1908! The year remains a vivid memory. Thrilling pennant races in both leagues, great seasons, Merkle’s Boner. Truly, 1908 was sublime. It’s hard to avoid exclamation marks when writing of it.
Historic in so many, ways, the National League in 1908 was the lowest scoring year of any in modern baseball history, with teams scoring only 3.33 runs per game. Perhaps not coincidentally, Honus Wagner had the greatest Win Share season of any player after 1900, racking up 59 Win Shares! (see what I mean about the exclamation marks?) As for the pennant race itself, the Giants, led by the great Christy Mathewson (37-11, 1.43, 39 Win Shares) ran off an 11-game winning streak in early September and had a 4.5 game lead on September 18th. However, they lost the next four games and were virtually tied with the Cubs (and the Pirates close behind) on September 23rd.
The Cubs and Giants played a beaut of a game on the 23rd, and the score was tied in the ninth inning. With two out, Moose McCormick was on third and Fred Merkle was on first. Al Bridwell was at bat. Hank O’Day was umpiring and Johnny Evers was playing second for the Cubs.
Evers and O’Day had been in this position before. 14 days earlier, the Pirates had the bases loaded against the Cubs in the bottom of the tenth, with O’Day umpiring. Owen Wilson singled, plating the winning run, but the runner on first (Warren Gill) didn’t touch second. Evers called for the ball from the outfield and tagged second, which should have counted as the third out (negating the run) but O’Day had already left the field. The Cubs protested, but the league maintained that since O’Day hadn’t seen Evers touch second, the result stood.
So when Bridwell singled up the middle on the 23rd and Merkle didn’t touch second base, O’Day was paying attention. So was Evers. However, the Chicago fans poured onto the field and the Giants’ first base coach that day (Iron Man McGinnity) reportedly got the ball first and threw it far into the crowd. Somehow, the Cubs came up with the ball and tagged second. O’Day ruled Merkle out but the game couldn’t be finished due to the crowd. It was declared a tie, to be replayed in case the season ended in a tie.
Being 1908, that is exactly what happened. The Pirates finished their season with a record of 98-56, but the Cubs and Giants were each 98-55. Whoever won the replayed game would be the champion of the league. A record 35,000 fans showed up in the Polo Grounds that day, but mighty Matty was not up to the task, and he was defeated by the Cubs’ “Giant killer” Jack Pfiester, 4-2. (Pfiester, who had given up Bridwell’s single, went 15-5 against the Giants from 1903 to 1911).
Thus was born “Merkle’s Boner,” which will stand forever in baseball lore. However, the true story of 1908 was the thrilling pennant race and the superb performances of Wagner and Mathewson. The Cubs went on to beat the Tigers in an anticlimatic World Series, four games to one.