Merkle’s Boner: Baseball History, Radio Prehistory

The Gameday Radio team is obviously most passionate about two things:  baseball and radio.  Those two words have been connected and inclusive to each other for just about as long as anyone living can remember.  But this wasn’t always the case.  Major League Baseball predates radio by nearly fifty years – more than a third of its entire history.

That means there are 50 years of home runs, double plays, stolen bases, and extra inning thrillers that none of us have heard or seen.  As a warm-up for bringing youth baseball games to your smartphones, we thought that one play from ‘radio prehistory’ might be interesting for our technology to re-create, and interesting for baseball fans to hear, since this play arguably won the Chicago Cubs the pennant, and ultimately, the World Series, in 1908.

That play, affectionately known (or maybe not-so-affectionately, depending on your fanbase allegiance) as Merkle’s Boner, is quite possibly the most notorious major league baseball moment that is not vocally documented.

It took some work to pull together the data used by our systems to create this moment.  I dug deep into the internet, trying to find out as much as I could about that September 23 game in New York.  I found mountains of information.  In this digital age, anyone can post anything online, so I tried to focus only upon statements made by those individuals that were involved with the game and their statements to the press at the time and after the game.  The theme that quickly became apparent was that facts of the play were different in almost every account, whether from Merkle himself, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers, and even plate umpire Hank O’Day.  Evers’ account of events was especially troublesome as it seems his recollection changed over the years.  He told several different versions of the story as to how he got the ball to second base.  One account was that Hofman simply threw the ball to him, another has pitcher Rube Kroh (who was not playing in the game that day) and Joe Tinker assisting him.  Others have Evers, Kroh, and Tinker each in physical confrontations with fans in search of the ball.  As the father of three young boys I have heard my share of conflicting stories about the same event, but this was monumental.

In essence, what I really found were more questions, and not nearly as many answers.  In addition to all these new questions, I found much of my own knowledge of Merkle’s Boner to be incomplete or just plain inaccurate.  I had always assumed that the tie forced an immediate one-game playoff which was played the next day to determine the winner of the National League pennant.  Genuinely dramatic stuff, but not that close to what really happened.  While it is true that the Merkle game did force another game between Chicago and New York to be added, that additional game was played October 8, more than two weeks after the original game.  Both teams played more than 10 games versus other teams in the days between September 23 and October 8.  On top of that, the final game on October 8 wasn’t even really a playoff.  In those days, the regular season was 154 games.  According to the official record, both teams came into that final game at 98-55, not 98-55-1.  At the end of the day on October 8, Chicago was 99-55 (154 total games) and New York was 98-56 (also 154).  No playoff game was added to that season and the tie was not listed in either team’s record.  The final game was technically a replay of the Merkle game.  What a mess.

So, misconceptions, conflicting accounts, conjecture, maybe even some outright fabrications:  this was our starting point.  We quickly realized that accurately re-creating Merkle’s Boner was probably not possible, but it was entirely possible to create a call that would be darn fun to hear.

Baseball is not only sport, it’s entertainment.  I don’t want to hear just balls, strikes, and outs.  I want to hear the baseball story, and that’s how we went about constructing the call.  We put ourselves in the shoes of a play-by-play announcer watching the events of that day.  What would a man with a microphone have seen from the press box as Merkle’s Boner unfolded?  And how would he have described it?

In the end, we decided to include Merkle’s at-bat in the call to give listeners a feel for what was happening in the game that day and to build excitement as the winning run for the Giants gets closer to crossing the plate.  We also had quantifiable data as to what occurred during that at-bat so we were able to use our algorithm to generate the call.  The same was true for Bridwell’s at-bat, and McCormick crossing the plate for the winning run.

It’s when Johnny Evers starts calling for the ball from Solly Hofman that history begins to get a bit… murky.

But that’s also when the real fun begins!

Have a listen:

One thing to keep in mind as you listen:  The clip is a dramatization of the call for one of the most controversial and argued baseball plays of all time and this is what we thought it would sound like.  Some details may be different from actual historical events because of the many different (and conflicting) accounts of the story. The call is not intended as an historical document of any kind, but is the result of the Gameday Radio team’s collective imagination and is meant to showcase the type of radio broadcast we hope to provide for youth baseball teams across the country.

We want to thank all the organizations that helped us with our research including the Chicago Tribune archives, the New York Times archives, Baseball-reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and especially SABR (The Society for American Baseball Research).

 

Thanks for listening and we hope you enjoyed hearing the call as much as we did creating it.  Now that the stage is set for the 1908 World Series, we think it would be fun to hear some of the more exciting moments from one of those games, so stay tuned to Gameday Radio!