Ah, yes, boner. Here is a word fallen sadly into disuse. We are not talking of a physical mistake, you understand, or an error of judgment. No, a boner is a mental blunder—a fit of absentmindedness, a sudden blanking out, a momentary wandering—that brings on dreadful consequences. A physical error is to a boner what stubbing your toe is to locking yourself out of the house at night during a blizzard. The one is merely painful; the other suggests some defect of character or intellect.
When Boston's Bill Buckner let that ground ball roll between his injured legs in the 1986 World Series, he was guilty of nothing more grievous than an ill-timed physical error. And John McNamara, the Red Sox manager who left Buckner in the game when abler defensive players were at his call, can be condemned for nothing worse than faulty judgment. The home run pitch Brooklyn's Ralph Branca threw to Bobby Thomson in the '51 Dodgers-Giants playoff game and the one Oakland's Dennis Eckersley served up to Los Angeles' Kirk Gibson in the '88 World Series were simply mistakes. Such things are best forgotten, even if they usually aren't.
But a boner committed at such a critical juncture has an enduring grandeur to it. Thomson and Gibson generally get more credit than Branca and Eckersley get blame, but the perpetrator of a boner stands alone. When Jack Dempsey neglected to go to a neutral corner after he had knocked Gene Tunney down and possibly out at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1927, he lost a chance to regain the heavyweight championship on a boner of classic dimensions. That occurred 63 years ago, but fight fans have not yet gotten over the "long count" that allowed Tunney to recover and win a 10-round decision.
That's the thing about boners: They never go away; they linger in memory long after they should mercifully be put to rest. There is an endless fascination to them, possibly because they are so damnably common. Who among us hasn't committed a boner? Is there anyone who hasn't asked himself—sometimes in the middle of the night—"How could I have done that?"
October 14, 1990
Can it be that the grand boners, the ones that bring down heroes, work to alleviate our own lesser goofs? Can this be the source of our secret pleasure in them? To err is human, to forgive divine, and—as these, the biggest boners in all of sports history, so tellingly reveal—to forget is impossible.
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.
—The New York Times
Sept. 24, 1908
Immortality is not always to be envied. Just ask Fred Merkle, wherever he is. Merkle, wrote Douglass Wallop in his book Baseball: An Informal History, is "an eternal goat," an unfortunate soul "maligned for posterity."
"Bonehead Merkle," they called him, a man inseparable from his famous boner. When he was tapped for a special kind of immortality, Merkle was only 19 years old, a Wisconsin farmboy playing his second year for the New York Giants and starting his first game of the season as a substitute for the injured regular first baseman, Fred Tenney. It was Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 23, 1908, at New York's Polo Grounds. The Giants and the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance Cubs, who had won pennants in '06 and '07, were but percentage points apart after the Cubs swept a doubleheader on the 22nd. But now Giants manager John McGraw was pitching his ace, Christy Mathewson, the sainted Matty, eventual winner of 37 games that year. Opposing him was Jack Pfiester, a lefthander who would win only 12. But this day Pfiester was Matty's equal. The score was 1-1 as the Giants came to bat in the bottom of the ninth under darkening skies.
Cy Seymour grounded out leading off. Art Devlin singled to center, and Moose McCormick forced him at second base. With two outs and the game on the line, young Merkle, who had been hitless in three at bats, singled over Frank Chance's head down the rightfield line, moving McCormick to third.
Merkle took a gambling lead off first but was chased back to the bag by an admonishing glare from the next hitter, shortstop Al Bridwell. Pfiester's first pitch was a waist-high fastball that Bridwell hit on a line past second baseman Johnny Evers into centerfield. The ball was hit so sharply that base umpire Bob Emslie fell on his backside skipping away from it. McCormick trotted across the plate with the "winning" run as thousands of jubilant Giants supporters rushed onto the field to celebrate. But there were "doings" at second base.
