It's Not over 'till It's Over: The Stories Behind the Most Magnificent Heart Stopping Sports Miracle of Our Time

It's Not over 'till It's Over: The Stories Behind the Most Magnificent Heart Stopping Sports Miracle of Our Time

by Al Silverman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781585673179
Publisher: Overlook Press, The
Publication date: 10/28/2002
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.17(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Al Silverman


Copyright © 2002 Al Silverman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 158567317X

Chapter One

1908 MERKLE FOREVER New York Giants vs. Chicago Cubs

I know. You're asking, why am I beginning a book that's about heroic acts-about winners mostly-with a loser? Please be patient. The loser I'm writing about also happens to be a romantic hero, whose name continues to stand the test of time. It was invoked as recently as 1998, in connection with the second game of the American League championship series between the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians.

The score was tied in the top of the 12th inning, and the Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch was arguing with an umpire. Meanwhile, the ball was sitting behind him, unattended, allowing a vital run to score. The Indians went on to win the game by 4-1. On its editorial page the next day, the New York Times warned that if the Yankees lost the series Knoblauch would "forever be remembered in the same company as Fred (Bonehead) Merkle, who failed to reach second base in a crucial game in 1908."

On that doomed afternoon of September 23, 1908, the Polo Grounds was crammed with excitable spectators, hoping against hope that the New York Giants' starting pitcher, Christy Mathewson, the fans' "best-beloved," could stop the late surge of the Chicago Cubs. On the previous day, Chicago had swept a doubleheader from theGiants, and now the two teams were only a whisper apart. The Cubs had a 90-53 record, the Giants were 87-50, and Pittsburgh was breathing hard on them both. It was all up to Mathewson, who was 28 years old, in his ninth and greatest year with the Giants. But the handsome 6-foot-1 righthander-"a Greek god in flannels," sportswriter Frank Graham called him-would be pitching one of the most crucial games of his life. "The race is still of the closest, fiercest pattern and no one prophet ever prophed who could foretell the finish," wrote W. A. Phelon in the Chicago Journal."

In those early years of the twentieth century the National League was blessed with three amazing teams: the Giants, the Cubs, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. One man had mainly kept the Pirates in contention: shortstop John Peter "Honus" Wagner, a man so bowlegged, said one writer, that "he looked like a hoop rolling down the baselines," Wagner drove the Pirates to pennants in 1901, 1902, and 1903, and now, in 1908, at 34, he was leading the league in hits, doubles, triples, and runs batted in. Time would only magnify his reputation; in 2002, a Honus Wagner baseball card, in "near mint condition," sold for $1.2 million.

For the Chicago Cubs, their success of the early 1900s can be traced to the day in 1902 when a scorer made this notation: "Double play-Tinker to Evers to Chance." That dynamic trio would become the centerpiece of a mighty major league dynasty.

Frank Chance began his career with the Cubs in 1898 as a catcher, and he switched to first base in 1902. Three years later, he added the title, player-manager, and took the Cubs to three straight pennants-an achievement for which he became forever known as "the peerless leader." Second baseman Johnny Evers and shortstop Joe Tinker both started with the Cubs in 1902. The fourth member of the infield, third baseman Harry Steinfeldt, didn't have rhythm in his name so he lost his shot at immortality when, in 1908, the New York newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams sanctified the trio with a verse that he himself came to hate:

These are the saddest of possible words. Tinker to Evers to Chance. Trio of bear cubs and fleeter than birds. Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Thoughtlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble. Making a Giant hit into a double. Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble- Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Although the three men sang in harmony on the field, out of uniform they couldn't carry a tune together. Even Steinfeldt tended towards animosity; once, after a shouting match in the clubhouse, he went after Tinker with a pair of scissors. The chemistry was the worst between Tinker and Evers. "Every time something went wrong on the field," Johnny Evers told a New York sportswriter, "Joe would rush at me and get me by the throat and I'd punch him in the belly and try to cut him with my spikes. We didn't speak to each other friendly until we'd been out of baseball for years." In 1946, all three were voted into the Hall of Fame. By then Chance was gone, but Tinker and Evers were there for the ceremonies, and the two old men cried on each other's shoulders.

The New York Giants didn't require a trio to get them going, only a soloist: John Joseph "Little Napoleon" McGraw. In 1902, McGraw was stolen away from Baltimore, where he was managing the Orioles, by the Giants' owner, Andrew Freedman, the George Steinbrenner of his day, and then some. Freedman, a political ally of New York's Boss Tweed and the corrupt Tammany Hall gang, was arrogant and ruthless. When newspapermen covering the Giants criticized him in print, he would ban them from the ballpark. One sportswriter, Charlie Dryden of the Chicago Tribune, was exiled after he ran this quote verbatim from the Giants' owner: "I don't like what you have been writing about me. You are standing on the brink of an abscess and if you ain't careful I'll push you in."

