The Autumns of the Giants' Years
by: Greg W. Prince | GothamBaseball.com | Monday, September 12, 2005
September is as good a month as any to examine the footprints left behind by the New York Giants, a baseball team whose 75 summers were as rich and memorable as those of any franchise in the history of the game...and whose autumns were something else altogether.
Surely you've heard of the New York Giants. They don't come up very often as a topic of conversation in a baseball-mad metropolis, understandable to a point in that they haven't played an inning since 1957. We're now on our third generation of fans who never took the Ninth Avenue El or the Harlem River Speedway to say nothing of the Brush Staircase to the Polo Grounds. From most of Manhattan, you'd have to go uptown to see the Giants but you also had to walk down to their bathtub of a ballpark. Maybe you've heard of Coogan's Bluff. The Polo Grounds was built into the side of it. No wonder it's been all downhill since 1957.
If you haven't heard about the Giants much or the Polo Grounds more than a little, maybe the names who were so Gigantic in their time will ring a bell. We'll throw them out here and hope they do indeed tickle a responsive chord.
Not a bad representative sample, eh? These 10 men and 37 other players and managers who wore the garments of the New York Giants are ensconced in Cooperstown. In 74 of the 75 seasons in which the Jints maintained their Manhattan residence, they had at least one future Hall of Famer in uniform (if your only look at them came in 1899, you might want to work on your timing).
The Giants were talent but they were also tradition. They played ball in Manhattan seven years before the Dodgers got a man on base -- let alone three on the same base -- in Brooklyn. Their shadow loomed large a full two decades ahead of an obscure startup operation called the New York Highlanders. The Giants already had two National League pennants stuffed in their pockets long before the proto-Yankees saw light.
Absorb this passage from the franchise's definitive biography, "The Giants of the Polo Grounds" by Noel Hynd:
"A pennant race was on and the New York Nationals were, for the first time ever, the rage of the big town. What a giddy season it was. Track meets, bare-knuckle boxing, horse racing and rowing on the rivers took a backseat to baseball."
The year? 1885. Giantsmania swept New York a full decade in advance of the birth of one George Herman Ruth. That guy wasn't even a babe when the Giants established baseball in New York. So when you're talking tradition in this town, be careful where you start.
To be fair, the Giants weren't always fantastic finishers even though their portfolio includes the two 19th-century pennants of 1888 and 1889 plus 15 more in the "modern era". They won five World Series or, if you believe the plaque affixed to one of the Polo Grounds Houses (the structures that took the place of the stadium), six world championships.
Why the discrepancy? Manager John McGraw famously refused to bother with the 1904 World Series, deeming the American League too inferior to take seriously. Since the fall classic was yet to be codified as part of the baseball calendar, McGraw took his ballclub and went home, declaring victory once and for all. Not everybody bought it, but any way you look at it, the plaque says six and it's too late to get the Boston Pilgrims down here to settle matters. Series cancelled on account of pique delay.
After his tantrum, the senior and junior circuits agreed to make their October meetings mandatory starting the very next year. Fittingly or ironically, McGraw's Giants, behind three Mathewson shutouts, won the 1905 Series.
Missing from the Giants' conga line of flags is one from 1908, a sore spot in many of eternity's precincts. That was the year that three teams -- the Giants, the Cubs and the Pirates -- competed strenuously for a pennant. It contained the moment that history demands we recall more than any other from that season, that decade and maybe from the first half-century of professional baseball.
Yes, it was that big. Too bad it unfolded like a questionably umpired cheap suitcase.
In essence, this is what happened: On September 23, 1908, the Giants played the Cubs at the Polo Grounds with first place at stake. Some 20,000 crammed into those Polo Grounds (which, at the time, officially held only 16,000...it was one of four predecessors to the PG that was constructed in 1911 and demolished in 1964). The game was tied going to the bottom of the ninth, 1-1. The Giants put two runners on base -- Moose McCormick on third and Fred Merkle on first with two out. Al Bridwell then singled to center. McCormick sprinted home with the winning run.
And Fred Merkle sprinted to centerfield. In the Polo Grounds, that's how you got to the clubhouse. Even if he had left through the dugout, the message was the same: The game is over; we won; I'm going to go take a shower. That was business as usual at the Polo Grounds or any ballpark in 1908 when it was common practice for runners to immediately leave the field when the apparent winning run was scored.
Did somebody say "apparent"? Though it wasn't generally enforced, the rule, then as now, was a runner had to advance a base when his teammate singled in order for the runner to be judged safe. Even though McCormick went from third to home, Merkle technically had to go from first to second. And Merkle didn't.
Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed. He manically called for the ball, any ball (the field teemed with jubilant Giant rooters, so it's been said that there may have been a bit of Chicago chicanery at work to so easily produce "the" ball) and, grabbing the attention of umpires Bob Emslie and Hank O'Day, stepped on second for the force. Three out.
It was too late to reconvene the contest. Chaos had enveloped the Polo Grounds. As indicated, it was a very big game. Those who couldn't be there followed the action at automatic scoreboards set up all around Manhattan. Those who could be there felt compelled to truly be a part of it and rush the field when it was over. By the time the proverbial dust had cleared and all parties were apprised of the third-out ruling, McGraw and the Giants were beside themselves. The manager who didn't want to play the American League champs four years earlier was incensed that the National League insisted that the two teams make up this game, which was considered won 2-1, in case it impacted the race.
And of course it would. It was too dramatic a storyline to go away neatly. ("More Than Merkle" by David W. Anderson is a great guide to all of 1908.) The Cubs, clearly Public Enemy No. 1, rolled back into New York on October 8 for a makeup game. Thirty-five thousand of the vengeful and bloodlusty crammed Coogan's Bluff for this one. Christy Mathewson faced Jack "The Giant Killer" Pfiester with the championship at stake. Matty was good. Pfiester failed to live up to his nickname. Cubs manager Frank Chance pulled the Killer and went to Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, and in Three Finger's hands, the Giants chances were summarily shrunken. Final score: Cubs 4 Giants 2. Chicago won the pennant.
The Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series. They haven't won one since. And they think a Billy goat cursed them.
The Giants enjoyed their share of happy September and October days after the disappointment of '08. They won the first two Subway Series, which were kind of a misnomer, because in 1921 and '22, the Giants and Yankees both called the Polo Grounds home. Bobby Thomson had a particularly sublime afternoon on October 3, 1951. It was heard 'round the world, you know. And that Giant kid Mays really caught onto something the afternoon of September 29, 1954. Just ask Vic Wertz.
The Polo Grounds witnessed much that was wonderful, some that was heartbreaking and loads that was memorable. Though the play took place nearly a hundred years ago didn't go the Giants' way, they don't get much more unforgettable than what happened on September 23, 1908.
Fred Merkle's then-commonplace exit from the basepaths became known as Merkle's Boner. He himself was called Bonehead Merkle. Just 19 years old when it happened, he never shook the tag that was derived from being forced out in the way that he was. He did persevere, however, playing in the Majors until 1926 and living what, by all accounts, was an exemplary life until passing away in 1956. A year later the Giants left New York for good.
Teams move. Autumn leaves. Somewhere in the heart, the Giants stay.
Greg W. Prince shares his thoughts on the Mets daily at Faith and Fear in Flushing.