From his short lead at first, Merkle followed a practice common at the time and ran straight for the clubhouse behind centerfield in hopes of escaping the boisterous crowd. He did not touch second base, so, technically, the force was still on. The canny Evers—"a hard, pitiless man," wrote Eric Rolfe Greenberg in The Celebrant—caught the oversight and, above the roar of the multitudes, called for centerfielder "Circus Solly" Hofman to throw him the ball. No one will ever know if the ball Evers got was the one hit by Bridwell, because Giants pitcher Joe (Iron Man) McGinnity, suspecting treachery, intercepted Hofman's throw and hurled that ball into the seats. Evers insists, however, that Cub pitcher Floyd (Rube) Kroh and third baseman Harry Steinfeldt climbed into the stands after the ball and wrested it away from the fan who caught it, Kroh squashing the poor fellow's derby during the struggle.
In all the confusion McCormick became convinced that Bridwell had failed to step on first, so he booted the young shortstop in the seat of the pants and hauled him over to the bag, only to learn that the problem was really at second. It is unlikely that, in this melee, either plate umpire Hank O'Day or Emslie saw Evers make the force play. But O'Day was particularly sensitive to the situation, because a few weeks earlier, in a Cubs-Pirates game, he had permitted the winning run to score in exactly the same circumstances. This time, under intense pressure from Evers and Cub manager Chance, O'Day called Merkle out—thereby nullifying McCormick's run—and declared the game a tie.
McGraw was predictably incensed. "If Merkle was out, then O'Day should have cleared the field and resumed the game," he protested. "If not, we won, and they can't take it away from us." Chance countered by claiming the Cubs should have been declared winners by forfeit since the Giants did not return to finish the game. But no one could have cleared that field of a crowd grown ugly in all the confusion. O'Day had to be escorted from the ballpark by police.
The final ruling was left to National League president Harry Pulliam, an unstable man who despised McGraw and who would commit suicide less than a year later. Pulliam finally decided, two days after the dispute, to uphold his umpire. The game was a tic and would be replayed only if it became a factor in the pennant race, which, as fate would have it, it did; the Giants and Cubs finished in a tie for first with 98-55 records. The Cubs won the rematch 4-2 when Mordecai (Three Finger) Brown bested Matty before another riotous crowd at the Polo Grounds. The Cubs went on to beat Ty Cobb and the Tigers in the World Series.
Merkle, meanwhile, endured weeks of relentless vilification by fans and the press. He was guilty, the Times wrote, of "censurable stupidity." Merkle "lost his head," wrote the New York Evening Mail. His "boner," they all said, had cost the Giants the pennant.
"Get rid of me, Mac," a disconsolate Merkle pleaded with his manager. "I don't deserve to play on the Giants." But McGraw never blamed Merkle. "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."
But Merkle was never allowed to forget. "He was ragged unmercifully the rest of his life," Bridwell told Lawrence S. Ritter in The Glory of Their Times. But Merkle played in the big leagues until 1926 (with a four-year interval in the minors from 1921 to 1925) and had a respectable .273 career batting average. He retired to Daytona Beach, Fla., where he was, at the time of his death at age 67 in 1956, a partner in a firm that manufactured artificial bait. The Times' obituary began: "Fred Merkle, former major league baseball player who was best remembered for a 'boner' that cost the New York Giants the pennant in 1908, died today."
"Now his worries are over," Bridwell told Ritter. "If I could do it all over again, I wish I'd never gotten that hit that set off the whole Merkle incident. I wish I'd struck out instead. If I'd done that, then it would have spared Fred a lot of unfair humiliation. Yes, if I'd struck out, it would have been better all around."
There is so much pressure that I lose my brain.
—Roberto de Vicenzo, golfer, after the 1968 Masters
It was his 45th birthday, and he was the darling of the gallery. "Happy birthday, Roberto, happy birthday to you," they sang as the merry Argentine strode the Masters fairways. And for all the world, this looked like one of the happiest days of Roberto de Vicenzo's professional life.
