“It may be that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong – but that’s the way to bet.” – Damon Runyon – Guys and Dolls (1932)
You don’t have to be a baseball fan to know about the Chicago Cubs’ “Curse of the Billy Goat.” But you also need to know about “Merkle’s Boner,” the 100-year-old story of the other Chicago Cubs curse, and an unsavory story indeed.
It is Wednesday, September 23, 1908, and the New York Giants are playing the Chicago Cubs for the National League pennant, when the Giants’ 19 year-old rookie, Fred Merkle commits what becomes for all time “Merkle’s Boner.” Merkle is a promising ballplayer and a fine young man whose only disappointment in life before September 23, 1908 has been his long, very sad-looking face.
Merkle is at bat, two outs, bottom of the 9th, score tied 1-1. Moose McCormick is on first and Merkle singles. McCormick goes to third. If the Giants score, they win the pennant. Next, Al Bridwell singles, driving in McCormick with the winner for the Giants. The Giant fans pour onto the field like stampeding buffaloes in derbies and mustaches. Merkle sees them and runs for the clubhouse. Now, the Cubs’ tricky second sacker, Johnny Evers, notices this and goes and gets a ball. He returns to the field, touches second and shows the ball to the umpire who thumbs Merkle out! It seems that Merkle is supposed to go ahead and touch second base. All of a sudden, Bridwell’s pennant-winning single does not win the pennant.
The score returns to 1-1, and as luck would have it, it is getting dark. Being 1908, 27 years before the first night game, the ump calls the game on account of darkness and the contest and the pennant race end in a tie. New York fans holding bookies’ slips on the Giants cry foul, but the die is cast. A re-match is held at the Polo Grounds fifteen days later. The Giants’ faithful cry in their beer as the Cubs win this makeup game, 4-2 and receive the National League pennant in the bargain. The bookies are saying, “Never bet against a team with Johnny Evers on it. If you do, it is 7-5 the game disappears right under your nose.”
But a careful reconstruction of the fateful events of Thursday, October 8, 1908 reveals some fascinating facts. Nobody can agree if Evers actually uses the official game ball to force Merkle at second. Some say they see him yell for a ball which is tossed out to him from the Cubs’ dugout. Others claim that they see Giants’ pitcher Joe McGinnity – and Joe says so himself – throw the game ball into the stands and that Evers uses a different ball altogether to tag second base.
In 1908, running off the field without touching the base after the winning run comes in is a customary and widely accepted practice. But such practice is against a rule that it seems only Johnny Evers and the umpire Hank O’Day are aware of. O’Day later becomes the Cubs’ manager, a coincidence I am sure. Well, John McGraw, the Giants’ tough, Irish manager gets red in the face and pitches a fit at the National League for robbing his Giants of the pennant. Poor Merkle, for his effort, gets the nickname “Bonehead” for the rest of his 16-years in baseball. Some say it is a bum rap to hang that moniker on such a nice young man, who actually turns out to be a very good ballplayer. I see many pictures of Merkle later and his long face grows longer from carrying this heavy burden.
The Cubs go on to win the World Series which, wish as they might, they never repeat. You can look it up. Far and wide, serious students of the beautiful game say that the Giants are the rightful1908 National League champions, and that the Cubs’ pennant is ill-gotten goods. They conclude that the Cubs cannot be the 1908 World Series champions if they do not even win the National League flag. They argue that the last legit Cubs World Series victory was in 1907.
The next time the Cubs are as lucky as 1908 is the 1945 World Series. Many argue that Lady Luck arrived at Wrigley Field that September in the person of one Sam Sianis, saloon owner, and his billy goat. Sianis wants the club to use the goat as its mascot. Instead, the Cubs’ management promptly evicts Sam and the goat because “the goat’s odor disturbs the fans.” Outraged, Sam declares, “Them Cubs, they aint gonna win no more.” The Cubs are up two games to one but go on to lose to Detroit four games to three. A guy could be offered 10-1 odds and he would never put down even a $2.00 bet that the simple act of ushering Sam and the goat out blesses the Cubs with “The Curse” that winds up being blamed for every grounder they boot, every third strike they take, every pop fly they flub, and every playoff game they blow, forever.
It is a hundred years since the Cubs last claim a World Series win, and for months while the Cubs are having a great season, their fans are doing a dance about it all over town. They have caps with Year of Destiny and Chase the Dream embroidered in big white letters, front and back. Sox fans experience this in person in many locations many times and are very much put off to say the least.
Despite being the “Year of Destiny,” 2008 sees the Cubs blow the first round of the playoffs to the Dodgers 3 games to none. No jury would ever convict this reporter of wishing a bad roll of the dice to the Cubs, but I also lose no sleep when it comes to them getting swept out of yet another playoff series.
Maybe it is the Curse of the Billy Goat. And maybe it is not. Maybe it is not their 100-year destiny to win because, if you read your history, it is not 100 years since the Cubs actually win a legit World Series; it is 101 years. Waiting 101 years is a lot less tragically romantic than getting all teary about the magic 100 years.
Maybe the Cubs are not cursed for 63 years by the Billy Goat. Maybe they are cursed instead by Merkle’s Boner and the sin of stealing the pennant from the Giants in 1908 and going on to play in that World Series. Anyway, that is my story.