Much of the mystique of baseball radiates from the delicate yet sturdy anatomy of its rules, which are the backbone of its unique character and the telltale heart of its impenetrable mysteries. Baseball is a great equalizer, and inside its sphere few crimes are committed with impunity. For every violation of a rule there is an obverse and neutralizing punishment that in some instances may be severe, but is always fair. Umpires are charged with administering the appropriate penalties for all infractions and serve mostly as backdrop, their labors executed in nameless obscurity, but more than a century ago, on September 23rd, 1908, an umpire named Hank O’Day made perhaps the single most memorable and controversial call in the history of Major League Baseball. What happened at the Polo Grounds that long-ago autumn afternoon has forever secured his place in the annals of the game’s most fascinating lore.
The rationale for O’Day’s decision was governed by one of the most basic rules of baseball, first canonized by Alexander Cartwright in 1845, that no run may score when the third out of any half-inning is the result of a force play. O’Day’s application of this principle rocked the 1908 Major League Baseball world and set in motion an electrifying sequence of events marked by the undeserved humiliation of a blameless young man, Fred Merkle, to whose name the sobriquet of guilt, “Bonehead,” has been unfairly attached ever since, and stained with the innocent blood of another, National League President Harry Pulliam. But the tale of “Merkle’s Boner” is Hank O’Day’s story as much as it is anyone’s.
His improbable saga unfolds at the fabled Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan on September 23rd, 1908. In the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and twilight fast obscuring his diamond heroics, Al Bridwell of the Giants singled home Moose McCormick from third. Bridwell’s RBI should have broken a deadlocked score and driven in the winning run against a Chicago Cubs team that showcased the more mythic than prolific Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double play triumvirate, but the Giants victory that day was not to be. The run was nullified following a series of remarkable events precipitated by the otherwise unremarkable actions of Fred Merkle, the Giants’ talented young infielder who was serving as backup first baseman in his second season with the team. Merkle, just nineteen years old and in the starting lineup for the first time all year, was on first base when Bridwell scored McCormick, but instead of advancing to second he ran towards the centerfield clubhouse in order to avoid being mobbed by the throngs of frenzied fans who surged onto the field immediately after the winning tally, as fans often did in those days. This was not only sensible on Merkle’s part, it was the custom among most ballplayers of that era.
Unfortunately for Merkle, O’Day was waiting for just such a sin of omission because two weeks earlier while he was working a game in Pittsburgh, the same thing had happened. Visiting manager Frank Chance (at left) of the Cubs swore to O’Day that a runner on first, Pirates first baseman Warren Gill, had trotted off the field without touching second after he was forced to advance by reason of a base hit that scored the winning run. O’Day was working without a partner that day and had been watching the runner coming in to score, not Gill, but he concurred with Chance that if he had seen Gill leave without touching second and the Cubs had appealed properly, Gill would have been the third out and the run erased. He also promised to be attentive to such a misstep in the future. So when it happened again that fateful afternoon at the Polo Grounds, the Cubs were ready to rock and O’Day was ready to rule. As Merkle veered off the basepath towards the clubhouse, player/manager Chance shouted at Chicago outfielder Artie Hofman to pick up the ball Bridwell had just hit and throw it to second. “I… drilled a line drive past Johnny Evers and out into right centerfield,” the left-handed hitting Bridwell recalls in Lawrence Ritter’s iconic chronicle The Glory of Their Times. “Bob Emslie was umpiring on the bases and he fell on his can to avoid being hit by the ball. I really socked that one on the nose.” Pitcher “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity of the Giants (pictured left,) hearing Chance’s exhortations and discerning what the Cubs were up to, ran over to intercept the ball Hofman heaved in from center, then hurled it into the stands to prevent the Cubs from getting the force at second base.
