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The man who made the most famous by-the-book call in American sports history learned early that umpiring was not for the meek.
As a pitcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884, Hank O’Day watched fans of this baseball-mad city’s new major-league franchise baste the officials.
One day, Toledo was thumped 11-2 by the New York Metropolitans — or, as the crowd saw it, robbed by a clearly liquored up arbiter of injustice. A mob of vigilantes waited for the man outside League Park, the club’s bandbox stadium on the corner of Monroe and 15th. The umpire, judged guilty of repeatedly losing track of the count and blown rulings on the base paths, made it unharmed to a waiting carriage only with a police escort.
"[George] Seward can thank the policemen, for the fact that he is able to enjoy this beautiful July day is due to them, and them alone," the Blade reported.
O’Day, though, had seen nothing yet.
He later became an umpire himself, then made a call that would define his venerated career, change the course of the 1908 pennant race — a chase many historians still consider the greatest ever — and haunt a 19-year-old Toledo man named Fred Merkle to his grave.
More than a century after Merkle’s Boner, the legacy of a man who has recast a spotlight on Toledo’s major-league heritage — and his own incidental but deep ties to the city — continues to resonate.
Today, O’Day will be inducted in to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
It is a year for bringing out the dead. O’Day will be enshrined in Cooperstown along with former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert and 19th-century catcher James “Deacon” White, all of whom died in the 1930s.
Wagging their finger at the steroids era, baseball writers did not elect a single candidate to the Hall this year, marking the first time since 1960 there will be no living inductees. O’Day, who umpired a record-tying 10 World Series and is the only man to play, manage, and umpire a full season in the majors, and the others were selected by the Pre-Integration Era Committee.
At risk of an understatement, baseball historian David Anderson calls O’Day’s induction "overdue." The Hall had to branch out his family tree so far that the living descendant they found to deliver the acceptance speech was unaware of the family connection.
Dennis McNamara, a 69-year-old retired Chicago police officer, is O’Day’s great-grandnephew.
"I've done a lot of things in my life," McNamara said in a phone interview last week. "But if you gave me 1,000 chances to come up with something — and you would need one heck of an imagination to come up with something like this — I never would have thought of it."
Nor could he have imagined what he would learn.
Consider that O’Day launched his Hall of Fame career here as part of the rollicking beer and whiskey league that made baseball America’s pastime and Toledo, for one historic summer, a big-league city.
Then his life really got interesting.
A baseball town
Start in 1883 for the first season of pro baseball in Toledo.
O’Day, a 21-year-old pitcher from Chicago, and the Blue Stockings were an immediate hit. Toledo won the second-tier Northwestern League and earned a place in the majors the next year alongside the biggest cities in America.
Baseball at the time remained in its infancy. Whiskey was the medicine of choice for sore-armed pitchers thrown ragged — Old Hoss Radbourn won a record 59 games for the Providence Grays in 1884 — fielders went bare-handed, and batters still had to state their preference for a high or low pitch, with the strike zone adjusted accordingly. A walk required eight balls.
The demand to watch the very best play this new game soared. The American Association launched in 1882 as a populist challenger to the highbrow National League. While the NL forbade Sunday games, banned alcohol on stadium grounds, and priced out the average fan with 50-cent tickets, the American Association did just the opposite.
Fans of all classes gained admission for a quarter, and, in a league founded in part by brewers who saw baseball games as a way to sell more beer, the booze flowed. The eight-team NL publicly wrote off the Association as the "Beer and Whiskey League," but in truth, they were concerned.
In 1884, a year after the Association’s thrilling pennant race between the Philadelphia Athletics, St. Louis Browns, and Cincinnati Red Stockings captivated the country, the addition of Toledo was only expected to build momentum.
Though this industrial city of about 50,000 was by far the 13-team league’s smallest market, Toledo earned a reputation as a baseball hotbed. The Blade noted the "craze," reporting on court cases scheduled around the Blue Stockings’ afternoon games and ballplaying children filling downtown streets.
One day in 1884, a wayward ball from one such game walloped a woman’s horse on St. Clair Street.
"The animal wheeled, and for a moment, a runaway seemed inevitable," the Blade wrote. "The lady, however, proved equal to the emergency and succeeded in quieting the horse. These accidents are liable to happen any day, unless some measures are taken to prevent the playing of the National Game in the streets."
