The Game That Cost A Pennant
The Championship of the National League was Decided in 1908 in One
Game between the Giants and Cubs--Few Fans Know that it Was Mr. Brush
who Induced the Disgruntled New York Players to Meet Chicago--This is
the "Inside" Story of the Famous Game, Including "Fred" Merkle's Part
in the Series of Events which Led up to it.
The New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs played a game at the Polo Grounds
on October 8, 1908, which decided the championship of the National League
in one afternoon, which was responsible for the deaths of two spectators,
who fell from the elevated railroad structure overlooking the grounds,
which made Fred Merkle famous for not touching second, which caused
lifelong friends to become bitter enemies, and which, altogether, was the
most dramatic and important contest in the history of baseball. It stands
out from every-day events like the battle of Waterloo and the
assassination of President Lincoln. It was a baseball tragedy from a New
York point of view. The Cubs won by the score of 4 to 2.
Behind this game is some "inside" history that has never been written. Few
persons, outside of the members of the New York club, know that it was
only after a great deal of consultation the game was finally played, only
after the urging of John T. Brush, the president of the club. The Giants
were risking, in one afternoon, their chances of winning the pennant and
the world's series--the concentration of their hopes of a season--because
the Cubs claimed the right on a technicality to play this one game for the
championship. Many members of the New York club felt that it would be
fighting for what they had already won, as did their supporters. This made
bad feeling between the teams and between the spectators, until the whole
dramatic situation leading up to the famous game culminated in the climax
of that afternoon. The nerves of the players were rasped raw with the
strain, and the town wore a fringe of nervous prostration. It all burst
forth in the game.
Among other things, Frank Chance, the manager of the Cubs, had a cartilage
in his neck broken when some rooter hit him with a handy pop bottle,
several spectators hurt one another when they switched from conversational
to fistic arguments, large portions of the fence at the Polo Grounds were
broken down by patrons who insisted on gaining entrance, and most of the
police of New York were present to keep order. They had their clubs
unlimbered, too, acting more as if on strike duty than restraining the
spectators at a pleasure park. Last of all, that night, after we had lost
the game, the report filtered through New York that Fred Merkle, then a
youngster and around whom the whole situation revolved, had committed
suicide. Of course it was not true, for Merkle is one of the gamest
ball-players that ever lived.
My part in the game was small. I started to pitch and I didn't finish. The
Cubs beat me because I never had less on the ball in my life. What I can't
understand to this day is why it took them so long to hit me. Frequently
it has been said that "Cy" Seymour started the Cubs on their victorious
way and lost the game, because he misjudged a long hit jostled to centre
field by "Joe" Tinker at the beginning of the third inning, in which
chapter they made four runs. The hit went for three bases.
Seymour, playing centre field, had a bad background against which to judge
fly balls that afternoon, facing the shadows of the towering stand, with
the uncertain horizon formed by persons perched on the roof. A baseball
writer has said that, when Tinker came to the bat in that fatal inning, I
turned in the box and motioned Seymour back, and instead of obeying
instructions he crept a few steps closer to the infield. I don't recall
giving any advice to "Cy," as he knew the Chicago batters as well as I did
and how to play for them.
Tinker, with his long bat, swung on a ball intended to be a low curve over
the outside corner of the plate, but it failed to break well. He pushed
out a high fly to centre field, and I turned with the ball to see Seymour
take a couple of steps toward the diamond, evidently thinking it would
drop somewhere behind second base. He appeared to be uncertain in his
judgment of the hit until he suddenly turned and started to run back. That
must have been when the ball cleared the roof of the stand and was visible
above the sky line. He ran wildly. Once he turned, and then ran on again,
at last sticking up his hands and having the ball fall just beyond them.
He chased it and picked it up, but Tinker had reached third base by that
time. If he had let the ball roll into the crowd in centre field, the Cub
could have made only two bases on the hit, according to the ground rules.
That was a mistake, but it made little difference in the end.
All the players, both the Cubs and the Giants, were under a terrific
strain that day, and Seymour, in his anxiety to be sure to catch the ball,
misjudged it. Did you ever stand out in the field at a ball park with
thirty thousand crazy, shouting fans looking at you and watch a ball climb
and climb into the air and have to make up your mind exactly where it is
going to land and then have to be there, when it arrived, to greet it,
realizing all the time that if you are not there you are going to be
everlastingly roasted? It is no cure for nervous diseases, that
situation. Probably forty-nine times out of fifty Seymour would have
caught the fly.