He had begun the tournament's final round tied for seventh place, two strokes behind the leader, Gary Player, but he had come out firing. He dropped his approach shot for an eagle 2 on the 1st hole and birdied the next two holes as he took the lead with a blistering 31 on the front nine. But as brilliantly as de Vicenzo was playing, he couldn't shake a dogged pursuer, Bob Goalby, an 11-year pro from Illinois, playing two holes back. On 17, before a cheering gallery and millions on national television, de Vicenzo sank an eight-foot putt for a birdie 3 to go 12 under. But there was an answering roar from the crowd at 15 as Goalby sank his putt for an eagle 3 to stay even with the leader.
The emotional de Vicenzo was feeling the pressure. Gambling for another birdie on 18, he ignored his caddie's advice and used a five-iron instead of a six for his second shot. He hit the ball over the green and into the crowd and finally bogeyed the hole. Even so, he finished 11 under par at 277, then the fourth-best score in Masters history. But he was still grousing over his one bad hole of the day when he cursorily checked the scorecard kept for him, according to tournament protocol, by his playing partner, Tommy Aaron, and then signed the card, making it official. Goalby, meanwhile, had three-putted the 17th for a bogey of his own. He needed a par on 18 to tie de Vicenzo and force a playoff. Or so he thought.
Aaron, it developed, had mistakenly given de Vicenzo a par 4 on the 17th instead of the birdie 3 he had actually shot. The error gave de Vicenzo a final score for the day of 66, rather than 65, and a tournament score of 278 instead of 277. The matter was brought to the attention of Masters cofounders Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts, who agreed that a rule is a rule, and according to USGA Rule No. 38, a player who signs an incorrect scorecard faces one of two consequences: If the score on the card is lower than what he shot, he is disqualified; if it is higher, the incorrect score must stand.
"I play golf all over the world for 30 years," de Vicenzo said, anguishing in broken English, "and now all I can think of is what a stupid I am to be wrong in this wonderful tournament. Never have I done such a thing before."
De Vicenzo returned to the 18th green to watch Goalby, who was unaware of the boner, finish his round. Goalby's birdie putt fell two feet short. De Vicenzo waited miserably for the next putt. "That was the first and only time in my life I wished someone would miss," he says now. But Goalby sank the putt for a 277. He was the Masters champion on a technicality. "I'm very happy I won," he said. "But I'm really sorry I won it the way I did. I'd much rather have done it in a playoff."
There were letters of protest from all over the world to Masters officials. De Vicenzo himself estimates that he received "one million letters and telegrams of sympathy." Lawyers crowded forward to take his case, but de Vicenzo would not file suit. "In this world, if everybody follows the rules, the world would be a better place, people would be better," he says from his home near Buenos Aires.
For a time it was difficult to tell who actually had won that '68 Masters. In consolation, tournament officials gave de Vicenzo as well as Goalby a winner's trophy. De Vicenzo made an estimated $250,000 in endorsements and got a handsome contract from Coca-Cola. Goalby was either ignored or defamed. "Roberto got all the sympathy," Goalby says today. "I got all the hate mail. People actually thought I had kept his card and given him a higher score."
De Vicenzo is sympathetic. "I don't think Goalby got all the prestige and all the money he should have," he says. "I make the mistake, and to many people, he no win the tournament....
"Before, I cry, because it was the Masters. But after 22 years, I receive so many good things from the game, things maybe if I don't make the mistake, I never receive.... I made more money after the Masters mistake than I did after winning the British Open in '67. So many people don't remember I won that tournament. They say this is the guy who made the mistake in the Masters."
De Vicenzo, Goalby and Aaron now compete on the PGA Senior tour, but they almost never talk about the unfortunate event of 22 years ago. And yet de Vicenzo still gets his share of mostly good-natured ribbing. "It is inside me for all my life," he says. "When I forget, someone always comes over to remind me. When I am feeling good, I joke about it when people bring it up. When I feel bad, I just say, 'Go to hell!' "
I am now convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was in error.
