Our journey through the odd history of the Chicago Cubs begins in the year 1908, the very year they last won the World Series.
On September 23 of 1908 the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Giants and the Cubs were in a heated pennant race. The Cubs (90-53) and Giants (87-50) were tied in first place, though the Cubs had played six more games than the Giants at this point. On this fateful day, the Giants regular first baseman Fred Tenney missed the game with a case of lumbago. Giants manager John McGraw turned to rookie first baseman Fred Merkle to take his spot in the game. Merkle had only played in 30 games this season, and on September 23, he would be making his first start in the major leagues.
Heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, the Cubs and Giants were tied 1-1. With two outs and Moose McCormick already on first base after breaking up a double play which would have ended the game, Merkle came up to bat. With only 47 plate appearances under his belt in his career he singled down the right-field line. McCormick, the potential winning run was able to advance to third base. Al Bridwell stepped up to the plate looking to win the game, and he appeared to do so on the very first pitch. Bridwell smacked a single to the outfield and McCormick easily scored. The Giant fans in attendance celebrated and stormed the field. Looking to avoid the mob scene, and assuming the game was over with McCormick scoring, Merkle turned around and headed back to the dugout without ever touching second base.
Now, according to Rule 4.09 “A run is not scored if the runner advances to home base during a play in which the third out is made by any runner being forced out”. That rule still exists today. However, back in 1908, teams never appealed to the umpires to enforce this rule. Once a run scored, that was that. The run was on the board. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers thought differently though and saw an opportunity to have the rule enforced in order to benefit his team. He knew how big this game was and how badly the Cubs needed to win. Evers got the attention of Center Fielder Solly Hofman,who retrieved the ball and threw it to Evers. With the ball now in hand, Evers touched second base. Umpires Bob Emslie and Hank O’Day got together to figure out what to do.
Since O’Day had seen the whole play from home plate, he ruled that Merkle had not touched second base. With that knowledge, Emslie ruled Merkle out on a force play which resulted O’Day ruling that the run did not score. Rule 4.09 was upheld and the inning was over with the two teams still tied 1-1.
Because Emslie and O’Day were unable to quickly clear the field of the mobbing fans, O’Day decided the best thing to do was to rule the game over on account of darkness. Back in 1908, night games were unheard of, so the game ended a 1–1 tie. Despite complaints and appeals from the Giants, National League President Harry Pulliam sided with the umpires. He further stated that if the Giants and Cubs were tied at the end of the year, they would replay the game to decide who would go on to the World Series representing the National League.
You know what happened next. The Cubs won the make up game, and went on to win the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. Merkle’s failure to touch second base haunted him his entire career, and he was labeled with the name Bonehead Merkle.
Giant fans, and many baseball fans in general, went on to say that the Cubs won the pennant on a technicality. Even though, by rule, the proper call was made, Giant fans complained. Merkle never recovered from this travesty.
Many people say that his ghost haunts the Cubs, and his roaming spirit has been the cause of all the Cubs bad luck over the years. One notable play that occurred on the anniversary of the Merkle game took place 90 years later, on September 23, 1998. With needing only one win to clinch a spot in the playoffs, Brandt Brown dropped a ball which allowed the Milwaukee Brewers to win that game. Granted, the Cubs went on to win the Wild Card despite dropping that game, but the eeriness of that play happening on the anniversary sticks with fans.
However, if that play is what is behind the Cubs failure to win a World Series, I do not believe that Merkle is the cause at all. After all, he went on to live several more years. Merkle did not died until 1956. Instead, if that play really is what is behind this madness, perhaps the spirit standing between the Cubs and a championship belongs to Pulliam.
After Pulliam deemed that the rule be upheld, forcing the game to end in a tie, and the Giants missed the playoffs, their fans began tormenting him. The pressure of the job started getting to him and he wound up taking several months off the job and even considered retirement. That did not stop the fans from tormenting him though. One evening after returning to his post, he sat in his office in the New York Athletic Club and shot himself once in the head.
Perhaps he regretted siding with the umpires or perhaps there were more issues in his life than the public knew. But since his death, some very odd things began to happen around the Cubs organization.
Johnny Evers, who got the Merkle force out at second base started breaking down shortly after Pulliam’s death. During the 2010 season Evers was in an accident which resulted in him breaking his leg. The accident not only cost him the end of 2010 season, which saw the Cubs lose the World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics, he also lost his friend who was in the car with him at the time.
With his friends death, and business failings hanging over him, Evers had a nervous breakdown in 1911 which cost him to miss most of the season. He only played in 43 games that year.
Is the ghost of Pulliam haunting the Cubs? Probably not. Nor do I think that the spirit of Merkle is behind the Cubs failure to win a World Series. But what cannot be denied, is these two people played a pivotal role in the Cubs winning their final World Series, under what some might call shady circumstances.
If they are not to blame though, what else could there be? Find out next time when I share a tale with you that might make you start believing curses are real.