"I misjudged that ball," said "Cy" to me in the clubhouse after the game.
"I'll take the blame for it."
He accepted all the abuse the newspapers handed him without a murmur and I
don't think myself that it was more than an incident in the game. I'll try
to show later in this story where the real "break" came.
Just one mistake, made by "Fred" Merkle, resulted in this play-off game.
Several newspaper men have called September 23, 1908, "Merkle Day,"
because it was on that day he ran to the clubhouse from first base instead
of by way of second, when "Al" Bridwell whacked out the hit that
apparently won the game from the Cubs. Any other player on the team would
have undoubtedly done the same thing under the circumstances, as the
custom had been in vogue all around the circuit during the season. It was
simply Fred Merkle's misfortune to have been on first base at the critical
moment. The situation which gave rise to the incident is well known to
every follower of baseball. Merkle, as a pinch hitter, had singled with
two out in the ninth inning and the score tied, sending McCormick from
first base to third. "Al" Bridwell came up to the bat and smashed a single
to centre field. McCormick crossed the plate, and that, according to the
customs of the League, ended the game, so Merkle dug for the clubhouse.
Evers and Tinker ran through the crowd which had flocked on the field and
got the ball, touching second and claiming that Merkle had been forced out
Most of the spectators did not understand the play, as Merkle was under
the shower bath when the alleged put-out was made, but they started after
"Hank" O'Day, the umpire, to be on the safe side. He made a speedy
departure under the grand-stand and the crowd got the put-out unassisted.
Finally, while somewhere near Coogan's Bluff, he called Merkle out and the
score a tie. When the boys heard this in the clubhouse, they laughed, for
it didn't seem like a situation to be taken seriously. But it turned out
to be one of those things that the farther it goes the more serious it
"Connie" Mack, the manager of the Athletics, says:
"There is no luck in Big League baseball. In a schedule of one hundred and
fifty-four games, the lucky and unlucky plays break about even, except in
the matter of injuries."
But Mack's theory does not include a schedule of one hundred and
fifty-five games, with the result depending on the one hundred and
fifty-fifth. Chicago had a lot of injured athletes early in the season of
1908, and the Giants had shot out ahead in the race in grand style. In the
meantime the Cubs' cripples began to recuperate, and that lamentable event
on September 23 seemed to be the turning-point in the Giants' fortunes.
Almost within a week afterwards, Bresnahan had an attack of sciatic
rheumatism and "Mike" Donlin was limping about the outfield, leading a
great case of "Charley horse." Tenney was bandaged from his waist down and
should have been wearing crutches instead of playing first base on a Big
League club. Doyle was badly spiked and in the hospital. McGraw's daily
greeting to his athletes when he came to the park was:
"How are the cripples? Any more to add to the list of identified dead
Merkle moped. He lost flesh, and time after time begged McGraw to send him
to a minor league or to turn him loose altogether.
"It wasn't your fault," was the regular response of the manager who makes
it a habit to stand by his men.
We played on with the cripples, many double-headers costing the pitchers
extra effort, and McGraw not daring to take a chance on losing a game if
there were any opportunity to win it. He could not rest any of his men.
Merkle lost weight and seldom spoke to the other players as the Cubs crept
up on us day after day and more men were hurt. He felt that he was
responsible for this change in the luck of the club. None of the players
felt this way toward him, and many tried to cheer him up, but he was
inconsolable. The team went over to Philadelphia, and Coveleski, the
pitcher we later drove out of the League, beat us three times, winning the
last game by the scantiest of margins. The result of that series left us
three to play with Boston to tie the Cubs if they won from Pittsburg the
next day, Sunday. If the Pirates had taken that Sunday game, it would
have given them the pennant. We returned to New York on Saturday night
very much downhearted.
"Lose me. I'm the jinx," Merkle begged McGraw that night.
"You stick," replied the manager.