—William H. (Red) Friesell, referee, after the Dartmouth-Cornell football game of 1940
A boner need not be a burden shamefully borne. It can, in certain circumstances, ennoble both the perpetrator and the victim. That was certainly true of a classic of the genre, committed in the final seconds of the Dartmouth-Cornell football game on Nov. 16, 1940. Here was a boner of boners that, after a testy interlude, left all involved significantly the better for having been a part of it.
Right away we should note that Ivy League football in 1940 was not the tame enterprise it has lately become. Before its game with Dartmouth that year, Cornell was truly the Big Red, the best team in the nation according to the American Football Statistical Bureau, the second best (behind Minnesota) according to the Associated Press rankings. Cornell had already beaten Ohio State 21-7 and Army 45-0. It had held four of its six opponents scoreless, allowing single touchdowns by Ohio State and Syracuse. More significantly, it had gone unbeaten in 18 straight games, dating back three seasons. Only a scoreless tie with Pennsylvania in 1938 stained an otherwise unblemished record. Dartmouth, which had lost four of its seven games, was considered an unlikely candidate to end the streak. "We expected a cakewalk," recalls Bill Murphy, Cornell's hard-running right halfback. "After all, we were going for a national championship."
But conditions at Dartmouth's Memorial Field in Hanover, N.H., were scarcely conducive to a cakewalk, particularly for a team mostly dependent on a single-wing passing attack, which was averaging nearly 250 yards a game. "It was cold and blustery, and the field was muddy from four days of rain," says Charles S. (Chub) Feeney, then a sophomore football manager at Dartmouth and somewhat later the president of baseball's National League. "It was just a typical raw November day in New Hampshire. Still, we expected to get murdered."
They weren't even wounded. The vaunted Big Red Machine sputtered on the messy turf, its passing attack failing to gain 100 yards. Dartmouth, for its part, was content to slog back and forth on the ground, hoping for a godsend. Finally, early in the fourth quarter, the Indians (as Dartmouth teams were then unashamedly called) reached the Cornell 27, where end Bob Krieger kicked a field goal to break a scoreless tie. Angry and humiliated, Cornell fought back, but its next two drives were squelched by interceptions, one in Dartmouth's end zone.
With only 2½ minutes remaining in the game and Dartmouth leading by its lone field goal, the Big Red started one last desperate march from its own 42. Two passes by Cornell's "climax player," left half Walter Scholl, took the ball to the Dartmouth 30. A pass-interference call brought it to the 18. Then Scholl hit Murphy for 12 yards to the six. Three running plays moved Cornell to within a yard of the winning touchdown, but a delay-of-game penalty put the ball back on the six. Then a Scholl pass intended for Murphy in the end zone was batted away by Ray Hall, and ecstatic Dartmouth players and fans began celebrating the upset of the year. Dartmouth had held on downs, and there were only six seconds left to play.
According to the rules of that time, a pass incomplete in the end zone on fourth down was considered a touchback; the defending team got the ball back on its own 20. And there indeed was referee William H. (Red) Friesell marching out of the end zone with the ball tucked under his arm. But he stopped on the six, the previous line of scrimmage, and, to the amazement of the Dartmouth players, most of the chilled spectators and disbelieving reporters, he signaled that it was fourth down and still Cornell's ball. There was time for one last play. Scholl rolled to his right and flipped a soft pass to Murphy, who made a fine catch in the end zone as the gun sounded. Tackle Nick Drahos added the extra point.
Now it was Cornell's turn to celebrate. The Big Red had salvaged an apparent 7-3 win from what would have been a shocking defeat. Murphy was the man of the moment. "I thought it was the greatest thing in the world," he says now. "For a minute there, I was a great hero."
