Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Watertown's Most Famous Resident

My hometown has three citizens of note over its history. If you came to Watertown, you'd see two of them displayed prominently.

The first one is Carl Schurz, a former US Senator and Secretary of the Interior famous for the saying "My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right, and if wrong, to be set right." He also served in the Union Army during the Civil war, taking part in Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, and the Second Battle of Bull Run, and, as ambassador to Spain, kept that country from supporting the South. Unfortunately for Watertown, this was only one of several places Schurz hung his hat; he was born in Germany and died in New York City, and when he was elected to the Senate, he represented Missouri, not Wisconsin.

But, we named a street and an elementary school after him.

The second one is Dan Brandenstein, an astronaut who logged 32 days, 21 hours, 3 minutes in space over his career over four separate missions, serving as pilot and commander. He's still alive, age 67, but he's gotten a park named after him, and a prominent park at that on one of Watertown's more prominent streets. I might say more about him, but I'm not very up on my astronaut terminology. It is, after all, rocket science.

But this is surely the first you've heard of Dan Brandenstein unless you live in Watertown, and quite possibly the first you've heard of Schurz as well.

Do you know who Fred Merkle is?

(Every baseball fan in America is reacting in some way, shape or form.)

Fred Merkle is the primary reason the Chicago Cubs' World Series drought is ONLY 102 years. In 1908, his rookie season, the Cubs and the Giants were fighting it out for the NL pennant. On September 23, the Cubs were visiting the Polo Grounds (which back then did not yet have walls totally enclosing the outfield, but rather a rope behind which was essentially a parking lot).

Bottom of the 9th, two outs, the score is tied at 1. Merkle comes to bat with Moose McCormick on first. Merkle singles and advances McCormick to third. Al Bridwell, batting behind Merkle, hits another single and drives McCormick home.

Game over, right? The fans thought so; they stormed the field.

Except Merkle had left the basepaths before reaching second, heading for the clubhouse as soon as McCormick had crossed the plate. McCormick's run would not count until and unless he touched second. Cubs second baseman- and future Hall of Famer- Johnny Evers took note, found the ball- or at least A ball- touched second, and appealed to the umpire to call Merkle out. The ump agreed, McCormick's run didn't count. They couldn't restart the game due to all the fans on the field and the fact that it was getting dark, so the game would have to end in a tie.

Evers had done a similar thing previously in a game against the Pirates, but didn't get the call that time; his appeal on Merkle was helped by the fact that the umps knew it might be coming. And as luck would have it, the ump in particular, Frank O'Day, was the specific ump Evers had warned.

As luck would have it, the Cubs and Giants ended the season in a tie for first, and so everyone went back to the Polo Grounds to replay the game. This time, the Cubs won 4-2, the Cubs putting the game away early with all their runs coming in the 3rd, and relying on Three Finger Brown to carry the day on his end after starting pitcher Jack Pfiester couldn't find the plate in the 1st, hitting one, walking two, and allowing a run. The baserunning error that caused it all has since been called "Merkle's Boner", and Merkle would never live it down.

Fast forward to the 1912 World Series. The Giants were facing off against the Boston Red Sox, in Game 8 of a seven-game series.

No, that's not a typo. Game 2 went 11 innings and ended in a 6-6 tie due to darkness.

Game 8 is at Fenway Park. It's the bottom of the 10th with the Giants up 2-1. Christy Mathewson- who also pitched the 1908 tiebreaker game for New York- had pitched well, allowing seven hits but stranding seven on base as well. It wouldn't be his pitching that got him in hot water.

Clyde Engel, leading off the bottom of the 10th for Boston, hit a fly to center that outfielder Fred Snodgrass couldn't hang onto. It was now Snodgrass' turn to be eternally linked to an error, this one known as 'Snodgrass's Muff'.

But it wasn't even the biggest muff of the inning.

Engle would reach second on the error. The next batter, Harry Hooper, gave the ball a ride, but this time Snodgrass was ready for it, making an amazing catch and saving what might had been the end of the game right there. Mathewson would walk Steve Yerkes, and then came Tris Speaker, who Mathewson got to pop up into foul territory on the first base side. Three people converged on it- Mathewson, catcher Chief Meyers... and first baseman Fred Merkle.

Absent any instruction, this was Merkle's ball. But Mathewson called him off and signaled for Meyers to catch it. Meyers, however, didn't hear Mathewson, and deferred to Merkle. The ball landed harmlessly.

Through no fault of his own, Merkle was involved in his second pennant-losing choke.

Speaker had a second life, and knew it, taunting Mathewson, "Well, you just called for the wrong man, and it's gonna cost you the ball game!" He then made good on his taunt, singling home Engel and sending Yerkes to third, followed by an intentional walk to load the bases and Larry Gardner sacrifice-flying Yerkes home. Series over. Red Sox win.

Watertown doesn't make much note of Merkle, aside from one local baseball diamond across from Webster Elementary, labeled in a subdued manner, 'Fred Merkle Field'.

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