Big early crowds at League Park carried high expectations. The Blue Stockings returned many of their key players from a year earlier, including O’Day and Moses Fleetwood Walker — a Michigan-educated catcher who became the first black player in major-league history that season — and added ace Tony Mullane.
Mullane was one of the league’s top stars, a disagreeable 25-year-old Irishman known as "Count" for his matinee-idol looks and scrupulously waxed handlebar mustache. He delivered heat with both arms and would win 284 games over 13 seasons — a career total tied for 29th on the all-time list and third among eligible pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, behind Bobby Matthews (297) and Tommy John (288). In 1884, he went 36-26 with a 2.52 ERA and led the American Association with seven shutouts.
Back to the minors
Hope, though, never gave way to results. The Blue Stockings lost their first eight games and never made a serious push, undermined by little pitching depth and a roster with loose morals.
"It is said that in addition to beer drinking, a number of the boys are intemperate in other respects, that they keep late hours are not choice of their company," The Blade reported. "It is due the people of the City of Toledo who pay their money to see a good game of ball that the Association look in to these matters and correct the evils either by fining or blacklisting."
To make matters worse, their star was racist.
Walker endured many slights in his trailblazing season. Chicago White Stockings star Cap Anson, for instance, refused to play an exhibition at Toledo if Walker suited up, and the future Hall of Famer later wielded his vast influence to keep intact a color line that would not be crossed again until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. (Anson played against Walker and the Blue Stockings a year earlier, and afterward vowed to The Blade, "We won’t play never no more with the [expletive] in." The Blade found Anson’s intolerance disgraceful, calling Walker "the superior intellectually of any player on the Chicago club.)
For the Blue Stockings’ catcher, though, perhaps the snub that cut deepest came from Mullane. Years later, the ace pitcher called Walker the "best catcher I ever worked with," but added, "I disliked a negro, and whenever I had to pitch to him, I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking at his signals."
In one early season game, Walker signaled for a curve, only for Mullane to rear back with a fastball. Walker approached the pitcher’s box.
"Mr. Mullane," he said, according to Edward Achorn’s 2013 book, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, "I’ll catch you without signals. But I won’t catch you if you are going to cross me when I give you a signal."
With that, Walker caught Mullane blindly the rest of the year. The result was one injury after another, including broken fingers and a broken rib. Walker could only play 41 games.
It was that kind of season.
Locally, interest faded. Crowds of thousands early in the season gave way to smatterings of hundreds as the losses piled up. Toledo finished 46-58 and in eighth place.
The experiment failed. Toledo returned to the minors the next season, and, despite all the league did to make baseball the national pastime, the American Association folded in 1891. The Association’s legacy endures in the teams that jumped to the NL, including the Pittsburgh Pirates, the St. Louis Browns/Cardinals, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms/Dodgers, and the Cincinnati Reds.
O’Day, who went 9-28 with a 3.75 ERA for the Blue Stockings in 1884, caught on with Pittsburgh and went on to win 73 games over seven seasons.
His bigger mark on the game came as an umpire.
O’Day was respected as a fair, keen enforcer of the rules, though most found him overly dour. Lest a friendship color his judgment, O’Day kept to himself. Fellow umpire Bill Klem once called him a "misanthropic Irishman."
"His whole life was baseball," said McNamara, who has become a veritable O'Day scholar since receiving the call from Cooperstown. "He had very few friends, no family to speak of. He was always getting ready for the next season. [One man] walked up to Hank O'Day and said, 'How you doing? It's a nice day.' And [O'Day] said, 'What's good about it?’ "
O’Day umpired the first modern World Series in 1903 between the champion Boston Americans (Red Sox) and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he was often called upon for the biggest games.
Naturally, that included the fateful afternoon of Sept. 23, 1908, at the Polo Grounds in New York.
The Chicago Cubs, New York Giants, and Pittsburgh Pirates — the three NL powers for the first decade of the 20th century — were wedged in a wire-to-wire race.
O’Day was behind the plate for the latest bout between the Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance Cubs and star pitcher Christy Mathewson’s Giants. The rivals were separated by percentage points atop the NL standings and, on this day, even less distance for the first eight innings. Mathewson, who would earn 37 of his 373 career wins that season, and Chicago ace Jack Pfiester dueled before a crowd of more than 20,000 jammed inside the bathtub-shaped stadium, not to mention the untold number of fans who bruised for position on Coogan’s Bluff overlooking right field.