In the Dartmouth locker room afterward, there was anger and consternation. Hadn't Cornell won the game on a fifth down? "Players were yelling and screaming," says Feeney. "Nobody knew what the hell had happened." The Dartmouth fans were in such a rage that they stoned the train bearing the Cornell players back to Ithaca, N.Y. "It was right about then," says Murphy, "that we began to suspect something was wrong." But what? Friesell, an official for 22 years, was among the most respected in the game. Even Dartmouth coach Earl (Red) Blaik was able to say after this most unsettling game, "I have every faith in Red Friesell."
That faith was belatedly rewarded. After reviewing game films, Friesell recognized his boner. He had, in fact, given Cornell an extra down. It should have been Dartmouth's ball on its own 20. He wrote letters of apology to Dartmouth, including one to team captain Lou Young. "I want to be the first to admit my very grave error on the extra down," Friesell wrote Young. "I assume full responsibility.... Lou, I am so sorry, for you were such a grand captain and leader."
Friesell's admission of error could not change the score, however. But Cornell president Edmund Ezra Day, athletic director James Lynah and head coach Carl Snavely agreed that such a victory was not worth keeping. Lynah wired Dartmouth athletic director William McCarter "relinquishing claim to victory."
The Big Red's unbeaten streak was over, ended not only by an opponent but by noblesse oblige. Walter Okeson, chairman of the National Football Rules Committee, announced that the score would go into the official record books as Dartmouth 3, Cornell 0. But Cornell and, by association, the entire Ivy League had emerged from the fiasco with honor.
Friesell, as one might expect, became "Fifth Down Friesell." He even received mail addressed to "Fifth Down, Pittsburgh, Pa." And he had a horse named after him. But his reputation scarcely suffered from the boner. And neither did his psyche. The next season, he officiated in the NFL until a broken leg put him on the sidelines. He became a successful real estate agent. Friesell was elected to the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame, and in 1963 he donated the shoes he wore and the whistle he blew in 575 college and professional games to the NFL Hall of Fame. And far from being embarrassed in the company of Dartmouth and Cornell people, he attended reunions at both schools for years. He died in 1974 at the age of 80, "having really enjoyed life," says Murphy, who, ironically, became Friesell's good friend.
As for Murphy, a hero for but a day.... "Well, I was really bitter right afterward. I was only 21 at the time, and it was a big thing to me. But upon reflection, I'd have to say what happened was genuinely good for football. And it was good for me, too. You know, when I was working as vice-president of a large liquor-store chain in New York, I got my biggest account ever because of that game." He laughs. "The customer was a Dartmouth man."
It's just one of those awful things you have nightmares about.
—Bill Shoemaker, jockey, on the 1957 Kentucky Derby
Boners, we know, are not the exclusive property of the incompetent. They strike down the skilled and unskilled alike, the legendary and the unknown. But of all the famous figures in this goofball sweepstakes, none has enjoyed a more distinguished career in his field than Bill Shoemaker, the winningest jockey in history. And yet, in the 1957 Kentucky Derby, the Shoe pulled a boner for the ages.
Shoemaker was actually a replacement rider in that race. He had been called in by Texas oilman Ralph Lowe, owner of Gallant Man, to ride the colt in place of his regular jockey, Johnny Choquette, who had been suspended for that week for rough riding. Lowe and trainer Johnny Nerud were convinced Gallant Man had a chance for the roses, so they wanted the best rider around, and that was indisputably Shoemaker, a 25-year-old legend-in-the-making who had won the Derby two years earlier on Swaps. He and Lowe hit if off famously.
The night before the race, the oilman took the jockey to dinner in Louisville. There, half jokingly, he told Shoe about a dream—a nightmare, really—he had had the night before. In the dream Gallant Man was winning the race down the stretch when, suddenly, his jockey mistook the 16th pole for the finish line and stood up in his irons too soon, losing the race. Shoemaker laughed uneasily. "Maybe, just maybe, a seed was planted," he says now.
