Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What If Fred Merkle Had Touched 2nd Base?

The 2012 World Series, between the Detroit Tigers and the San Francisco Giants, is underway.  The Tigers have won 11 American League Pennants.  The Giants, in New York and San Francisco combined, have won 22 National League Pennants.  The Giants have won the World Series in 1905, 1921, 1922, 1933, 1954 and 2010 -- all but the last in New York.  The Tigers have won it in 1935, 1945, 1968 and 1984.  And yet, for all that glory, they have never faced each other in a World Series before.

The closest call was in 1908.  The Tigers won the 2nd of 3 straight Pennants, but the Giants blew it due to losing what became known as the Fred Merkle Game.  Merkle's Boner led to the game of September 23, 1908 being ruled a tie, and the NL season ended in a tie between the Giants and the defending World Champion Chicago Cubs.  A replay, not recognized as an official postseason game by Major League Baseball, was played on October 8, and the Cubs won.  The Cubs, for the 2nd straight year, beat the Tigers in the World Series.  Those remain the only World Series the Cubs have ever won.

The Tigers lost 3 straight World Series, 1907-08-09.  The only other team to do that was the Giants, 1911-12-13, with some of the same players who'd blown the 1908 Pennant.

On the 100th Anniversary, September 23, 2008, I did a piece, in the style of ESPN's series The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame... , on why Merkle should be let off the hook.  Check it out on my other blog, Uncle Mike's Musings.   (See link to the right.)

There's no point in rehashing what happened, or what appears to have happened, on that wacky afternoon at the Polo Grounds.  But... What if it didn't happen that way?

Suppose the fans did not rush the field, and Merkle got to 2nd base safely, and the game went into the books as a Giant win, and the Giants won the Pennant?

Well, for starters, the Cubs would, in TTL, not have won a World Series since 1907, instead of 1908.  But that is hardly a difference-maker.


If the Giants had stuck to their starting rotation, then we can safely guess who their starting pitchers would have been.  Having Christy "Big Six" Mathewson and Joe "Iron Man" McGinnity, both usually willing to start on short rest, simplifies things for them.  Remember, this was the Dead Ball Era: Nothing having to bear down on a team full of sluggers meant less wear and tear on an arm, meaning more pitches, more innings, more starts, more wins.

So, here we go, the 1908 World Series, New York Giants vs. Detroit Tigers:

Game 1, October 10, at Bennett Park, Detroit (which would be torn down after the 1911, with Navin Field, later to be known as Briggs Stadium and Tiger Stadium, builton the site): Christy Mathewson vs. Ed Killian.  Killian left in the 3rd inning and did not appear again in the Series, so he may have left due to injury.  Ed Summers came in, but couldn't stop the Cubs.  I suspect the Giants would have hit Killian and Summers equally well.  The Tigers fought back, though, with 3 runs in the 7th and 2 in the 8th, but the Cubs put it away with 5 runs in the 9th, to win it 10-6.  But they're not facing Ed Reulbach in TTL-Game 1: They're facing Matty.  Giants 10, Tigers 2.  Giants lead, 1-0.

Game 2, October 11, at Bennett Park: Joe McGinnity vs. Bill Donovan.  In RL, the Series had shifted to Chicago.  But, with New York being a lot father away, they likely would have gone with a format of 2 in Detroit, 3 in New York, 2 in Detroit -- presuming more than 4 games were necessary.  Which means there will be a day off in the TTL-1908 WS, as there was not in the RL-1908 WS.  The game was scoreless going into the bottom of the 8th, but the Cubs hung 6 on Donovan.  Today, Jim Leyland would have pulled him after the first baserunner.  In aught-eight, Tiger manager Hughie Jennings left Wild Bill in, to live up to his nickname.  (There have been a few other famous men named Bill Donovan, and they all seem to have been nicknamed Wild Bill.) The Tigers pulled a run back in the 9th, but no more.  I think the result would have been the same: Giants 6, Tigers 1.  Giants lead, 2-0.  And they haven't even played in New York yet.

