Sunday, January 17, 2010
Sure, I could have used the commonly used term for Fred Merkle's base-running mistake and I would have gotten a lot of hits on this post, but I decided to take the high road. Merkle entered the Major Leagues in 1907 and played for 16 seasons. He is remembered, however for one day in September 1908 when he made a base-running error that cost the New York Giants the game and ultimately the National League Pennant.
The moment Merkle will never forget began during a game in the midst of a tight pennant race. His Giants were tied with the Chicago Cubs in the bottom of the ninth. Merkle was on first with a runner on third. The next batter got a single which allowed the runner to head home. The crowd went crazy, assuming the Giants had won the game. Merkle, excited by the win and overwhelmed by the crowd rushing the field, started to head from first base straight to the clubhouse without touching second base. This was the custom of the time. Cub's second baseman Johnny Evers, however, was a student of baseball rules and knew that if he could find the ball and touch second base, Merkle would be out on a force play and the run would not count.
Varying accounts exist about what exactly happened next. Merkle claims he went back and stood on the base while Evers struggled to find the ball. Ultimately the umpire called Merkle out and decided the game could not continue because the field was now crawling with rowdy fans. The game would be replayed at the end of the season if needed. The game was needed and Merkle's Giants lost to the Cubs who went on to win the World Series.
Merkle never lived down this gaffe but I think Evers should have been the one to receive the attention. As pointed out in the October 18, 1908 edition of the Pittsburgh Press, what can be learned from this story is "the necessity of keeping careful track of the little details, and never passing over the seemingly insignificant things." Evers knew that that players were often not tagging the bases in these situations so he was ready to take advantage. He knew the rules and was paying attention. Merkle and the rest of the Giants learned it the hard way. In fact, the rest of baseball learned from Merkle's... gaffe.
I am someone who loves digging into the details and reading rules and policies (just ask anyone who's ever played a board game with me!). If I had been in the stands during Merkle's ill-fated game I'd have been yelling at him to go touch the base because I would have known he was putting the run at risk!