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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

Merkle Haunts Moises,
or Why the Cubs Will Never Win it All

By Chris Christensen

Waiting for the Cubs to win the pennant is like leaving a porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa. —Bob Costas

I am not a religious man, but when it comes to the mysteries of baseball, I confess to an irrational belief in the deities of the diamond. Nowhere is this belief more powerful than in the relationship between the Chicago Cubs and Fred Merkle.

A rookie with the New York Giants in 1908, Merkle made a baserunning mistake in late September that led to the Cubs snatching the pennant from the Giants. The Cubs went on to beat the Tigers in the World Series. It was to be their last championship, a drought of one hundred years, the longest in American sports. Put another way, the Cubs haven't won it all since the horse-and-buggy was the primary means of transportation.

Dennis Purdy, in his wonderful book, The Team-By-Team Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, says the Cubs "have made a cult out of failure." True enough. The team has been mostly miserable since the end of World War II, yet it continues to draw fans into the "cozy confines." But before that, from its birth in 1876 through 1945, the team captured twelve National League pennants and won two World Series. Even during the postwar drought, the Cubs have put good teams on the field. They came close enough to smell the flag in 1969, to taste it in 1984, and to practically ingest it in 2003, only to suffer gut-wrenching losses at the hands of the gods and the ghost of Fred Merkle.

Cursed is another way to put it, and Cub fans know about the Curse of the Billy Goat, when a tavern owner and his goat were denied entry to Wrigley Field for Game 4 of the 1945 Series. As he left with his goat, the tavern keeper shouted that never again would a World Series be played in Wrigley Field. This may explain the Cubs' woes since 1945, but it cannot explain what happened after 1908. For that we turn to Fred Merkle.

"Bonehead"
Merkle was born on December 20, 1888, in Watertown, Wisconsin, and grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where he made a name for himself in amateur leagues. After signing a professional contract, Merkle was playing in the Southern Michigan League in 1907 when the speedy six-foot-one, 190-pound first baseman caught the eye of a Giant scout who recommended him to John McGraw, the New York manager.

The Giants signed the eighteen-year-old, but kept him on the bench in reserve. The Giants and the Cubs fought to the wire in 1908. On September 22, the Cubs swept a doubleheader from the Giants, pulling within one game of their rivals. In the words of Charles Alexander, McGraw's biographer, "The meeting between the two teams the next day, September 23, would become the single most famous baseball game ever played—and the most controversial." That date would haunt the Cubs into the next century.

On the morning of the September 23, first baseman Fred Tenney told McGraw that his back was too sore to play. The manager penciled Fred Merkle into the starting lineup. The nineteen-year-old rookie would play his first full game in the big leagues.

The game was a microcosm of the season. The two teams went into the final inning tied, 1–1. With two out and Moose McCormick on first, Merkle sliced a hard line drive down the right field line, sending McCormick to third. Merkle, taking no chances, held at first. The stage was now set for the play that would propel Merkle into everlasting infamy. Al Bridwell stepped into the batter's box. Years later, Bridwell remembered: "The first pitch came in to me, a fastball, waist high, right over the center of the plate, and I promptly drilled a line drive . . . into center field. McCormick raced home . . . but Merkle didn't go all the way to second base. Instead, he went halfway down and cut off and started running for the clubhouse."

Mass confusion followed. Thousands of fans raced onto the field, thinking the Giants had won and gained some breathing space over the Cubs. But second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, or obtained another ball, and stepped on second. He then appealed to umpire Hank O'Day for a force-out of Merkle, which would nullify McCormick's run. After a long delay to clear the field, O'Day declared Merkle out and the game a tie. Evers, part of the famous double-play combination, "Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance," was a rulebook maven. Joe Tinker was his shortstop, Frank Chance his manager and first baseman.

John McGraw was incensed. The Giants manager appealed the ruling to National League president Harry Pulliam. The fiery McGraw had been fined and suspended several times by Pulliam for umpire abuse, so the chances that Pulliam would reverse O'Day were slim. Indeed, the next day Pulliam upheld his umpire's ruling, then passed it on to the National League board of directors for a final decision. After a few days, the baseball brass announced that O'Day's ruling would stand. They then stated that if the two teams ended the season tied in the standings, a replay of the Merkle game would be necessary.

That is precisely what happened. On October 8, the game was replayed at the Polo Grounds, where the Cubs beat the Giants, 4–2. McGraw and the Giants, crushed by the loss, forever believed they were robbed. The Cubs and their followers were ecstatic. Back in Chicago, fans celebrated the win over their hated rivals. At a gathering of Cubs wives and officials, the wife of Joe Tinker, waving a Cub banner, repeatedly shouted, "Four to two, four to two, four to two." The Cubs went on to beat the Tigers in the 1908 World Series—their last championship season.