While we had been losing, the Cubs had been coming fast. It seemed as if
they could not drop a game. At last Cincinnati beat them one, which was
the only thing that made the famous season tie possible. There is an
interesting anecdote connected with that Cincinnati contest which goes to
prove the honesty of baseball. Two of the closest friends in the game are
"Hans" Lobert, then with the Reds, and Overall, the former Chicago
pitcher. It looked as if Chicago had the important game won up to the
ninth inning when Lobert came to the bat with two men out and two on the
bases. Here he had a chance to overcome the lead of one run which the Cubs
had gained, and win the contest for the home club, but he would beat his
best friend and maybe put the Cubs out of the running for the pennant.
Lobert had two balls and two strikes when he smashed the next pitch to
center field, scoring both the base runners. The hit came near beating the
Cubs out of the championship. It would have if we had taken one of those
close games against Philadelphia. Lobert was broken-hearted over his hit,
for he wanted the Cubs to win. On his way to the clubhouse, he walked with
Overall, the two striding side by side like a couple of mourners.
"I'm sorry, 'Orvie,'" said Lobert. "I would not have made that hit for my
year's salary if I could have helped it."
"That's all right, 'Hans,'" returned Overall. "It's all part of the
Next came the famous game in Chicago on Sunday between the Cubs and the
Pittsburg Pirates, when a victory for the latter club would have meant the
pennant and the big game would never have been played. Ten thousand
persons crowded into the Polo Grounds that Sunday afternoon and watched a
little electric score board which showed the plays as made in Chicago. For
the first time in my life I heard a New York crowd cheering the Cubs with
great fervor, for on their victory hung our only chances of ultimate
success. The same man who was shouting himself hoarse for the Cubs that
afternoon was for taking a vote on the desirability of poisoning the whole
Chicago team on the following Thursday. Even the New York players were
rooting for the Cubs.
The Chicago team at last won the game when Clarke was called out at third
base on a close play, late in the contest. With the decision, the Pirates'
last chance went glimmering. The Giants now had three games to win from
Boston on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, to make the deciding game on
Thursday necessary. We won those, and the stage was cleared for the big
The National Commission gave the New York club the option of playing three
games out of five for the championship or risking it all on one contest.
As more than half of the club was tottering on the brink of the hospital,
it was decided that all hope should be hung on one game. By this time,
Merkle had lost twenty pounds, and his eyes were hollow and his cheeks
sunken. The newspapers showed him no mercy, and the fans never failed to
criticise and hiss him when he appeared on the field. He stuck to it and
showed up in the ball park every day, putting on his uniform and
practising. It was a game thing to do. A lot of men, under the same fire,
would have quit cold. McGraw was with him all the way.
But it was not until after considerable discussion that it was decided to
play that game. All the men felt disgruntled because they believed they
would be playing for something they had already won. Even McGraw was so
wrought up, he said in the clubhouse the night before the game:
"I don't care whether you fellows play this game or not. You can take a
A vote was taken, and the players were not unanimous, some protesting it
ought to be put up to the League directors so that, if they wanted to rob
the team of a pennant, they would have to take the blame. Others insisted
it would look like quitting, and it was finally decided to appoint a
committee to call upon Mr. Brush, the president of the club, who was ill
in bed in the Lambs club at the time. Devlin, Bresnahan, Donlin, Tenney,
and I were on that committee.
"Mr. Brush," I said to my employer, having been appointed the spokesman,
"McGraw has left it up to us to decide whether we shall meet the Chicago
team for the championship of the National League to-morrow. A lot of the
boys do not believe we ought to be forced to play over again for something
we have already won, so the players have appointed this committee of five
to consult with you and get your opinion on the subject. What we decide
goes with them."
Mr. Brush looked surprised. I was nervous, more so than when I am in the
box with three on the bases and "Joe" Tinker at the bat. Bresnahan fumbled
with his hat, and Devlin coughed. Tenney leaned more heavily on his cane,
and Donlin blew his nose. We five big athletes were embarrassed in the
presence of this sick man. Suddenly it struck us all at the same time that
the game would have to be played to keep ourselves square with our own
ideas of courage. Even if the Cubs had claimed it on a technicality, even
if we had really won the pennant once, that game had to be played now. We
all saw that, and it was this thin, ill man in bed who made us see it even
before he had said a word. It was the expression on his face. It seemed to
say, "And I had confidence in you, boys, to do the right thing."