Game 3, October 13, at the Polo Grounds: Red Ames vs. George Mullin.  The Cubs scored 3 in the 4, but the Tigers scored 5 in the 6th.  And that was off Jack Pfeister, a better pitcher than Ames.  Tigers 8, Giants 3.  Giants still lead, 2-1.  So far, the road team has won every game.

Game 4, October 14, at the Polo Grounds: Mathewson vs. Ed Summers.  Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, Matty's only real challenger for the title of Best Pitcher In Baseball at that time, shut the Tigers out.  No reason why Matty can't do the same.  Giants 3, Tigers 0.  Giants lead 3-1, and are 1 win away from taking it.

Game 5, October 15, at the Polo Grounds: McGinnity vs. Donovan.  Orval Overall shut the Tigers out to clinch it.  But after 3,441 innings pitched in 10 years, at age 37, McGinnity is winding down, and maybe Ty Cobb and company get to him.  Tigers 3, Giants 2.  Giants still lead 3-2, but the Series goes back to the not-yet-Motor City.

Game 6, October 17, at Bennett Park: Ames vs. Mullin.  Since this game was not played in RL, all I can do is make a somewhat-educated guess.  And here I have to throw in a monkey wrench.

We tend to think of Mathewson as one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived -- maybe the greatest.  But in the 2 biggest games of his career -- the 1908 Merkle replay and Game 8 of the 1912 World Series (forced because Game 2 was called due to darkness) -- he blew it.  Christy Mathewson, not a big game pitcher, not a clutch pitcher? Hard to believe.  But let me put it this way: There are other pitchers I would trust in Game 7 before I'd trust Mathewson.

But since the Giants didn't play the Merkle Replay in TTL, and hadn't yet played the 1912 World Series, they didn't know that.  Would they have taken it easy in Game 6, knowing they could rely on Matty in Game 7? Hell no, manager John McGraw wouldn't have allowed that.  He wanted to go for the jugular every... single... game.

But I smell a field day for the Georgia Peach: Cobb gets 3 hits, drives in 4 runs, and steals 6 bases, including home plate once.  Tigers 6, Giants 2.  We're going to a Game 7.

Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson.  The first player and the first pitcher elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Numbers 3 and 7 on The Sporting News' end-of-the-century list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.  Their careers overlapped between 1905 and 1916.  And yet they never faced each other in a game that mattered.  Not in a World Series.  There was no All-Star Game back then.  They may never have even faced each other in spring training.  Now, they're going at it in Game 7 of the World Series.

Game 7, October 18, at Bennett Park: Mathewson vs. Summers.

The thing is, in RL, Cobb's lifetime postseason batting average was just .262.  That's .104 below his regular-season average.  And that was against guys like Brown, Pfeister, Overall, Reulbach, and 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers Vic Willis, Howie Camnitz and Babe Adams.  Aside from Brownie, none of those guys could touch Matty.  If Cobb was no better than, say, Nick Swisher against those guys, Mathewson would have turned him into postseason A-Rod.

In RL-1956, Don Larsen of the Yankees pitched the first no-hitter in World Series history, a perfect game.

In TTL-1956, Larsen will have to settle for the second no-hitter in World Series history.

Giants 2, Tigers 0.  Christy Mathewson pitches a no-hitter, with the only baserunner being Sam Crawford, who reaches on an error by... Fred Merkle.  But Merkle gets off a lot easier on this than he did for his RL "Boner." Mainly because Merkle doubled home 2 runs in the top of the 5th to provide the margin of victory.

This win doesn't affect the Giants' legacy much.  The difference between 1 ring and 2 isn't nearly as big as the difference between 1 ring and none.  In RL, Matty had 1 ring: 1905; Cobb had none.  In TTL, Matty has 2, Cobb still has none.

This doesn't change much.  All it really does is make the Cubs slightly more pathetic.