Merkle was forever tormented by the play. After the season, he retreated to Toledo, where he spent the winter in a deep depression. Unable to eat or sleep, he lost fifteen pounds and began to take on the haggard look that would peer out from photographs later in his career. Fans would never let him forget it, yelling, "Touch second, bonehead!" whenever Merkle got on base. Even after sixteen years of solid baseball, he was hounded by fans and a vicious press all the way to his grave.

The Gods Wreak Havoc
Merkle would now haunt the Cubs—or more accurately, the baseball gods would now begin their work to redress the injustice against Merkle. Their divine work would range from quirky intervention in the outcome of Cub games to bloody meddling in the lives of those involved in the Merkle affair—beginning with the National League president, Harry Pulliam.

Pulliam's friends and doctors said the Merkle affair weighed heavily on him. Shortly after his role in the Merkle game, his mental health suffered. In January, 1909, he suddenly left his residence in the New York Athletic Club and ended up in Kansas City where he proposed to a young woman half his age. Friends brought him back to New York, and he entered a sanitarium. Soon he regained a semblance of normalcy and returned to his job. However, on the evening of July 28, 1909—just ten months after the Merkle game—Pulliam retired to his residence after dinner, sat on the edge of his bed, and shot himself in the head. He died hours later.

The gods then set their sights on Tinker, Evers, and Chance. In 1910, Johnny Evers killed his best friend in an auto accident. Shortly after that, he suffered a nervous breakdown and missed much of the 1911 season. Then his daughter died. In 1929, he lost his life savings in the stock market crash. He later caught pneumonia. Evers spent the end of his life in a wheel chair and died of a stroke in 1947.

Frank Chance, the "Peerless Leader," suffered from severe headaches and impaired hearing that eventually led to brain surgery and an early death. Chance died in 1924. He was forty-seven.

Joe Tinker went broke after he retired. He later developed diabetes that caused one leg to be amputated. He died in 1948. Long before that, in 1923, Tinker's wife—who had wildly celebrated the Cubs stealing the pennant from the Giants—committed suicide on Christmas day. She was forty-one.

World Series: Oh for Seven
When not visiting calamity on people, the gods amuse themselves by toying with fate. They derive their greatest pleasure from teasing the Cubs, allowing them to occasionally glance at, approach, and even finger the ultimate prize—but always denying them the thrill of holding it aloft.

After their 1908 win, the Cubs returned to the World Series in 1910. But without Johnny Evers—incapacitated with a broken ankle from his divinely arranged auto accident—they fell to the Athletics, four games to one.

Eight years later, in 1918, they were back. But it was not the ghost of Fred Merkle, but Merkle incarnate, whose ironic presence as a member of the team—he had been traded to the Cubs in 1917—was enough for the Cubs to lose to the Red Sox, four games to two.

After four years with the Cubs, Merkle spent his final year as a full-time player with Triple A Rochester, leading the International League in RBI with 166. In his last two years in Organized Ball, he pinch hit and coached for the Yankees. He was still hounded by the press. Once, when the team was traveling north after spring training, a local Tennessee paper wondered how Bonehead Merkle "could possibly be of service to Miller Huggins in directing traffic."

The gods took great relish in the 1929 World Series between the Cubs and the Athletics. The first contest was pivotal. During the closing games of the regular season, Connie Mack, the A's skipper, ordered seldom-used pitcher Howard Ehmke to sit in the stands unnoticed at Cub games and study their hitters. Then, in a surprise move, Mack announced that, Ehmke, with only eight regular season starts, would be his pitcher for Game 1. In front of a crowd of fifty thousand Cub fans, Ehmke achieved a then-World Series record of thirteen strikeouts and beat Chicago, 3–1. But providence held an even greater surprise for the Cubs. In Game 4, Chicago held an 8–2 lead in the seventh inning, only to see the lead evaporate as the A's staged the greatest comeback in Series history and pushed eight runs across the plate to win, 10–8. Already down three to one in games, the Cubs blew a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth of Game 5 to lose the Series.

It was also in 1929 that Merkle, a bitter man now approaching forty-one, tried to make a comeback. Retired in Florida, he agreed to manage a semipro team, but when an opposing player called him "Bonehead," Merkle walked off the field, vowing never to return.