Both Bridwell and Fred Snodgrass, a rookie receiver who spent most of his time warming the bench behind superstar catcher Roger Bresnahan (pictured right,) defended teammate Merkle’s actions unequivocally. “In those days,” Snodgrass recounts in The Glory of Their Times, “as soon as a game ended at the Polo Grounds the ushers would open the gates from the stands to the field, and the people would all pour out and rush at you… because of that, as soon as a game was over we bench warmers all made it a practice to sprint from the bench to the clubhouse. And that was precisely why Fred Merkle got into that awful jam. He was so used to sitting on the bench all during the game, and then at the end of the game jumping up with the rest of us and taking off as fast as he could for the clubhouse, that on this particular day he did it by force of habit and never gave it a second thought.” Newspaper and eyewitness accounts of the incident describe players from both teams leaping into the stands and wrestling with one or more spectators in an effort to retrieve the ball McGinnity had launched out of the darkening vortex. From somewhere, a ball made its way into an eager Johnny Evers’ hand as he stood on second and clamored for three outs, no run, tie game. Amidst this chaos, O’Day ruled that Merkle had not touched the bag, thereby nullifying the winning run and reinstating the tie score. He then declared there was no possibility of resuming the game because the thousands of fans swarming over the field made it unlikely that all spectators could be cleared from the grounds before the encroaching twilight precluded further play.
It took several days for Harry Pulliam, the “Boy President” of the National League under whose jurisdiction the matter next ponderously fell, to issue his edict. Pulliam, like O’Day, viewed his obligation as one of allegiance to the rule of baseball law, not the feelings of the owners or fans, and acted accordingly. He declared the game tied as a result of the forceout at second base, which meant it would be replayed, if necessary, at the end of the season. Cubs manager Chance, whose earlier petition in the case of Warren Gill had been rejected by O’Day, was now the unlikely beneficiary of that claim, a charge Pulliam had also examined and found insufficiently probative.
So how could they rule one way in Pittsburgh and another in New York?
The answer is simple, and illustrative of human nature. O’Day didn’t see Gill run off the field before touching second in that instance. He had been working by himself and made his decision based on what he saw with his own eyes and knew to be true, which was that a runner had crossed the plate safely with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. He couldn’t in good conscience negate the run based solely on the testimony of the visiting manager; all he could do was what he did, which was promise to be vigilant if a similar situation presented itself. When it did, O’Day had no choice but to rule in apparent contradiction of the Pittsburgh incident because as a direct result of it, he was watching for the same infraction that had evaded his earlier observation. And Pulliam, who had supported O’Day in the Gill case, backed him again in the Merkle matter knowing that by doing so he risked exposing himself to spurious charges of inconsistency and ineptitude from those who misinterpreted his motives. His courageous apostasy would cost him, and all of New York, dearly.
Neither mounting pressure from the Giants, who filed an appeal of last resort that the National League board of directors ultimately denied, nor threats and recriminations from the many factions who had vested interests in either accepting or rejecting O’Day’s ruling, could sway the stalwart umpire. Some of the questions sparked by his decision ignite impassioned debate even today, more than a hundred years after it happened. Did he actually see the play? Did he make the right call? League President Pulliam went to the mat for him in spite of bitter invective and contumely heaped upon both of them by outraged fans and members of the press who believed the pair had conspired to deprive the Giants of a game-winning run on a mere technicality. Even some of O’Day’s own colleagues publicly disavowed his adjudication of the Merkle debacle. The great Bill Klem called it “the rottenest decision in the history of baseball… It was bad umpiring and gutless thinking at league headquarters.” The fallout from the controversy hovered like a miasma over the Giants’ final two weeks of the season, during which interval they lost a doubleheader to Cincinnati and were defeated by Harry “Giant Killer” Coveleski of the Phillies three times in six days. Yet it was Merkle, the studious and hard-working teenager tapped by Giants manager John “Muggsy” McGraw to replace an injured Fred Tenney as the starting first baseman the very day his name became written in infamy, who bore the brunt of all the churning frustrations and dwindling hopes of a great and growing metropolis. “Bonehead” became both his burden and his transport to a perverse immortality, but it has always been an undeserved appellation. His manager thought so highly of young Fred that the next season, he gave him a raise. “McGraw never consulted anybody except Merkle on a question of strategy or something of that sort,” his teammate Chief Bender attested. “He never asked Matty, he never asked me. He’d say, ‘Fred, what do you think of this?’ The Bonehead! What a misnomer. One of the smartest men in baseball, Fred Merkle.”
