Two Kinds of Baseball

John Schulian’s Twilight of the Long Ball Gods is about two kinds of baseball. There’s the baseball of legends and statistics and leagues and divisions, and then there’s the baseball of the memory and the senses, the baseball that reveals our humanity, our resiliency and frailty, our heart and soul.

0803293275Schulian’s “dispatches from the disappearing heart of baseball” are perfect summertime reading. Thirty-seven articles that range from a visit to Babe Ruth’s birthplace (a ramshackle museum in Baltimore) to bittersweet memories of American Legion baseball represent some of the most honest writing on America’s Pastime that I’ve ever encountered.

There’s a lot of in-your-face controversy out there in the world of
sports. Networks like ESPN seem almost built on controversy, real or
manufactured, where daily dispatches are as much about the play of the
day as they are about contract negotiations, drug tests, and litigation
ranging from assault and battery to logo infringement.

Schulian’s book is about the other game. The game that’s not on
television, but rather the one that reappears like a dream under the
floodlights of a local field, where you see all the players back in
their places. You slow down to get a look, and maybe even stop because
you see more than a game being played. You see memories, the ones that
lay dormant all winter and flow back so suddenly that it almost takes
your breath away.

A Bonehead Century

G.H. Fleming’s The Unforgettable Season
is a remarkable and exhaustive collection of newspaper articles that
the tell the story of the 1908 National League Pennant race, considered
one of the most dramatic of all time.

The 1908 season also conjures up the sad-eyed visage of Fred Merkle.
Look up his name in any baseball history or website and you won’t read
very far until you encounter the word “bonehead.”

It was Merkle’s so-called “bonehead play” that cost the New York
Giants the 1908 National League Pennant. But of course that isn’t
entirely true; a 160-game season features dozens of errors and blown
plays and missed opportunities. Merkle’s baserunning error just
happened to be in a crucial pennant game.Merkle_fred

The “bonehead play” happened while the 19-year-old Merkle played for
the Giants against the Cubs at the Polo Grounds on September 23, 1908.
With the score tied in the bottom of the Ninth with two outs, and Moose
McCormick on first base, Merkle singled, advancing McCormick to third.
Then Al Bridwell singled, allowing McCormick to score and apparently
ending the game as a Giants victory. Celebrating Giants fans stormed
the field, but Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed that Merkle had
left for the clubhouse without touching second base. Evers retrieved
the game ball from the Cub dugout, touched second, and then appealed to
umpire Hank O’Day to call Merkle out. Unfortunately for Merkle, O’Day
enforced the letter of the law that day, nullified McCormick’s run and
erased the Giants’ victory.

This left the game tied and the Cubs and Giants tied in the
standings, so the game was replayed in a makeup game won by the Cubs.0803269226_2

Merkle maintained until his death that he had touched second. “I
suppose when I die, they’ll put on my tombstone, ‘Here Lies Bonehead
Merkle.’” Merkle said in 1950, six years before his death. Well, they
didn’t, but if poor Fred were alive to Google his name he’d encounter
“bonehead” on every entry.

However, a Google search under “bonehead” does not likewise bring up
the name “Merkle,” suggesting perhaps that the line of boneheads over
the past century, and even the past year, has pushed Fred well to the
back of the queue.

Even the New York American had a sense of perspective amid the turmoil of the 1908 season. The Unforgettable Season
includes this quote from the newspaper: “Merkle’s blunder cost New York
the pennant. True. This does not lower the price of beef…it does not
save the old from toil or the poor from hunger…But it evoked
excitement. No human being in New York yesterday can deny that. And
excitement makes the world go round…”

And Fred, if it is any consolation, 1908 was also the last year the Cubs won the World Series.