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The Biggest Boner in Baseball

Boner is a word we hear every so often in our modern day society. It can refer someone who works with bones, a fan of the show Bones, but mostly it refers to an engorged, erect penis. That’s the most common usages, but when a week ago, while I was researching baseball slang I stumbled upon what might be my favorite baseball story of all time. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to “Merkle’s Boner.”

The Biggest Boner in Baseball


Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Boner is a word we hear every so often in our modern day society. It can refer someone who works with bones, a fan of the show Bones, but mostly it refers to an engorged, erect penis. That’s the most common usages, but when a week ago, while I was researching baseball slang I stumbled upon what might be my favorite baseball story of all time. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to “Merkle’s Boner.”

Carl Frederick Rudolf Merkle was born on December 20th, 1888 in the small town of Waterton, Wisconsin. Merkle’s first MLB appearance came in 1907 when he played for the New York Giants. Being the youngest player in the league, Merkle didn’t see a lot of action and was mostly used as a pinch hitter. Which brings us to the day of his “Boner.”

Merkle had only played in 38 games in the 1908 season, once again seeing most of his playing time as a pinch hitter. However, manager John McGraw also saw Merkle’s value as a replacement for the perpetually injured first baseman Fred Tenney. Both players had comparable stats, but with the season being as tightly contested as it was, McGraw went with experience over youth and started Tenney.

It’s also important to know that in 1908 the National League was a three-team race to the finish. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and New York Giants all stayed within four games of each other the entire way through the season, and with the last game of the season left, the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants were tied for first place.

September 23rd, 1908 started off like any other day for Fred Merkle, but for Fred Tenney, the day started with severe back pains. Forced to make a choice between his first basemen, McGraw went with Merkle, opting to rest his veteran first baseman.

The insane, insane, insane, Christy Matthewson and his 37 wins in 1908 took the hill for the Giants, as the Cubs countered with Jack Pfiester, a true David versus Goliath matchup. Pfiester and Matthewson went toe-to-toe the entire game, only giving up one run each. The game would stay tied as the Giants came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth.

The Cubs kept Pfiester on the mound for the 9th, not swaying from their original game plan. The Giants started off with a groundout, a single and a fielder’s choice, leaving two outs with a man on first. Fred Merkle came up to the plate. Merkle had success in his 38 games that season, hitting .268 with an OPS of .778, so it was not as if he was an easy out, and he proved that by smacking a single down the right field line. The Giants now had men on first and third with 2 outs, as shortstop Al Bridwell came to the batter’s box.

It should be noted that the New York crowd had become rambunctious at this point. The Polo Grounds were stuffed to the brim at first pitch. In a sign of good sportsmanship, the Cubs and Giants got together prior to the first inning and discussed what to do with the overflowing crowd. They discussed where to put the overflow and whether or not they needed to shift ground rules to accommodate fair gameplay and the best possible viewing of the ballgame.

With Merkle on first and a runner on third, Al Bridwell laced a single to Center and the runner from third came home, scoring the winning run. Merkle on first took off for second base. At this moment, the overzealous New York crowd spilled onto the field racing towards the infield. Merkle saw the fans rushing the field and the runner crossing home plate and started walking towards the dugout to celebrate with his fellow Giants.

As Merkle strode towards the bench, home plate umpire Hank O’Day pointed to Merkle and called him out. Merkle turned around to see Chicago Cubs second baseman, Johnny Evers, holding the ball and standing on second. Merkle was out, and the run did not count.

Earlier in the month, the same exact play happened during a game between the Cubs and the Pirates. Evers, a very studious ball player knew the rulebook from cover to cover. Similarly to Merkle’s play, Evers got the ball from the outfield and got the force out at second base. In that game, however, Evers turned around to find the umpire, the very same Hank O’Day, walking off the field thinking the game was over.

At the time of the play, not much uproar was made, but after the stadium cleared, Cubs owner Charles Murphy, was none too pleased. He filed a formal complaint against the National League and demanded the game be replayed. The Chicago Press even got into the mix, calling the game a disgrace and a miscarriage of Baseball justice. The National League refused to change the outcome of the game but did alert league umpires to be more aware of the rule.

