Most historically-minded baseball fans associate the 1908 season with the famous "Merkle boner." After reading Anderson's book, a broader perspective will emerge. Even the Merkle incident itself will be seen for what happened - an arcane, never-enforced baseball rule that required those on base to advance when a winning run scored with two out - was enforced in Merkle's case as the Giant player moved toward his team's clubhouse and safety from onrushing fans.
Anderson claims that "there has never been a baseball season like that of 1908, and it is very unlikely that we will ever witness one like it again." For 1908, in the midst of the Dead Ball era was a "season of great pitching, few home runs, numerous feats of skill and endurance, and stellar performances by the stars of the era. The English language quickly runs out of superlatives to describe the 1908 pennant chase." The following pages back up Anderson's assertions.
Consider that in 1908, three teams in both the American and National leagues finished within one game of one another while the pennants were decided on the last day of the season. This was the last year for the nineteenth-century ballparks, made of wood and destined to give way to concrete and steel the next year in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. These were financed by owners and not by taxpayers. Attendance records were broken in both leagues due to the close races. Innovations in baseball that were to have enduring effects were also begun in this year. The infield tarpaulin was introduced to keep Pittsburgh's Exposition Park playable after soggy rains and flooding from the Ohio River. In 1908, the idea of night baseball was extensively discussed.
On the field, this was a season of "heartache, heartbreak, foreboding, and furious all-out controversy. It was a season of great achievement and abject failure." Pitching was outstanding in 1908. Three pitchers started and won both games of a doubleheader. Walter Johnson threw three shutouts against the Highlanders in five days. The aging Cy Young pitched a no-hitter. In October, Addie Joss of Cleveland pitched a perfect game against the White Sox.
This year was also marked by discussion about banning the spitball, an action that did not occur until 1920. It marked a period of realization that the practice of having only one umpire covering a regular season game was less than adequate. By the next year, over half the games were covered by two umpires. Scandals threatened this season, but did not materialize until a decade later.
On the positive side, 1908 was the year that baseball's "unofficial anthem," the famous "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was first performed onstage just after the World Series ended. Oddly, neither the composer, Albert Von Tilzer, nor the lyricist, Jack Norworth, had ever been to a baseball game when the song was written. Another part of baseball lore was "officialized" in 1908. The Mills Commission decided that baseball had been invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York in 1939 - a tradition that is thoroughly wrapped into the game's mythology. 1908 was also the last time the Cubs and the White Sox were locked in pennant races at the end of the season.
Anderson's narrative takes us through interesting discussions of baseball in 1908 and what the game was like in the Dead Ball Era. He moves on to a look at each of the teams and their players to set the stage for a month by month account of how the season unfolded. In the background is his discussion of umpiring during this period with biographical accounts of the prominent figures of the era.
The pennants that year were won by Detroit Tigers by ½ game over Cleveland; and by the Chicago Cubs who finished one game ahead of the New York Giants. The Cubs victory in the Series was a high point for the franchise and as Anderson points out, "put the Cubs on a short list of immortals, teams who have won two straight World Series. Other teams have won three or more pennants in a row, but none of those teams won a pennant by a closer margin than the Chicago Cubs. This Cubs team finished second to the Pirates in 1909 and won another pennant in 1910. As of this writing, the 1908 World Championship has been the last for the Cubs franchise."
The Cubs of that year are also well-known for their famous infield, immortalized in Franklin P. Adam's poem, "Tinker to Evers to Chance." Joe Tinker (shortstop), Johnny "The Crab" Evers (second base), and Frank Chance (first base) all entered the Hall of Fame, though their hitting and fielding statistics were not outstanding. This was also a quarrelsome bunch of players who sometimes engaged in postgame fights that resulted in injuries. Evers and Tinker did not speak to each other for years.
But despite all these notable dimensions, the most famous incident of the season occurred on September 23 when John McGraw's Giants met Chance's Cubs in New York. The incident is well-known. Rookie Giant firstbaseman Fred Merkle singled to right field with two outs and a runner on first in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied. The next batter, Al Bridwell, hit a single to center which scored the baserunner Moose McCormick. Seeing McCormick cross the plate, Merkle - as was the custom of the time in such situations - headed for the Giant clubhouse in center field. Cub secondbaseman Evers - a stickler for rules - noticed that Merkle had not gone on to touch second. Evers called for the ball (whether it was the genuine ball that was hit is debatable), tagged second and appealed to umpire Bob Emslie who did not see the play and refused to make the call. He appealed to his partner, the famous Hank O'Day who granted Evan's appeal and called Merkle out on a force play. The Giants had left the field, celebrating their victory when umpire O'Day declared the game a tie. When the game was made up on October 8th with the Giants and Cubs tied in the standings, the Giants lost the game - and lost the pennant.
Writers labeled Merkle's acts as "bonehead" and "Merkle's Boner" became enshrined in baseball history. The play ruined his reputation as a ballplayer. Anderson tells more of this story, explaining how a similar play had occurred in a game the month before involving Pirate rookie Doc Gill. He faults McGraw for not stressing this game with his players who would then have been better prepared in the event of a similar situation. Anderson also notes that this incident helped end the life of National League President Harry C. Pulliam. The rule that players must touch the next base when the winning run scored with two outs was on the books, but was not invoked in practice. It was commonly assumed that the game ended when there was no play on the winning run crossing the plate. Pulliam's indecision about what to do and failure to schedule a make-up game the next day prolonged the controversy over the play and led to his pilloring by the New York press. On July 28, 1909, he committed suicide by a gunshot wound to the head in the New York Athletic Club.
The Merkle incident so marred Fred Merkle's life that in the Foreword to this book Keith Olbermann recounts that Merkle's youngest daughter told him that in the 1930's, "a quarter century after that 23rd of September, 1908, a visiting minister had come to her family's church in Florida. 'I want to begin,' he chuckled from the pulpit, 'by admitting to you an ugly secret. I am from Toledo, Ohio; birthplace of the infamous Fred 'Bonehead' Merkle.' Fred Merkle silently stood up and led his family out the door."
This account of the great 1908 season is enhanced by a number of illustrations, tables, and appendices. After reading this book, readers will be able to judge for themselves whether or not they agree with the subtitle: "A History of the Best and Most Exciting Baseball Season in Human History."