Rule 4.10(d): If each team has the same number of runs when the game ends, the umpire shall declare it a “Tie Game.” Rule 4.12 NOTE: … a tie game… must be replayed in its entirety.
The game was replayed two weeks later at the Polo Grounds because the Cubs and Giants ended the season with poetically identical 98-55 won-lost records. An overflow crush of raucous and resentful spectators, desperate to avenge the defeat O’Day stood accused of engineering, instead saw their beloved “Big Six,” Christy Mathewson, falter on the hill. The great and indefatigable Matty, peerless twirler and author of a mind-boggling thirty-seven victories that season, couldn’t save the Giants from a numbing four-to-two loss to the crafty Mordecai Centennial “Three Fingered” Brown, who entered the game in the bottom of the first inning in very long and cunningly calculated relief of a shaky Jack Pfiester. One fan was reportedly killed by a fall from an elevated trestle up on Coogan’s Bluff as the shell-shocked city’s pennant dreams noisily imploded under a pitiless October sky.
O’Day and Pulliam were demonized equally during this time, but the umpire and the league president responded to their detractors very differently. O’Day emerged unbowed from his crucible of criticism and went on to two more decades of distinguished officiating service. Pulliam did not fare nearly so well. He committed suicide in a room at the New York Athletic Club nine months later by shooting himself in the right temple. His death was horrible; the bullet ripped his eyes out of his head before exploding through the left side of his skull. He lay there sightless and dying, and was found hours later with the phone off the hook as though he had tried to call for help, clad in only his underwear, shoes, and socks. Pulliam was thirty-nine years old.
Hank O’Day prospered in baseball for many more years. He umpired a total of fifty-nine games in ten World Series, and was one of two umpires chosen to work the very first World Series in 1903. His career was so burnished by distinctions he must have wearied of its luster in 1912 and 1914, when he arranged a leave of absence from the umpiring ranks and undertook to manage the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs to mediocre 75-78 and 78-76 records. His teams came in third and fourth, respectively, in an eight-team league. One can only speculate about the savagery of the competition between managers O’Day and John McGraw of the Giants, whose team the intractable arbiter had so unflinchingly deprived of a chance at the pennant just a few years earlier. When his umpiring and managerial careers were concluded in 1927 after more than four decades of service to baseball, O’Day distinguished himself further as a member of the Rules Committee, the body responsible for publishing and amending the Official Baseball Rules. But it is as the umpire who made the decision unjustly memorialized in baseball legend as “Merkle’s Boner” that O’Day is best remembered, all because a runner didn’t go to second base after he was forced to advance.
The Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series by beating the powerhouse Detroit Tigers of Ty Cobb and “Wahoo” Sam Crawford four games to one, but in their seven Series match ups since then, the most recent of which was 1945, they haven’t won much else. As for the beleaguered Fred Merkle, Giants teammate Al Bridwell, on the right, summed up his place in history this way: “I think that under the circumstances any ballplayer on any club would have done the same thing Merkle did. They did it all the time in those days… In any case, I often think if I hadn’t held Merkle close to first he’d probably have been all the way down to second before the crowd started onto the field. As it was, being held close to the bag, the crowd rushing on him before he’d made it to second, seeing the winning run already crossing the plate, why I think anyone would have done the same thing that Fred Merkle did. Anyway, he’s gone now. The newspapers crucified him. The fans ragged him unmercifully all the rest of his life. But now his worries are over. Only thing I lost out of it was a base hit. Didn’t get credit for that base hit. They decided it was a forceout at second instead of a single. Well, what can you do? Those things happen.”
So after all the fuss, it turns out Merkle’s Boner was really just a flawed fielder’s choice that persists, more than a hundred years later, as a poignant and ungainly elegy to a team and a time that are no more. Only an archive of crumbling keepsakes and the stories remain. Perhaps this one will set the record straight.
This story has been edited to reflect the passage of time since its original publication.