WHAT do you write about on your 79th birthday? What happened in 1908 that merits being recalled? The World Series began in 1903, skipped the next year, and was in its infancy. There was no pro football, basketball, or golf. My father's house in Mississippi was without electricity, telephone, or central heat. Radio and TV were years away. Then I remembered. Fred Merkle, Bonehead Merkle. A misfortune that engulfed a fine young ballplayer, cost John McGraw and the New York Giants a pennant, and set up what is still the last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series.
Sept. 23, 1908, the Giants and the Cubs were tied 1-1 in the last of the ninth at the Polo Grounds. The Giants had Moose McCormick at third and Merkle at first with two out. Al Bridwell hit cleanly to deep right center field. The game was over. McCormick raced home.
But young Merkle did what was customary in those days. As he approached second base and saw McCormick cross the plate he turned right and ran to the clubhouse in center field. In the tremendous confusion, second baseman Johnny Evers got a ball, stepped on the bag, and claimed a game-ending force play. No one was sure it was even the game ball. Base umpire Bob Emslie refused to call Merkle out. Evers appealed to plate umpire Hank O'Day. Some accounts said O'Day ruled Merkle was out - but made his ruling that evening in his hotel room. I doubt any single ruling in baseball touched off such a rhubarb. The game was ruled a 1-1 tie.
The season ended a week later with the Giants and Cubs tied for first place, so the tie had to be replayed after the regular season. In effect, it was the first playoff game ever, and the battle between these heated rivals drew an overflow crowd at the Polo Grounds. When the writers arrived, their seats were taken by many men who refused to leave. The writers demanded control thereafter of their working area, and thus was formed the Baseball Writers' Association.
The Cubs won, and from then on Merkle was called Bonehead. He was never allowed to forget, no matter that his manager, McGraw, bitterly protested in his behalf, saying he was only doing what all the others had done. When Merkle completed a 16-year big-league career in 1926, he disappeared. He settled in Daytona Beach, Fla., and for more than two decades never returned to New York.
There is a most meaningful phrase from an old prayer - ``Amid the chances and changes of this mortal life.'' Forty-one years after the Merkle affair, I got involved in it. Col. Matt Wynn, who ran Churchill Downs racetrack, died, and Hearst sports columnist Bill Corum was selected to run the Kentucky Derby meeting. Corum didn't wish to write his six-days-a-week column his first year at Louisville, and I was asked to do it. I was also broadcasting the Brooklyn Dodger games and was director of sports at CBS.
The Dodgers won the pennant in 1949, and Branch Rickey invited living members of the 1916 Dodgers to be his guests at the World Series. All came except Merkle (who had been a Dodger in 1916). When you are doing a column six days a week for nine weeks, plus other assignments, you are searching for material. I went to Daytona Beach to see Merkle.
Merkle said it had been 23 years since he'd seen a game. He was still badly hurt, and said, ``Past sins should be forgotten. ... I've been paying for 40 years.'' So I did a Merkle column in the New York Journal American - which I am looking at now.
Next I went to Miami to see Bill Klem, in my opinion our greatest umpire. Bill and I had been friends many years, and I knew he was into his final illness. We talked easily and I got much material. Mrs. Klem sat with us. I told them I'd just seen Merkle and how badly wounded the family still was.
Klem was always careful never to criticize a fellow umpire. Now the old lion bristled. ``That boy has really had to suffer over the black thing they put on him. Why, it has followed him all his life, wherever he has gone. He was broken and he never should have been.
``Fred Merkle never pulled a bonehead play,'' Klem went on. ``He wasn't out in that game and he wasn't out until this day. The run counted, the Giants won it, and it couldn't have been anything else. On a clean-hit ball to the outfield it couldn't have been anything else then or today. Merkle shouldn't have been called out by O'Day. It wasn't O'Day's play. Emslie had the play and made the proper decision.
``There was no real force on that play. It was a clean hit to the outfield. The winning run was across the plate before the ball was returned to the infield. The game was over when the winning run crossed home plate.
``You have to make some sense to the game,'' Klem roared. ``It's as silly as when a man hits a home run and an infielder comes up and says he didn't touch second base. I would always say, `He touched it for me.' A home run and some silly infielder is going to nullify the plain intent of the game ... but the next day I'd tell the batter, `Them bases is made to be touched - don't do that again.'''
It was plain the old man wanted to speak his piece.
``This Merkle thing has been in my craw ever since it happened ... What that poor boy has had to put up with is a crime. They ruined as promising and as nice and as clean and as smart a young player as we ever had ... why, he isn't out yet.''
I mailed the columns to Merkle and went my way with the Dodgers. Ballplayers don't write. Merkle didn't. Then too, maybe he didn't appreciate my stirring it all up again.
That summer the Giants had an Old Timers' Day and invited back some former players. I paid scant attention. I was at Brooklyn, which was another world from Manhattan.
I was sitting in my CBS office when Merkle and one of his daughters walked in. Fred was dressed in a new suit, new hat. He was grinning. He was happy. He had returned to the Polo Grounds with the Giants, returned to the very spot.
His daughter said, ``We wanted to come by and thank you. If you hadn't written those columns we wouldn't be here.''