Joe McGinty intercepted Hofman's throw and threw it into the crowd and that somehow Evers came up with another ball. In any event, Evers stepped on second- and Rule 4.09 is clear:
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.
The umpires consulted and ruled that Merkle had not touched second base, that he had been forced out on a play from the center fielder to the second baseman, and that the run, therefore, did not count.
It might be well to dispose at this point of a side-issue. Whether the ball Evers had in his glove when he touched second base was the game ball or whether McGinty interfered with a ball that was in play, Merkle was out. The only difference in consequence between the two versions of events is that in the first case, he was out on an 8-4 force play, whereas in the second case he was out because of the interference by McGinty.
That said, at one point- and at one point only- Olbermann and the New Yorkers who to this day cry foul have perhaps a moral, though certainly not a legal, point. Back then it was the custom in such situations for the defending team not to ask for the rule to be enforced in a walk-off situation. That should be said not least in defense of Merkle, who did not, in fact, pull a "bonehead" play at all. What he did was exactly what any other major leaguer in 1908 would have done in a similar situation. It was the Cubs who broke with custom when they sought to have a rule enforced in a situation in which it would generally not have been.
That, however, was custom. The rules themselves said what they said. Was it good form for the Cubs to insist on the rule being enforced? The point is debatable. Remember, this was in the heat of possibly the most intense pennant race in National League history. Every game counted. In fact, the pennant would be decided by that one game. I would argue that under the circumstances the Cubs' behavior was entirely reasonable. Admittedly, it's a different day, but today any manager who did not seek the benefit of every rule in the book in such a situation would instantly be the subject of a campaign to have him fired.
And even in the more gentlemanly days of 1908, what applied in the everyday routine of the long season might not still apply with the pennant on the line. I do not deny that Olbermann and others who charge the Cubs with bad form in having the rules enforced have an argument, though I'm not sure that in the circumstances it's a terribly persuasive one.
One thing, though, is clear: Keith Olbermann's self-righteousness sense of grievance is as inappropriate in this case as it usually is. Olbermann is rightly outraged that Fred Merkle, who did only what anybody else in his position would have done and in no way was truly a "bonehead," suffered by bearing that nickname and reputation for the rest of his life. He is right to be outraged about that; it was grotesquely unfair. But what I can't figure out is how it's supposed to be the fault of the Cubs that New York writers and fans treated one of their own players so shabbily as to give him that nickname, and that fans and writers everywhere taunted him for the rest of his days for his perfectly reasonable behavior.
In any event, the game- which could not be resumed because the fans were all over the field- was declared a tie and replayed. The Cubs won the re-match and the pennant and went on to beat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series for the second consecutive year.
And then came the long, long, draught which will hopefully end at last later in the month.