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Sunday, October 05, 2008
Chicago Cubs and the Curse of Legal Formalism

On Saturday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Cubs 3-1, completely a dominating three-game sweep in the National League Division Series in which they outscored the Cubs 20-6. Thus will it be more than 100 years between world championships for the Cubs, who famously last won in 1908. This century of losing has been blamed on everything from billy goats to black cats to twenty-something fans in head phones to the refusal to install lights at Wrigley Field. I want to suggest a new source: legal formalism.

In addition to being the centennial of the Cubs' last championship, 1908 also was the centennial of one of the game's most infamous gaffes, by Fred "Bonehead' Merkle. Some detailed history. On September 23 of that year, the Giants and Cubs, tied for first place, played at New York's Polo Grounds. Tied 1-1 with two outs and runners at first (Merkle, then a rookie first-baseman) and third, the Giants' Al Bridwell singled, scoring the runner from third, and apparently winning the game.Giant fans immediately ran onto the field, a common practice in those days, both to celebrate and to head to the stadium exit in right field that was closest to the trains and streetcars home. To get out of the crowd, Merkle turned right and headed for the clubhouse, which was located behind centerfield (the Polo Grounds remains my favorite of the now-deceased ballparks), without touching second base. That left the force at second base in effect. Amid the chaos, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers got a ball (no one knows for sure whether it was the actual ball that had been hit on the play and that fact never has been established; some stories have a Giants player throwing the actual batted ball into the stands) and tagged second base and umpire Hank O'Day called Merkle out on the force, which nullified the run and ended the inning. The game then was called because of darkness and declared a tie. The teams finished the season tied, so the tie game was replayed; the Cubs won 4-2, winning the pennant and then the World Series--their last.

And here we have legal formalism at work. O'Day's call was correct under MLB rules. A run does not score if a trailing runner is forced out at another base for the third out of the inning. And there seems no dispute that Merkle did not touch second. On the other hand, the crowd had stormed the field, so Merkle's decision to get off the field as quickly as possible is understandable. It was common in those days for fans to come onto the field and for players to head for safety, even without touching the base. The rule was not well-known and was not regularly enforced. And, of course, we do not know whether the ball that Evers had when he tagged the base was the right ball. On the other hand, some accounts have Evers trying the same move a few weeks earlier on the same umpire--it did not work then because the umpire had not watched to see whether the runner touched second. But O'Day was on notice when it counted.

So how does karma work? One way would be to deny the Cubs the benefit of the "tainted" victory by having them lose the World Series. Another way would be to give the Cubs the benefit of the Series that year--and never letting them have it again. So, if you are an 8-year-old Chicagoan in 1908, which do your choose?

By the way, I have been looking at current Major League Baseball rules (Download 04_starting_ending_game.pdf) and it appears the result would be the same under current rules. Rule 4.09(a) addresses this situation and requires that all runners touch the next base. Rule 4.09(b) provides that in a walk-off situation (run scoring in the last half of the final inning), the runner on third must touch home and the batter must touch first, with no mention of any other runners. But that rule is limited only to plays with the bases full which force the runner on third to advance--not the situation in 1908, because the runner on third was not forced to come home. A comment creates an exception when fans rush the field and prevent either from touching the necessary base, with the bases awarded because of fan interference. But that comment is limited only to Rule 4.09(b), which, again, does not cover the 1908 situation. Am I reading the rule correctly?

Or maybe umpires impose flexibility as a matter of their own discretion. In 1976, the Yankees won the ALCS when Chris Chambliss hit a home run to lead-off the ninth inning. Thousands of fans descended on the field to celebrate, pull up grass, and (I have read) try to steal pieces of padding off the outfield fence) as Chambliss tried to get around the bases; he eventually gave up and ran for the safety of the clubhouse. Later, after the field had been cleared, the umpires pulled Chambliss out of the clubhouse and had him touch home plate. Formalist, to be sure. Call this a mix of formalism and pragmatism--make sure the batter touches the bases, but allow him to get out of the madness of the moment without penalty.


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