But Freedman was never able to to push John McGraw around, as he found out almost as soon as he hired him, and he sold the club to a less excitable man named John T. Brush. McGraw may have missed the tempestuous Freedman, because they were two of a kind. The Giants' manager believed that his players should be rowdy as well as skilled. He encouraged them to engage in street battles on the field. When one of his sturdiest pitchers, "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity, got too old to pitch regularly, McGraw kept him around to goad players on the other team to fight, hoping some of them would be thrown out of the game. It didn't matter if the Iron Man also got the heave.

In 1903, his first full year as manager, McGraw's Giants won 84 games and finished second to the Pirates. In 1904, with McGinnity winning 35 games and Mathewson winning 33, the Giants won the pennant. In 1905, they won 105 games and took the pennant again, with Mathewson winning 31, along with a 1.28 earned run average. In the World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics, Matty threw three shutouts in six days. Joe McGinnity won the other game, and the Giants were world champions.

The batting star of the team was Mike Donlin; in 1904, his .356 average was third in the league and he led in runs scored, 124. "Turkey Mike" was a typical McGraw acquisition. He had earned a reputation as a man who liked to dance and drink by candlelight; showgirls particularly attracted his attention. Some years later, when night baseball was being played in the minors, he was heard to say, "Gee, imagine taking a ballplayer's nights away from him!" In 1906, Donlin broke his leg and played in only 39 games. He spent the rest of the season limping after a vaudeville actress named Mabel Hire. She, fully mobile, allowed him to catch up with her and they were married.

That same year, Mathewson came down with diphtheria and won only 22 games. In 1907, still not fully recovered, he won only 24. Other veteran Giants slumped that year, too, and McGraw decided to make some changes. He signed two minor league infielders, Larry Doyle and Charles "Buck" Herzog, and, in a blockbuster trade with Boston, he acquired the Red Sox player-manager, Fred Tenney, not to manage-McGraw would take care of that, thank you-but to play first base. In the same deal, McGraw picked up a promising young shortstop, Al Bridwell. The other new face, signed late in the season, was 18-year-old Fred Merkle.

"Here is something to consider," wrote a sportswriter named Bozeman Bulger of the Chicago Tribune near the end of the 1908 season. "Suppose Fred Tenney should be crippled, that would be a calamity, wouldn't it? Yes, it would in one way, but it wouldn't keep the Giants from winning the pennant. There is a young fellow on the bench named Fred Merkle who can fill that job better than nine-tenths of the first basemen in the league."

When Fred Merkle, a tall and polite Midwesterner, reached the Polo Grounds on the morning of September 23, he almost keeled over, for he saw his name in a major league starting lineup for the first time. Fred Tenney had awakened with a severe backache and couldn't play. Merkle was excited. Although he had never started a game, he had done his share for the team. In 1907, he played in 15 games, got 12 hits and impressed at first base. In 1908, he was in 38 games and hit one home run as a pinch-hitter. "The youngster is of splendid proportion," wrote a New York reporter. "Best of all, he has plenty of nerve and a cool head."

As the game was about to begin, Merkle watched his idol Christy Mathewson stride to the mound to face the Cubs. The crowd roared its adoration. Matty's opponent would be Jack Pfiester, who in 1907 had led the league with a 1.15 earned run average. Pfiester was remembered mostly for the way he roused himself when facing the Giants, thereby earning his nickname "the Giant killer."

Both men pitched brilliantly. The game was scoreless until the fifth inning, when Joe Tinker drove one through the infield onto the grass in right center. Rightfielder Turkey Donlin rushed over and made a desperate stab at the ball with his foot-hardly an orthodox move. But this dance step failed, and the ball carried to the ropes that kept spectators off the field. Tinker's inside-the-park home run gave the Cubs the lead.

The Giants fought back an inning later. Buck Herzog smashed a ball that handcuffed third baseman Steinfeldt, who then made a wild throw to first base that allowed Herzog to go to second. Catcher Roger Bresnahan sacrificed him to third. Up came Donlin, hoping to atone for his soft-shoe routine, and he did, lashing a pitch between two infielders to score Herzog. The game was tied, 1-1.

Through eight innings, it was a classic pitching battle. Mathewson had held the Cubs to five hits and struck out nine. Jack the Giant Killer had allowed the Giants only four hits. Then came the fateful bottom of the ninth-and a trap that the Cubs had set for the Giants three weeks earlier.

The date was September 4, and the two teams that were chasing New York-the Cubs and Pirates-were involved in a memorable game of their own in Pittsburgh. The Cubs' ace, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, who would win 29 games that year, was pitching a shutout going into the last of the tenth. His nickname came from an accident at the age of seven in which a farm machine mangled two fingers on his right hand-a disfigurement that caused his pitches to dip and swerve in unexpected ways.

