10/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Unknown Story Behind the Merkle Blunder

Today is the 100th anniversary of perhaps the most famous gaffe the history of baseball. Given that it's about screwing up, it should come as no surprise that the story concerns the Chicago Cubs. Given that it's 100 years, the last time the team won a World Series, it should also come as no surprise that the event concerns the Chicago Cubs.

What is surprising, however, is that this famous blunder concerns the Chicago Cubs in far more ways that most people know.

1908. September 23. The Bonehead Merkle Blunder.

The Chicago Cubs and New York Giants were in a close battle for the National League pennant, playing in New York at the Polo Grounds. The score was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning with two out, but the Giants had the potential winnng run on third base. And standing on first was a rookie. Fred Merkle. Their batter stood at the plate, poised to drive in that game-winning run. And hit a single.

Watching over the frenetic action at second base was one of baseball's all-time great umpires, Hank O'Day.

But as the ball drops in, we have to step back a moment. Because the first remarkable thing most people don't realize (of several, more to come...) is that the famed events about to happen only occurred because of something that took place three weeks earlier.

On September 4, the Cubs were in Pittsburgh, playing the Pirates. The situation was almost exactly the same. The game was tied. In the bottom of the 10th inning, the Pirates had the bases loaded. A rookie was the runner on first base. And then the Pirate batter hit a single, and the winning run scored -

- except that in baseball, every runner is required to move up a base. The rookie runner for Pittsburgh didn't realize the rule and ran off the field. That's when the Cubs second baseman, future Hall-of-Famer Johnny Evers (yes, that Evers. Of the legendary Tinkers to Evers to Chance infield) yelled for the ball, and then touched second base with it for the force. However, the umpire wasn't paying close attention, and therefore wasn't able to call the runner out. Pittsburgh won the game. Evers was livid, and made his point to the umpire to be more aware in the future.


Why is this important? Because that umpire was Hank O'Day. Same umpire. Same fielder. Same team. Same situation.

Now, back to that day on September 23rd.

With runners on first and third, the Giants got what should have been a base hit to score the winning run. The New York fans in the packed stadium went wild, spilling onto the field. Rookie Fred Merkle got excited with them and began celebrating. Leaping in the air. Doing everything but run to second and touch the base. And then he ran off the field with his team.

Amid the delirious celebration on the field with fans running all over the place, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers (remember him?) began screaming for his teammates to get him the ball, desperately trying to be heard over the tumult, racing around. And all the while, having previously made sure that umpire Hank O'Day (remember him, too?) was aware of the situation, Evers tracked down the ball.


To this day, it's not completely certain if it was indeed the same ball, the game ball. Evers always insisted it was. Others on the Giants said the actual ball had been thrown into the stands. It made no difference, however, since Evers with ball in hand, touched second base, and umpire Hank O'Day, this time standing his ground and waiting for the play to officially be completed - called Fred Merkle out. A force. No hit. The run doesn't count. Three outs. The game remains tied.

There was a near-riot on the field. In part from New York fans still celebrating. In part from some discovering that the run didn't count. In part from the Giants players finding out that they hadn't won. The mess was so great that the game couldn't continue, and the umpires had no choice but to suspend action.

The two teams finished the season in a tie, so a playoff was required. The Cubs won, 4-1. They went on to play in the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. And beat them. It was their last World Series in 100 years. All because of the Bonehead Merkle Blunder.

That's where the story ends for most people. But it has two, little-known, further connections to Cubs that go on.

Hank O'Day had long been one of the respected umpires in baseball. However, he began his career as a pitcher, first in the American Association and then briefly in the National League. He later became an umpire in 1895 and continued until 1927. But during the middle of those 33 years, he surprisingly took two seasons off to become, of all things, a manager, first for the Cincinnati Reds. And then, in 1914 for one year -- he managed the Chicago Cubs. The team finished 78-76, winding up in fourth place. After that, Hank O'Day returned to umpiring.

But there's one more twist still.

On August 20, 1916, the Cubs made a trade with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Chicago gave up their catcher Lew McCarty. And in exchange, Brooklyn traded to the Chicago Cubs their first baseman.

- His name was Fred Merkle.


And so, at one point in their careers, the three men all involved at the center of the famous Bonehead Merkle Blunder - NY Giant Fred Merkle, Cub Johnny Evers and umpire Hank O'Day - all ended up wearing a Chicago Cubs uniform.

And the event that brought them together happened on September 23, 1908. 100 years ago today.

And 100 years later, the Chicago Cubs are once again in the post-season. With a chance to win their very first World Series since that remarkable event helped it happen.

This could be the century.