Late in the season of 1932, the Cubs acquired ex-Yankee Mark Koenig, whose .353 batting average helped them win the pennant. Despite his contribution, the Cubs awarded Koenig only a half-share of the World Series payoff. Their opponents in the Series, the Yankees, were angry over the snub of their former teammate. They swept the Cubs four games straight, with Babe Ruth's "called shot" home run in Game 3 the highlight of the Series.

In 1935, the Cubs and Tigers were tied in the ninth inning of Game 6 (the Tigers led in games, three to two). The Cubs Stan Hack perched on third base with no outs. Tommy Bridges, the Tiger hurler, got three straight outs, leaving Hack stranded. Goose Goslin then drove in the Series-winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

During this period Merkle had started a fishing-lure business that failed when the Great Depression struck. He was soon reduced to working on WPA projects. In 1936, after avoiding baseball for seven years, he once again made an attempt to get back to the game he loved. He was umpiring an exhibition game in Daytona Beach when some players remembered that he was the original "Bonehead Merkle" and heckled him. Merkle walked off the diamond, retreating deeper within himself.

In the 1938 Series, the Cubs were again crushed by the Yankees, this time in a four-game sweep. Seven years later they appeared in their last World Series, a classic match-up against the Tigers that saw the Cubs blow Game 7, 9–3, after achieving a thrilling twelve-inning victory in Game 6.

Postseason Blues
More than sixty years have passed since a World Series appearance, but thanks to expansion and divisional play, the Cubs have made it back to the postseason. It took a generation, however, before they even came close. In 1969, they were poised for a playoff slot but blew a huge lead to the Mets late in the season after the gods jinxed them by letting loose a black cat on the field in September.

Mediocrity settled in for fifteen years. Then, in 1984, the Cubs were back. Squaring off against the San Diego Padres in the National League Championship Series (a five-game affair), they blasted the Padres in Game 1, 13–0; and cruised to a 4–2 win in Game 2. After a Cubs' loss in Game 3, the die was cast. In the bottom of the ninth of Game 4, with the score tied 5–5, the Padres Steve Garvey blasted a game-winning two-run homer, sending the series to the final contest. In the seventh inning of that game, the Cubs held a one-run lead when a groundball bounced straight to Leon Durham. As the big first baseman bent over to field the ball, the hand of providence reached down and gently nudged it away from Durham's glove and through his legs. A run scored, then three more came in, and the Cubs were done. The Padres became the first team ever to come back from a two-nothing deficit in a five-game playoff series.

The Cubs managed a return to the NLCS in 1989, but were quickly dispatched by the Giants, four games to one.

Last year, the ninety-ninth anniversary of the Merkle boner, the Cubs crawled back into the playoffs, only to lose when manager Lou Piniella removed Carlos Zambrano, who was pitching brilliantly late in the first game and had thrown only 85 pitches. Although clinging to a slim lead, the Cubs skipper, tempting fate, took Zambrano out in order to "save him for" Game 4, a game in the future that the baseball gods, offended by Piniella's audacity, deemed never to exist. The Cubs promptly lost the series, three games to none.

Despite decades of abject despair suffered by players and fans alike, nothing—not death, disease, insanity, suicide, Billy goats, or black cats—could prepare them for what happened to the Cubs in 2003.

The Ghost of Fred Merkle Visits Moises Alou
In the long history of the national pastime, certain players have made such powerful impacts on specific games that those contests take on a player's identity. The final game of the 1912 World Series, won by the Red Sox after outfielder Fred Snodgrass of the Giants dropped a flyball, is remembered for the "Snodgrass muff." Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning home run in the 1951 NL playoffs remains baseball's "Shot Heard 'Round the World." Carlton Fisk's dramatic twelfth-inning home run in Game 6 of the 1975 Series has forever linked him with that historic moment. And, of course, Game 6 of the 1986 Series will always be remembered for the grounder that rolled between Bill Buckner's legs.

In 2003, a non-player—a fan—so indelibly stamped himself on the outcome of a game that it is now known as the Bartman Game. The Cubs were playing the Florida Marlins in Game 6 of the NLCS. Chicago led the series, three games to two. As he took the mound in the eighth inning, Cub pitcher Mark Prior was working on a masterful 3–0 shutout. Six more outs and the Cubs would go back to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Mike Mordecai led off for the Marlins and lofted a lazy fly to left, the ball settling into the glove of outfielder Moises Alou. One down, five more outs to go. Juan Pierre then lashed a groundball double to left field, Alou racing over and quickly returning the ball to the infield.

Up next was Luis Castillo. Prior fired a strike right down the middle, then a ball just outside, then another strike on the outside corner to make the count one and two. A curve missed inside, and a high pitch ran the count full. Castillo then fouled two pitches off to the left.