The game was tied 1-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth, still in search of a hero.
An infamous mistake
Merkle took his shot with two outs and a runner on first base.
It was an unlikely spot for the 19-year-old rookie. Merkle was the youngest player in the NL and making the first start of his career — an 11th-hour add after the Giants’ regular first baseman, Fred Tenney, awoke that morning with a severe case of lumbago.
Yet this was a situation the son of German immigrants had dreamed of growing up on the ballfields of Toledo, where he had starred at Central High School before tearing through a series of semipro leagues.
Merkle rapped a single down the right-field line to push Moose McCormick to third base. Then, moments later, he heard the stadium detonate as shortstop Al Bridwell blistered Pfiester’s next pitch into center field for the apparent winning hit.
The New York Times reported the scene this way: "McCormick trots home, the merry villagers flock on the field to worship the hollow where the Mathewson feet have pressed, and all of a sudden there is doings at second base."
As McCormick touched home, Merkle pulled up short of second base and wheeled toward the Giants’ center-field clubhouse — a common practice to avoid the herd of fans who flooded the field after big wins. Though a force out at second could wave off the run, the rule was rarely enforced.
But no one has ever accused Merkle of being lucky. For two men, the game was not over.
Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers, a gritty 130-pound stick always in search of an edge, noticed Merkle miss second and waved for the ball. And O’Day, who denied a similar appeal from Evers in a game against the Pirates weeks earlier because he had not seen the play, was watching.
Though accounts of what happened next remain debated to this day — one popular version has a Giants pitcher hurling the ball in the stands, only for, as Evers later insisted, Cubs pitcher Rube Kroh and third baseman Harry Steinfeldt to wrestle it away from a fan — a ball that may or may not have been the one Bridwell hit was relayed through the commotion to second base.
Evers appealed to the base umpire, who then turned to O’Day. Merkle was out, and because the field could not be cleared by dark, the game was ruled a tie.
The Giants and their fans raged, arguing the call was not in the spirit of the rules. Even Klem, the umpire, later said, "Evers talked a great umpire into making the rottenest decision in the history of baseball." But NL president Harry Pulliam, a tortured man who would commit suicide months later at age 40, upheld the call.
For Merkle, life would never be the same.
Baseball never forgets
The Giants and Cubs finished the season tied for first with matching 98-55 records, thrusting focus back on a play by then known across the country as Merkle’s Boner. The Cubs won a one-game playoff at the Polo Grounds and went on to win their second straight World Series title.
Merkle was vilified, with the New York Times accusing him of "censurable stupidity," though the barbs paled next to his own devastation. He returned that offseason to Toledo, where he lost weight and fell into a depression.
"Get rid of me, Mac," Merkle told New York manager John McGraw, according to Sports Illustrated. "I don't deserve to play on the Giants."
McGraw, to his credit, would have none of it.
"It is criminal to say that Merkle is stupid and to blame the loss of the pennant on him," he said. "In the first place, he is one of the smartest and best players in the game."
Merkle would prove his manager right, batting .273 over 17 big-league seasons.
Yet the shadow of that fateful game against the Cubs never diminished.
Before a little roller up along first got by Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series, Merkle stood alone atop the list of all-time goats. Bridwell later said he wished he would have struck out instead to spare Merkle "a lot of unfair humiliation."
Even after Merkle retired to Daytona Beach, Fla., vowing not to return to a major-league park, the blunder followed. He was at church with his family one morning when the visiting minister introduced himself.
"You don't know me," the minister said, according to SI, "but you know where I'm from. Toledo, Ohio! The hometown of Bonehead Fred Merkle!"
Merkle died in 1956 at age 67, buried in an umarked Florida grave to prevent vandals from scrawling "Bonehead" on his marker.
Today, the legend of the once-unknown Toledo teen remains strong in baseball lore — and, just maybe, endures as the real hex placed on the hapless Cubs. Outside Wrigley Field, a popular bar pays tribute to the man who is most linked with the Cubs’ last World Series title in 1908.
It is called Merkle’s.
Baseball never forgets.
Not Merkle, and not O’Day, the ballplayer and the now Hall of Fame umpire, two men bound first by their ties to Toledo, then to history.