So here we are, the crowd on the field, Evers on second base, and Fred Merkle standing halfway between the dugout and Evers. Mayhem ensued. Christy Mathewson grabbed Merkle by the arm and trotted him out to second base, screaming that the run they had just scored was, in fact, legitimate. The second base umpire agreed with Matthewson, assuring him the run would count. Hank O’Day was gone. The Chicago Cubs and Hank O’Day had bolted from the field to avoid being beaten to a pulp by oncoming Giants fans. The game was called due to darkness and the inability to remove the now irate Giants faithful from the Polo Grounds field.

All Merkle had to do was get to second base.

But it doesn’t stop there.

The Giants and the Cubs both went to the league president to state their cases. The Giants wanted the run to count, since the month before the Pirates still took home the victory in the same instance. The Giants claimed that the crowd interfered with Merkle’s ability to make the decision to get to the base as well as the crowd causing the game to be called. Christy Matthewson even stated he would never pitch another game in the Major Leagues unless the call was overturned. The League upheld the call and scheduled a make-up game for October 8th.

On October 8th, 1908, the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants faced off tied for the League title. Merkle’s Boner not only caused a tie, but it caused a one-game winner take all playoff game for the chance to go to the World Series. The Giants lost 4-2, in a game that could only be described as insane. It was reported that people trying to get a good view of the game fell to their deaths both inside the stadium and outside. Under the stands, home plate umpire was offered a $2,500 bribe by the Giants team doctor, who would eventually get banned for life for his actions. When the game was over, Cubs player-manager Frank Chance suffered a serious cut on his leg from a bottle thrown at him and pitcher Jack Pfiester was slashed on his shoulder by a knife. The Cubs left the Polo Grounds in the dead of night, stuffed into two paddy wagons and would head to the World Series, that last one they would win until 2016.

All because Fred Merkle didn’t touch second base.

The rest of his career, Merkle fought against his boner, and although he but up some halfway decent numbers he could never escape the stigma of costing the Giants a chance to get to the World Series. Haunted by the controversial game, Merkle disappeared from the game after his retirement in 1926. The next time he would step foot in a major league stadium would be at the 1950 Giants Old Timers game. When Merkle’s name was announced, he recieved a long standing ovation.

Fred Merkle’s Boner will forever be an odd footnote in the history of the game, but still has a very contemporary feel. We’ve seen so many players defined by one action, one moment, instead of their entire career. Growing up in Boston, I was forced to relive the Bill Buckner’s fielding error from Game 6 of the 1986 World Series play every playoff game and it was never funny to me. In fact, it was a source of pain. Not only was it a rough moment for the entire city of Boston, but it was a sad moment in a career full of achievements for Buckner, one that would define it rather than fade into the background.

When initially researching Merkle’s Boner, I found myself seeing a lot of writers referring to it as the original premature celebration, but I wholeheartedly disagree with that point of view. I like to look at Merkle’s Boner as a reminder of how simple yet complex this game can be. A very specific rule, that not even the umpires were aware of was used to end a team’s season. It’s as if the Tuck Rule happened in the first Super Bowl or if Rocket Richard kicked a puck in the net to win a Stanley Cup. Merkle’s Boner may be the biggest boner in baseball history, but it’s what his boner stands for that we should celebrate.

Justin Colombo is a 2017 Broadway Show Softball League All-Star at 3B/SS. He's essentially the Manny Machado of the Kinky Boots team. Justin has been writing about Baseball since he was a little kid. Now that being an actor in NYC has given him a lot of free time, in 2015 he decided to take his passion public and founded Three Up, Three Down as a way to express his love for the game. From there, Three Up, Three Down grew from a hobby to an obsession. After years of growth and one insult from MLB's Historian, Justin launched The Turf, a way to expand into all areas of the sporting world. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. LET'S. GO. METS.

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