In the late afternoon of September 23, 1908, Fred Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie with the New York Giants, playing in his first full game in the big leagues, stepped into the batter’s box at the Polo Grounds. The Giants were locked in a torrid pennant race with the Chicago Cubs, who had swept a double-header against them the previous day, cutting the Giants’ lead to one game.
The score was tied 1-1 in the final inning. With a man on first Merkle sliced a hard liner down the right field line, sending the runner to third. Merkle held at first base. The stage was now set for the play that would propel Merkle into everlasting infamy. Al Bridwell entered the batter’s box. Years later Bridwell remembered what happened next: “The first pitch came in to me, a fast ball, waist high, right over the center of the plate. I promptly drilled a line drive into center field. The runner at third 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 ran onto the field, thinking the Giants had won. Which is why Merkle and the rest of the Giants raced to the clubhouse; they always did after a game—to avoid the fans. But Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, or acquired another ball, and stepped on second base while appealing to the umpire for a force-out of Merkle, which would nullify the apparent winning run. After a long delay the umpire called Merkle out and the game a tie. The next day officials stated that if the two teams ended the season tied in the standings, a replay of the game would be necessary. As fate would have it, they ended the season tied.
The replay game was set for October 8, 1908, precisely 116 years ago to the day when the Giants and Cubs take the field on Friday. The Cubs won the replay game, 4-2. The Giants lost the pennant. Fred Merkle was forever haunted. He was booed mercilessly; the press crucified him. Even in retirement he found no peace. People would recognize him and yell, “There’s Bonehead!” The name stuck. A new word even found its way into the American lexicon: To “merkle” was to not arrive, or to make a grievous error. Merkle put in 16 years of first rate baseball but could never escape his mistake. He died on March 1, 1956. He was 67.
But his ghost lives on inWrigley Field. The Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series. But it would be their last. The Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino. Will the Cubs break the Curse of Fred Merkle?