Player-manager Frank Chance opened the tenth with a single. Tommy Leach sacrificed him to second. Honus Wagner singled sharply, though Johnny Evers was able to slow up the ball enough so that Clarke couldn't score. Then Brown hit rookie first baseman Warren Gill, loading the bases. After a strikeout for the second out, John Wilson, who had recently been recalled from the minors, embarrassed Three Finger by singling into centerfield. Clarke scored, and the game was over-or so everyone thought.

But the Cubs' second baseman, Johnny Evers, saw that the runner on first had dashed off the field instead of running down to second base and touching the bag. "Throw me the ball," Evers hollered to his centerfielder, Art Hofman. Then, with the ball in his hand and one foot on the base, he yelled to umpire Hank O'Day that Gill was the third out. O'Day didn't respond; he later said he never heard Evers because of the noise of the crowd. The next day, the Cubs protested the loss to National League president Harry C. Pulliam. Umpire O'Day had previously told Pulliam that "the game was fairly won." Pulliam rejected the protest, saying, "I think the baseball public prefers to see games settled on the field and not in this office."

Now, on September 23, centerfielder Cy Seymour led off the last half of the ninth inning for the Giants with a hot groundball to Evers, who swallowed it up, Evers to Chance, for the out. Third baseman Art Devlin singled into centerfield but was forced at second when leftfielder Moose McCormick grounded to Evers. That made two outs, and up stepped Fred Merkle, deep in his debut role as a starter.

In the New York Times' account of the game, W. W. Aulick, wrote, "Merkle, who failed us the day before in an emergency, is at bat, and we pray of him that he mend his ways." Aulick was referring to Merkle's unsuccessful effort as a pinch-hitter. The Times' reporter then followed with a sentence that still rings with irony almost a century later: "If he will only single we will ignore any errors he may make in the rest of his natural life." The kid came through for Aulick, blasting a single down the rightfield line. Now, with McCormick on third and Merkle on first, it was up to Al Bridwell. This was Bridwell's first year with the Giants, and he was enjoying himself. He was a spectacular shortstop and was batting .285, a respectable average for a number eight hitter. Bridwell scorched a single over second base into centerfield-a ball hit so hard that umpire Bob Emslie had to dive to the ground to get out of the way. He was thus flat on his back in the ten seconds that shook the world.

But various other principals understood what was happening, especially a Giant benchwarmer named Fred Snodgrass. I've listened many times to Snodgrass's voice on tape reconstructing that incident. Many of baseball's oldtimers can be heard on Lawrence S. Ritter's audio edition of his classic book, The Glory of Their Times, but none of the voices are as sonorous as Snodgrass's-a deep, melodic John Wayne timbre. He could have been a world-class preacher.

"In those days, as soon as a game ended at the Polo Grounds," Snodgrass says, "ushers would open the gates from the stands in the field, and the people would pour out and rush at you. Because of that, as soon as a game was over we benchwarmers all made it a practice to sprint to the clubhouse as fast as we could. And that was precisely the reason why Fred Merkle got in that awful jam. He was so used to sitting on the bench all during the game, and then jumping up with the rest of us and taking off as fast as we could for the clubhouse, that on this particular day he did it by force of habit and never gave it another thought. McCormick scored easily from first on Bridwell's single. He could have walked in. The game was won and over, and Merkle lit out for the clubhouse, as he had been doing all season long. That was Merkle's downfall. Because, technically, the rules of baseball are that to formally complete the play he had to touch second base, which was unoccupied, since Bridwell had moved on to third."

The crowd knew none of this. All they knew was that Bridwell had slashed a single that brought in the winning run, and the first wave of fans began vaulting out of the stands onto the field. Like them, Merkle thought the game was over. Halfway between first and second base, seeing the winning run about to cross the plate, he changed directions and sprinted towards the clubhouse. He wanted to get there before the crowd had a chance to grab at him and choke him half to death-that's what he had done all year long at the Polo Grounds, run like the dickens for the clubhouse when the game was over, or risk being mashed to pulp.

But one person in the Polo Grounds kept his head when everyone else was going crazy. Johnny Evers remembered that game in Pittsburgh, back on September 4, when his team lost to the Pirates even though the runner on first had run off the field without touching second base. Umpire Hank O'Day refused to change the call. But afterward, Evers had put him on notice that Rule 59 had to be obeyed, and he knew that the umpire-in-chief remembered. Now, standing on second base, defying the howling crowd, he hollered frantically for the ball.

Gridlock continued to prevail between the pitcher's mound and second base. Players from both teams were milling around along with fans, yelling at each other. Finally the telltale ball was thrown back into the mob and was intercepted by the Giants' Iron Man Joe McGinnity, who threw it into the stands.


Excerpted from IT'S NOT OVER 'TIL IT'S OVER by Al Silverman Copyright © 2002 by Al Silverman
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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