“A dispute historic in baseball, which enriched the language with two exceedingly forceful words, ‘bonehead’ and ‘boner,’ arose over whether Frederick Charles Merkle did or did not touch second base.” Mark Sullivan, “Our Times”
As a baseball historian, I knew about the bizarre conclusion to the 1908 National League season, when a make-up game between the Cubs and the Giants was necessary to decide the pennant due to 19-year-old Fred Merkle’s “bonehead” baserunning mistake. With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth at New York’s Polo Grounds, Giant shortstop Al Bridwell hit an apparent game-winning single, sending Moose McCormick home from third. On first, Merkle saw fans swarming onto the field and ran into the dugout without first touching second base, a common practice in those days. Cubs second baseball Johnny Evers, however, noticed the gaffe and brought it to the attention of the umpires. In fact, in a recent game against the Pirates the exact thing had occurred only there had only been one umpire, Henry O’Day, who missed what happened so the rule wasn’t enforced. Largely because of the fuss Evers put up at that time, two umpires were assigned to the Cubs-Giants game, including the one who’d failed to see what happened against Pittsburgh. According to David Hinckley, details of exactly what happened are hazy, “lost in the mists of time – mists that closed in rapidly”:
In most accounts, Giants pitcher "Iron Man" dashed from the first base coach's box to intercept the ball Art Hofman threw back to the infield and fling it deep into the stands. That was that, McGinnity figured, except Evers was still yelling. If that ball was gone, he wanted another one. Eventually he found one. Some say it was the real one, ripped away from a fan in the stands by little-used relief pitcher . Others say it was another ball, relayed to Evers by shortstop Joe Tinker and maybe even third baseman , in a bizarre alternate version of the Cubs' famous Tinker-to-Evers-to Chance double play combination.
Whatever the ball's origin, Evers secured it, touched second base and asked the umpires – R.D. Emslie at second base and behind the plate – to call Merkle out on a force play, which would nullify McCormick's winning run. Emslie, who fell to the ground avoiding Bridwell's single, said he didn't see whether Merkle touched second and therefore couldn't make a call. O'Day said he did see and no, Merkle did not touch second. Therefore, yes, he was out.Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem, known as the “Old Arbitrator,” who officiated games for 36 years beginning in 1905, decried the decision as “the rottenest” he’d ever come across.
Prior to the playoff game a week later, “Iron Man” McGinnity, who wasn’t scheduled to pitch that afternoon, attempted to pick a fight with Frank Chance, hoping that both would be ejected; but the ruse didn’t work. The Cubs went on to defeat Giants ace Christy Mathewson, 4-2, setting off a riotous aftermath, as described by David Rapp:
The bad feelings ran so high, acknowledge a New York paper, that “the Chicago men were bombarded as they left the field, kicked, and reviled.” Hundreds of rabid fans took to the field, growling and out for blood. Tinker, Sheckard, and others took hard knocks to the head, while someone slashed Pfiester on the shoulder with a knife. Another hooligan chased down Chance from behind and delivered a wicked chop across his neck. The blow broke some cartilage and temporarily snuffed out his voice.
When the team made it to relative safety in their dressing room, the doors barricaded, armed guards had to stand outside to hold the mob back. The Cubs eventually were secreted back to their hotel in a patrol wagon with two cops inside and four more riding the running boards. They hustled out of town that night for Detroit, site of the upcoming World Series, by slipping out the back door and running down an alley, escorted by a swarm of policemen.
The Cubs went on to defeat the Detroit Tigers 4 games to 1, their last championship for 108 years. Chance outplayed future Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, garnering 8 hits to his 7 and swiping 5 bases to his 2.
Baseball historian Trey Strecker wrote about another unfortunate incident involving Merkle in the deciding game of the 1912 World Series against the Boston Red Sox:
Fred was poised to be the hero when his single in the top of the 10th inning scored Red Murray from second to give the Giants the lead. The bottom half began with Fred Snodgrass' infamous muff in center field, allowing pinch-hitter Clyde Engle to reach second base. After Harry Hooper flied out and Steve Yerkes walked, Tris Speaker hit a high foul near the first-base coach's box. Though most observers agreed that it was his ball, Merkle backed away when Christy Mathewson called for the catcher, Meyers, to make the catch. The ball fell to the ground, giving Speaker another chance, and this time he slashed a long single to right that started the Sox's winning rally. In New York, the headlines the next day read “Bonehead Merkle Does It Again.”
Sports writers employed “bonehead” during the NBA playoffs when Cleveland Cavalier J.R. Smith grabbed an offensive rebound in a tie game with seconds remaining and dribbled away from the basket rather than attempt a shot. Even more egregious was Michigan All-American Chris Webber calling time-out with 11 seconds remaining in the NCAA championship against Duke when his team had none left, resulting in a technical foul and loss of possession.
I was called to a table at a game I was directing. North said someone had scored on their line. East then chimed in that they had already played this board. I tried to clarify whether East-West had played this board at another table. North then realized that the handwriting on the traveler line was her own. They had played the same board twice at thistable with a different contract and a different result. That was a first for me.
In duplicate Dottie Hart and I finished with a 57.29 percent, good enough for third place and half a master point. My only bonehead move came after Dottie opened one No-Trump and the person on my right bid 2 Diamonds. I held 5 Hearts but just 7 points and using a transfer system would have said 2 Diamonds had my opponent not beat me to it. I bid 2 Hearts and Dottie, believing that indicated a five-card Spade suit, responded 2 Spades. When I bid 3 Hearts, she raised to 4 Hearts and I got set 2. What I should have done initially was double 2 Diamonds. Then when Dottie bid 2 Hearts, I could have passed. On another hand, I got high board holding 6 Hearts, including the Ace, King, Queen, 5 Spades to the Queen and 2 singletons. I bid Hearts 3 times while Dottie kept passing and the opponents bid Clubs and Diamonds. Dottie had only one Heart, but a lucky 3-3 split enabled me to make the contract. Last week in a similar situation, a 5-1 split proved disastrous and resulted in a low board.
above, Christy Mathewson; below, Fred Merkle
Baseball goat Fred Merkle was an avid bridge player, often partnering in the New York clubhouse with Christy Mathewson, born in Factoryville, Pennsylvania, a graduate of Bucknell (my alma mater), and winner of 373 games during a stellar career. Mathewson enlisted in the army during World War I and was accidentally gassed, resulting in tuberculosis and an early death in 1925 at age 45. He was buried in Lewisburg Cemetery near Bucknell’s campus, known in the early 1960s as a “make-out heaven.”