"I'm going to leave it to you," he answered "You boys can play the game
or put it up to the directors of the League to decide as you want. But I
shouldn't think you would stop now after making all this fight."
The committee called an executive session, and we all thought of the crowd
of fans looking forward to the game and of what the newspapers would say
if we refused to play it and of Mr. Brush lying there, the man who wanted
us to play, and it was rapidly and unanimously decided to imitate "Steve"
Brodie and take a chance.
"We'll play," I said to Mr. Brush.
"I'm glad," he answered. "And, say, boys," he added, as we started to file
out, "I want to tell you something. Win or lose, I'm going to give the
players a bonus of $10,000."
That night was a wild one in New York. The air crackled with excitement
and baseball. I went home, but couldn't sleep for I live near the Polo
Grounds, and the crowd began to gather there early in the evening of the
day before the game to be ready for the opening of the gates the next
morning. They tooted horns all night, and were never still. When I
reported at the ball park, the gates had been closed by order of the
National Commission, but the streets for blocks around the Polo Grounds
were jammed with persons fighting to get to the entrances.
The players in the clubhouse had little to say to one another, but, after
the bandages were adjusted, McGraw called his men around him and said:
"Chance will probably pitch Pfiester or Brown. If Pfiester works there is
no use trying to steal. He won't give you any lead. The right-handed
batters ought to wait him out and the left-handers hit him when he gets in
a hole. Matty is going to pitch for us."
Pfiester is a left-hand pitcher who watches the bases closely.
Merkle had reported at the clubhouse as usual and had put on his uniform.
He hung on the edge of the group as McGraw spoke, and then we all went to
the field. It was hard for us to play that game with the crowd which was
there, but harder for the Cubs. In one place, the fence was broken down,
and some employees were playing a stream of water from a fire hose on the
cavity to keep the crowd back. Many preferred a ducking to missing the
game and ran through the stream to the lines around the field. A string
of fans recklessly straddled the roof of the old grand-stand.
Every once in a while some group would break through the restraining ropes
and scurry across the diamond to what appeared to be a better point of
vantage. This would let a throng loose which hurried one way and another
and mixed in with the players. More police had to be summoned. As I
watched that half-wild multitude before the contest, I could think of
three or four things I would rather do than umpire the game.
I had rested my arm four days, not having pitched in the Boston series,
and I felt that it should be in pretty good condition. Before that
respite, I had been in nine out of fifteen games. But as I started to warm
up, the ball refused to break. I couldn't get anything on it.
"What's the matter, Rog?" I asked Bresnahan. "They won't break for me."
"It'll come as you start to work," he replied, although I could see that
he, too, was worried.
John M. Ward, the old ball-player and now one of the owners of the Boston
National League club, has told me since that, after working almost every
day as I had been doing, it does a pitcher's arm no good to lay off for
three or four days. Only a week or ten days will accomplish any results.
It would have been better for me to continue to work as often as I had
been doing, for the short rest only seemed to deaden my arm.
The crowd that day was inflammable. The players caught this incendiary
spirit. McGinnity, batting out to our infield in practice, insisted on
driving Chance away from the plate before the Cubs' leader thought his
team had had its full share of the batting rehearsal. "Joe" shoved him a
little, and in a minute fists were flying, although Chance and McGinnity
are very good friends off the field.
Fights immediately started all around in the stands. I remember seeing two
men roll from the top to the bottom of the right-field bleachers, over the
heads of the rest of the spectators. And they were yanked to their feet
and run out of the park by the police.
"Too bad," I said to Bresnahan, nodding my head toward the departing
belligerents, "they couldn't have waited until they saw the game, anyway.
I'll bet they stood outside the park all night to get in, only to be run
out before it started."
I forgot the crowd, forgot the fights, and didn't hear the howling after
the game started. I knew only one thing, and that was my curved ball
wouldn't break for me. It surprised me that the Cubs didn't hit it far,
right away, but two of them fanned in the first inning and Herzog threw
out Evers. Then came our first time at bat. Pfiester was plainly nervous
and hit Tenney. Herzog walked and Bresnahan fanned out, Herzog being
doubled up at second because he tried to advance on a short passed ball.
