Tough As Nails: A Cub Fan's Rebuttal to Keith Olbermann
I'd like to thank Keith Olbermann for his recent piece on the 100th anniversary of Fred Merkle's infamous base-running gaff entitled "The Goof That Changed the Game" (SI.com; 9-23-08). It's not often we read about history today. Unlike football (where memories fade fast), baseball had always reveled in it's long and colorful past. While I agree with much of what KO wrote, it's what he left out that has me writing a rebuttal.
If Rule 59 (No run can score when the final out of an inning is a force play) was never "enforced" prior to Sept. 23, 1908 as Mr. Olbermann believes, it was clearly recognized 19 days earlier in a game between the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates. In a scoreless pitchers duel into the bottom of the 10th, the Pirate's Fred Clarke scored from third on a bases-loaded single. Pirate Gill, however, failed to advance from first base (like Merkle) as the ball was thrown to Cub Johnny Evers for the force at second, which umpire Hank O'Day dis-allowed. Cub manager Frank Chance would bring the matter to League president Harry Pulliam who preserved the Pirate victory but recognized the Rule's validity. By not striking the Rule, the League's message was clear: in the future, it will be enforced.
As to Mr. Olbermann's implication that Johnny Evers did not have the game ball when forcing-out Merkle at second: I would say it is not surprising that a New Yorker would take such a position. I am also not surprised that a New Yorker would fail to mention possibly the most widely-read, personal account of the ball's path after Giant Al Bridwell's single in the ninth. Johnny Evers gave that account to author John Carmichael in his famous book My Greatest Day In Baseball (A.S. Barnes & Co./ 1945).
After Bridwell's single to center, Cub outfielder Artie Hofman threw the ball to the infield as Giant McCormick crossed home plate with what would have been the winning run. Under the watchful eye of Johnny Evers, Merkle stopped halfway to second base and bolted for the clubhouse. Hofman's throw, however, sailed over infielder Joe Tinker's head. Tinker, Evers and Giant third base coach Joe McGinnity all made a mad dash for the ball. According to Evers, McGinnity knew what the Bruins were up to and got to the ball first. All three wrestled for the prize but McGinnity won out, broke free and threw it into the crowd. Cubs Harry Steinfeldt and Floyd Kroh found the fan, pleaded for the ball and then resorted to Plan B: Kroh hit the ball-hog on top of his brown bowler hat, he coughed it up and Kroh tossed the ball into Tinker who threw it to Evers.
Are there conflicting accounts of what happened on the field that day? Yes. Did Johnny Evers have a bias? Maybe. But I challenge Keith Olbermann or anybody else to produce an account as detailed and believable as Mr. Ever's, a man tough as nails (known as "The Crab") but to my knowledge never known as a liar or teller of tall tales.
Mr. Countdown hits a home run when he states the 1908 pennant races were the best ever. Indeed. Overshadowed by the Merkle brouhaha was one of the greatest pitching performances in stretch-drive history. Shortly after the Merkle game, the Cubs went to Brooklyn to play the Dodgers (Superbas?). Husk Chance gave the ball to Ed Reulbach who pitched a doubleheader shutout. Makes one wonder why anyone would think Milwaukee over-used C.C. Sabathia in their own pennant drive (even though they did).
Would the Cubs have won the pennant without Merkle's mistake? If the Giants win all three of their remaining games, then no, they would not. The better question: Did the Giants lose the pennant because of Merkle's mis-step on Sept. 23rd? No they did not. The Giants lost the NL pennant on Oct. 8th when the Cubs, behind the masterful pitching of Three Finger Brown (who received six death-threat letters), won 4-2 in the one game playoff at the hostile Polo Grounds. Cubs Jack Pfiester and Frank Chance were attacked on the field while police prevented hooligans from crashing the visitor's clubhouse.
It was Fred Snodgrass (a later Giant teammate of Fred Merkle) who may have had the best outlook on becoming the goat. Snodgrass had himself committed a memorable gaffe, mis-playing a fly ball in the outfield and arguably costing the Giants a World Series title. In his later years when asked what he thought about being the goat, Snodgrass replied that it was rough, but he would not have traded his years in baseball for anything. It was in some respects, a glorious time, a better time. I would like to think Fred Merkle felt the same, the occasional chucklehead fan notwithstanding.