Yes, I know it has been MORE THAN A CENTURY since the Cubs won the World Series.
As a realistic yet always hopeful lifelong Cubs fan, I recently picked up a book that has been sitting in my bookcase for some time: Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History.
This book documents the 1908 season.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book unless you are a serious history buff with a great attention span and appreciation for detail, to the point you would enjoy following the play by play for an entire season 100+ years ago…
Detailed history buff does not describe me – BUT I did find LOTS in the book I appreciated and will share that information below.
The most interesting (and perhaps depressing part) is that the 1908 World Series win was largely due to a huge controversy referred to as the “Merkle Game.” You may have been to Merkle’s in Wrigleyville. If you don’t know the history of this season or this name, read on…
I actually have a Cubs shirt that says “World Series Champions 1908” but it looks pretty old now (I’ve had it about 10 years), and the last time I looked in Wrigleyville for a newer one, the store said they don’t sell them anymore because it is too depressing. But I love this shirt – I think you need to have a sense of humor to be a Cubs fan!!
Back to 1908 – many baseball historians including this author, Cait Murphy, maintain this was the most exciting baseball season in history. As the book shows, the season certainly was dramatic.
To set the scene, in 1908, a ticket to the game was 25 cents. A beer at the ballpark was 10 cents. So doing some quick math, the percentage price of beer to ticket price has gone down….hmmm does that make me feel better for paying $10 for a beer at Wrigley today?
A typical game in 1908 used six to ten balls total – fans were supposed to return foul balls immediately. The players wore no numbers on their uniforms. The Cubs would not be at Wrigley Field until 1923, so the field at this time smelled of stockyards. The players traveled the country by train, sometimes arriving in a town the morning of a game. Radio was in its intimacy; if you weren’t at the game you had to rely on word of mouth to find out who won.
The author also takes some interesting “time outs” to discuss other aspects of Chicago history, including a big news story of the time – a female murderer who lured Scandinavian farmers to her farm with promises of marriage. Kind of odd but it helped set the scene of the time.
The story builds up to a late season game between the Cubs and the New York Giants because of a controversial play and the “Merkle Games.”
The Merkle Game
I have been at Merkle’s Bar and Grill in Wrigleyville several times in my life but never fully understood the relevance of the name, so this was the most valuable part of this read for me.
In what she claims is baseball’s most controversial game ever, the score is tied 1-1 in the 9th with the Giants as home team up to bat. Fred Merkle is on 1st base with two outs…the runner on 3rd base scores with the next hit, so as fans start to rush the field Merkle walks off with the rest of his team thinking that the Giants had just won. But the Cubs then claim that because Merkle never touched 2nd and they got a force out and therefore the run doesn’t count. Or as the author explains, that’s one side of the story. (And I am simplifying the controversy here – newspapers reported several different things happening.) I did appreciate her use of intertextuality (in this case using a film) in several instances in the book and here when she describes the controversy:
“In Rashomon, a 1951 Japanese film, all the participants in a crime tell different versions of it. The attempt to discern an objective truth out of the action of a moment yields only multiple narratives. It’s all very deep. The story of Fred Merkle is like that. The game was not filmed, and there are no still pictures of the crucial action, so there is no objective way to piece together events. There are tens of thousands of eye witnesses, but they all see different things, mostly want they wish to see.”
After fans were already on the field, the umpires decided it was likely still a tie game, and they submitted this decision to the league for guidance. At the end of the season, because the teams are tied in the standings, the Giants and Cubs end up playing a make-up game, known as the “Merkle II” game. The Cubs win this re-do game and then go on to win the World Series easily. And not again since…
The bar in Wrigleyville named after Merkle tells the story on its website.
Obviously I am glad the Cubs can claim 1908, but I felt kind of bad for Merkle and this mistake. He lived out his life embarrassed by it. However, I will certainly enjoy my beer in Merkle’s more next time now that I understand this story!