"Mike" Donlin whisked a double to right field and Tenney counted.
For the first time in almost a month, Merkle smiled. He was drawn up in
the corner of the bench, pulling away from the rest of us as if he had
some contagious disease and was quarantined. For a minute it looked as if
we had them going. Chance yanked Pfiester out of the box with him
protesting that he had been robbed on the decisions on balls and strikes.
Brown was brought into the game and fanned Devlin. That ended the inning.
We never had a chance against Brown. His curve was breaking sharply, and
his control was microscopic. We went back to the field in the second with
that one run lead. Chance made the first hit of the game off me in the
second, but I caught him sleeping at first base, according to Klem's
decision. There was a kick, and Hofman, joining in the chorus of protests,
was sent to the clubhouse.
Tinker started the third with that memorable triple which gave the Cubs
their chance. I couldn't make my curve break. I didn't have anything on
"Rog," I said to Bresnahan, "I haven't got anything to-day."
"Keep at it, Matty," he replied. "We'll get them all right."
I looked in at the bench, and McGraw signalled me to go on pitching. Kling
singled and scored Tinker. Brown sacrificed, sending Kling to second, and
Sheckard flied out to Seymour, Kling being held on second base. I lost
Evers, because I was afraid to put the ball over the plate for him, and he
walked. Two were out now, and we had yet a chance to win the game as the
score was only tied. But Schulte doubled, and Kling scored, leaving men
on second and third bases. Still we had a Mongolian's chance with them
only one run ahead of us. Frank Chance, with his under jaw set like the
fender on a trolley car, caught a curved ball over the inside corner of
the plate and pushed it to right field for two bases. That was the most
remarkable batting performance I have ever witnessed since I have been in
the Big Leagues. A right-handed hitter naturally slaps a ball over the
outside edge of the plate to right field, but Chance pushed this one, on
the inside, with the handle of his bat, just over Tenney's hands and on
into the crowd. The hit scored Evers and Schulte and dissolved the game
right there. It was the "break." Steinfeldt fanned.
None of the players spoke to one another as they went to the bench. Even
McGraw was silent. We knew it was gone. Merkle was drawn up behind the
water cooler. Once he said:
"It was my fault, boys."
No one answered him. Inning after inning, our batters were mowed down by
the great pitching of Brown, who was never better. His control of his
curved ball was marvellous, and he had all his speed. As the innings
dragged by, the spectators lost heart, and the cowbells ceased to jingle,
and the cheering lost its resonant ring. It was now a surly growl.
Then the seventh! We had our one glimmer of sunshine. Devlin started with
a single to centre, and McCormick shoved a drive to right field. Recalling
that Bridwell was more or less of a pinch hitter, Brown passed him
purposely and Doyle was sent to the bat in my place. As he hobbled to the
plate on his weak foot, said McGraw:
"Hit one, Larry."
The crowd broke into cheers again and was stamping its feet. The bases
were full, and no one was out. Then Doyle popped up a weak foul behind the
catcher. His batting eye was dim and rusty through long disuse. Kling went
back for it, and some one threw a pop bottle which narrowly missed him,
and another scaled a cushion. But Kling kept on and got what he went
after, which was the ball. He has a habit of doing that. Tenney flied to
Schulte, counting Devlin on the catch, and Tinker threw out Herzog. The
game was gone. Never again did we have a chance.
It was a glum lot of players in the clubhouse. Merkle came up to McGraw
"Mac, I've lost you one pennant. Fire me before I can do any more harm."
"Fire you?" replied McGraw. "We ran the wrong way of the track to-day.
That's all. Next year is another season, and do you think I'm going to let
you go after the gameness you've shown through all this abuse? Why you're
the kind of a guy I've been lookin' for many years. I could use a carload
like you. Forget this season and come around next spring. The newspapers
will have forgotten it all then. Good-by, boys." And he slipped out of the
"He's a regular guy," said Merkle.
Merkle has lived down that failure to touch second and proved himself to
be one of the gamest players that ever stood in a diamond. Many times
since has he vindicated himself. He is a great first baseman now, and
McGraw and he are close friends. That is the "inside" story of the most
important game ever played in baseball and Merkle's connection with it.
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