If not for one baserunning play in 1908, Fred Merkle would have been one the forgotten men who played baseball in what we now call "The Deadball Era."
He had some good years for the New York Giants and played on 5 teams that won the pennant though they all lost the World Series.
But when he woke up on the morning of September 23, 1908, he had no idea that he would become a part of baseball lore and his name alone would be forever linked with an incident in baseball's most controversial game according to author Cait Murphy in her book, Crazy '08.
Crazy '08 tells the story of the 1908 baseball season and details the pennant races of the American and National Leagues. The names associated with that season read like the early inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame; Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and John McGraw. Tinker to Evers to Chance were not just names in a poem (that would be written in 1910), they were part of one of the best teams in baseball, the Chicago Cubs.
But baseball was also becoming the national pastime. Telegraphs relaying information that was then transcribed and put up on electronic scoreboards for crowds as large as 50,000 on the streets of New York. The legend of how baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday was born in 1908 and the seventh inning stretch song, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was written and composed in 1908 as well.
I could be accused of burying the lead about the 1908 season because that was the last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Between 1906-1910, the Cubs averaged 106 wins and won four pennants and two World Series.
Their hated rivals were the New York Giants, whose manager, John McGraw was considered one of the premier managers of the game and he had probably the first New York superstar pitcher in Christy Mathewson.
The National League pennant race that year was between three teams, the Cubs, Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates who had the best player in the league, shortstop Honus Wagner. But on September 23, 1908, the Cubs were a half-game behind the Giants and facing Mathewson, leaving New York in first place would be a challenge.
Murphy takes us back to the Polo Grounds and through her research and writing, she puts us in the crowd, behind home plate and on the base paths. She tells us how Fred Merkle, who had spent the whole year sitting next to McGraw (he would appear in only 35 games) was suddenly in the lineup in the biggest game of the year because regular first baseman, Fred Tenney woke up with lumbago and Tenney would miss his only game of the year.
In the 9th inning, the game was tied 1-1, Merkle singled with two out and now there are runners at first and third. The next batter lines a single to center and the Giants win 2-1. Or do they?
Murphy recounts what then happens by reviewing news accounts, interviews with participants, and letters from the two umpires who were on the field that day. She compares all of the recollections to Rashomon and concludes "there are tens of thousands of eyewitnesses but they all see different things, mostly what they want to see."
Of course, that can describe how history is ultimately recorded and remembered. Often facts are just an annoyance to the legend. Murphy chronicles both in Crazy '08 and it is an enjoyable read about a game that although many things have changed in 100 years, the passion, fun and frustration that were evident then, remains with all those who follow the game today.