On the eighth pitch, Castillo hit a foul pop-up down the left field line. As the ball descended toward the sidewall at the edge of the seats, Alou hustled over and prepared to leap for it. As the left fielder jumped and reached his glove into the stands, Steve Bartman and several other fans rose from their seats and also tried to catch the ball. Bartman's glove deflected it away from Alou, who became furious. He bent over violently and slapped his glove on his knee in frustration, jerked his head and spewed epithets. He turned away from the stands, then turned back and yelled again before going back to his position. The ball had landed within the stands, so there was no interference call.

There is little doubt that Alou would have caught the ball had Bartman given way. Still, nothing had changed—at least on the surface. The Cubs still had one out in the eighth with a three-run lead. Below the surface was another matter, for there something had changed. There's a world of difference between one out and two, especially with a man on base. Had Alou made the catch for the second out, the rhythm of the game might have remained intact, a relaxed Prior perhaps finishing off the inning. Instead, on his next delivery, Prior unleashed a wild pitch that skipped to the backstop, allowing Pierre to advance to third and sending Castillo to first with a walk.

Ivan Rodriguez then singled to left, scoring Pierre. With the Cubs now leading 3–1, the Marlins Miguel Cabrera hit a grounder to short, a sure double-play ball that would end the inning and send the Cubs into the ninth, three outs away from victory. But just like Leon Durham in 1984, Alex Gonzales—his glove nudged by the gods—let the ball get through. The floodgates opened. Derrek Lee doubled to tie the game and chase Prior from the mound. His replacement, Kyle Farnsworth, gave up a sacrifice fly and a bases-clearing double. During the massacre, Bartman was escorted from Wrigley Field by security guards. Before the carnage came to a halt, eight runs crossed the plate and the Cubs were beaten. Their spirits crushed, they lost the seventh game and the series.

In the aftermath, Bartman was vilified. Hate mail and death threats drove him from the Windy City. Eventually, the tide turned and he was able to come back. Writers and sympathetic fans repeatedly pointed out that Bartman was just doing what fans have done for generations—trying to catch a foul ball; his eyes were on the prize. For that brief moment, Moises Alou didn't exist for Bartman. Besides, wasn't the real goat Alex Gonzales, who booted the double-play grounder? Or Kyle Farnsworth, the pitcher who gave up the go-ahead runs?

The questions have no answer because there is no goat. The Cubs lost the chance for the World Series in 2003 because Fred Merkle and the New York Giants were robbed of the chance in 1908. It was not Steve Bartman, not Alex Gonzales, and not Kyle Farnsworth who lost the pennant. They were mere pawns in the hands of the baseball gods, bit players in a larger story involving the ghost of Fred Merkle.

Alou knew. When Bartman deflected that ball away, Alou's reaction seemed out of proportion to the situation. The game was still safely in hand; the three-run lead with just five outs to go still held. Yet Alou went ballistic. He was not aware on a conscious level, but his reaction stemmed from a knowledge deep within the unconscious, a place where demons and ghosts lurk. Alou was upset because he sensed impending doom, felt and heard something almost palpable. It was the ghost of Fred Merkle gently touching his shoulder and whispering, Cubs lose. Cubs lose.

The 2008 season marks the hundredth anniversary of Merkle's mistake and the Cubs' last World Series championship. North side fans want to believe that the gods will finally relent and that this year will be the one where their beloved Cubbies at last see a return to glory, just like the Red Sox experienced in 2004 after an eighty-six year championship drought.

But there is no timetable for the removal of a curse. Perhaps it requires something dramatic, something inextricably linked to the past. In 2000, the Red Sox were prepared to tear down Fenway, but fans rose to its defense and eventually the team was sold and the new owners saw the light, taking steps to renovate and preserve the historic ballpark. Maybe that's why the gods relented in Beantown.

If so, the solution may be a simple one: take down those damn lights and return Wrigley to day games, just the way it was back in 1908. Maybe then Fred Merkle's ghost will finally rest in peace.

—EFQ

Postcript: Fred Merkle gained a measure of redemption in his final years. After some resistance, he attended an old-timer's reunion at the Polo Grounds in 1950. When his name was announced, a crowd of thirty-five thousand gave him a prolonged standing ovation. "It makes a man feel good," he said, "to hear such cheers after all those years. I don't think I'll ever forget. I expected so much worse."

CHRIS CHRISTENSEN is a frequent contributor to Elysian Fields Quarterly. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his partner, Bobbie Savitz.

© 2008 Chris Christensen

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