On August 3, 1908, the New York Tribune surveyed the baseball scene and found it wondrous to behold:
"Not in years has the National League had such a contest as is being waged at present. In the last two years the Cubs clinched their hold on the pennant by August 1, and it was merely a matter of speculation just how many games they would be in advance of other teams at the end of the season. The story is altogether different this season. The Pirates, Cubs and Giants are very evenly matched, and it is impossible to say which team will finish in front."
The best, in point of fact, was yet to come. The 1908 race was not decided until the final out of the final game, played by the Cubs and Giants before a frenzied crowd at the Polo Grounds—a game made necessary because, on Sept. 23, Fred Merkle of the Giants had failed to touch second base.
Poor Merkle. He was in the second season of what would be a 16-year career, and a far from undistinguished one. But the infamous "boner" of Sept. 23 haunted him for life.
That boner emerges now from the mists of baseball history as the climactic event in G.H. Fleming's The Unforgettable Season (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $16.95), an ingenious and entertaining account of what the dust jacket bills as "the most exciting and calamitous pennant race of all time." Those with memories of the 1951 race in the National League, or the 1978 race in the American League East, may beg to differ—but the drama of that 1908 brouhaha is difficult to top.
Fleming, who teaches English literature at the University of New Orleans, has chosen to tell the story of that race entirely in the words of the reporters who covered it for metropolitan newspapers, chiefly in Chicago, Pittsburgh and New York. There is a New York bias that will irritate some readers—after all, the Cubs won the pennant—but it's true that the Giants were the Cinderella team and that their cast of characters was something special.
These were the Giants of Christy Mathewson, Roger Bresnahan, Iron Man McGinnity, Turkey Mike Donlin—and John J. McGraw. They were a two-fisted bunch. One newspaper declared: "The spirit of rowdyism with which McGraw has imbued the Giants bids fair to live as long as do the men whom he taught to bulldoze umpires and behave like Bowery roughs, on and off the diamond. For several years the New York club has done more to lower the position of professional ball players than all other major league teams put together."
That was sanctimonious malarkey. The dispatches quoted in this book make clear that all of baseball in 1908 was only a step away from the frontier. Brawls on the field were common; even more frequent were brawls in the stands, melees frequently incited by the on-premises consumption of hard liquor. The power of league authorities to control the behavior of players and fans was tenuous and subject to constant challenge.
Indeed, the Merkle case subjected that power to a severe test. Every fan knows that when Merkle failed to touch second, the winning run was nullified and the crucial game declared a 1-1 tie. What has been forgotten is that the incident set off a furious bout of legal maneuvering by both the Cubs and the Giants, with each team determined to force League President Harry Pulliam to bow to its own interpretation of the affair. He stood firm, but with immense difficulty.
The Unforgettable Season brings all this tumult and shouting vividly to life through the words of those who were there. The reporters of the day were unabashed homers; the home team was usually "we" and its cause was loudly trumpeted. The writers' prose ranged from the bombastic to the sentimental, but it was almost always florid.
What Fleming has assembled is an engaging and revealing period piece. He has produced a book that brings back to life a distant time and that provides, as Lawrence Ritter notes in his forward, "a jarring glimpse of an America that was not quite as tranquil and serene as nostalgia would generally have us believe."