Friday, August 29, 2008

Curse of the Cubs - Giants' Fred Merkle

Every baseball card we accumulate weaves a different story into the fabric of our collections. One of my favorites isn’t about a favorite player, or team, it’s about a swatch of baseball history. Fred Merkle’s 1911 T205 (gold border) tells a story unlike any other card.

Fred Merkle was yesterday's Bill Buckner long before John McNamara and Bob Stanley put on a pair of spikes. If not for Fred Merkle’s “boner play” (as it was referred to at the time) Chicago Cubs fans would be drinking to a 101 year World Series drought.

The Cubs and NY Giants were in a classic National League pennant race as the humid summer season started to cool to the fall classic. The Cubs (of Tinkers-Evers-Chance fame) had been to the last two World Series. The Giants were led by the brilliant and loud John McGraw and the calm and collected Christy Mathewson.

In a late September game at the Polo Grounds, the Giants and the visiting Cubs were tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the 9th inning. With two outs and a runner on first, rookie first basemen Fred Merkle slugged a base hit to advance the runner to 3rd base. The next batter, Al Bridwell, followed with another single that brought the winning run home and giving the NY Giants an important win late in the season.

The Polo Grounds drama that unfolded featured players racing to centerfield clubhouses, NY fans storming the baseball stage and Johnny Evers, the Cubs second basemen, standing alone at second base waiting for Fred Merkle to advance from first. However, Merkle never ran to second because the run had scored. Unfortunately for him, the baseball rules state that runners must advance to the next base when forced or any run that scores on the play does not count. It's a rule that would be forever celebrated in Chicago and forever haunt a 19 year old rookie from Toledo, Ohio.

It’s unclear how Evers collected a baseball in the sea of chaos that swirled around him. Some historians say Johnny Evers wrestled the ball from a fan, others say he grabbed a different baseball from the dugout, either way, he convinced umpire Hank O'Day that he was in possession of the baseball. O’Day, who would later manage the Cubs, ripped the hearts out of NY fans by calling Merkle out at second base and taking the game winning run off the scoreboard. While Fred Merkle and the Giants were celebrating in the Polo Grounds locker room, O’Day changed history, altered a career and ruled the game a tie.

The Cubs and Giants ended the regular season tied for first place. The Cubs won a one-game playoff and went on to defeat the Detroit Tigers in the 1908 World Series. They haven’t won since.

Is Fred Merkle the real curse of the Cubs and not the famous “Billy Goat Curse?

Was Merkle unfairly branded a scapegoat? Keith Olberman has been on a fight to restore his tarnished reputation.

My favorite reference to this event is in Frank Deford’s “The Old Ball Game.” This is a must read for anyone who enjoys baseball history. Deford feeds you the emotions and pulls you into the minds of the players as this event unfolds.

Collecting Fred Merkle cards is less about statistics and more about history. Merkle went on to have a solid baseball career playing with the Giants, Brooklyn Robins, Chicago Cubs and NY Yankees. Unfortunately he’s most known for this play and unfairly blamed by NY fans for not reaching the 1908 World Series.

You can collect these Fred Merkle cards for about the same price of some of the fancy, high-end, glossy card packs that are now on card store shelves.

  • 1911 T205 (gold border)
  • 1909 T206 Sweet Caporal
  • 1911 T206
  • 1911 T3 Turkey Red (throwing)

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