The Derby favorite had been Calumet Farm's Gen. Duke, but he was scratched on the eve of the race because of a bruised hoof. Gen. Duke's stablemate, Iron Liege, was still in the running, and Bill Hartack, who had been Gen. Duke's regular rider, was shifted to him. Most experts agreed that with Gen. Duke out, Bold Ruler, ridden by Eddie Arcaro, was the horse to beat. Whitney Tower, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's racing savant, gave Iron Liege a look and then wrote, prophetically, "The one who will win it is the one who can best take advantage of breaks, mistakes and racing luck. One mistake will be fatal. One break could be decisive."
Iron Liege got off beautifully and, through the far turn, was never more than a length and a half behind the speedy front-runner, Federal Hill. At the head of the stretch, Hartack moved his horse into the lead past a tiring Federal Hill. Bold Ruler, inexplicably, had faded and would finish fourth. But Gallant Man, running seventh with only a quarter mile to go, was making his move. With a furlong left, he caught Iron Liege. The Derby had become a two-horse race. On they came, running as one, with Iron Liege on the inside, Hartack whipping him lefthanded. The colts were nose to nose at the 16th pole, Gallant Man seemingly the fresher of the two, when, to the astonishment of those who saw it (and not everyone did), Shoemaker stood up in his irons for a split second, acting, Tower wrote, "for all the world as though the race was over." Shoemaker had in that instant transformed Lowe's nightmare into shocking reality. He recovered quickly, but Gallant Man had lost a precious stride. The two horses raced across the finish line, Iron Liege a nose ahead.
A crestfallen Shoemaker fled the jockeys' room before reporters could reach him. The stewards at Churchill Downs ordered him suspended for 15 days "for gross carelessness in misjudging the point of finish." But Lowe and Nerud stood by their man. "They got no business having all these poles the same color," the trainer protested lamely. Lowe, fearing that his dream had exerted some terrible power over the jockey, announced that with Shoemaker suspended, Gallant Man would not run in the Preakness. And to assure his rider that there were no hard feelings, Lowe bought Shoemaker a new Chrysler, among the gaudiest of the tailfin monstrosities of 1957. A somewhat chastened and certainly grateful Shoemaker returned in time to ride Gallant Man to an easy eight-length win in the Belmont.
That was 33 years ago, but Shoemaker, now a trainer working out of Hollywood Park, isn't about to forget such a boner. "The thing is, Gallant Man could have been a Triple Crown winner if it hadn't been for what I did. He was winning that race, and he won the Belmont easily.... At Churchill Downs, you realize, the finish line is a 16th of a mile closer to the first turn than at most tracks. I hadn't ridden there in a year, and I just forgot about that. I pulled up where most finish lines are. Oh yes, and there is that dream. It's possible, I guess, that it was somewhere there in my subconscious. I don't know.
"But it's a fact that something good generally comes out of these things," Shoe continues. "I know it was a character-builder for me." He pauses. "It taught me humility. And that's not a bad lesson for anyone."
I suppose I'll pay a stiff penalty for my boner.
—Roy Riegels, California center, after the 1929 Rose Bowl
"Looking for Roy Riegels's house, are you?" the man from the Woodland, Calif., chamber of commerce inquires, winking conspicuously. "Well, you're only about five minutes from there. Just take a left on West Street, go about a mile to Gibson, take a right, and you're there. You are, of course, if you don't go"...significant pause here to hammer home the punch line..."the wrong way."
It has been 61 years since Riegels set off on his historic run, but he's still paying a mighty stiff penalty. Here is a man who has been a pillar of his community, a successful and resourceful manufacturer of agricultural chemicals, a businessman cited by the governor and the state legislature for his contributions to California farming, a star athlete and smart coach, a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather, and a man who, though 82 years old and seriously ill with Parkinson's disease, is living out his final years with uncommon dignity. And yet, maddeningly, he is still known as Wrong Way Riegels. In the world of boners, there is no statute of limitations.
Riegels was the star center on a Rose Bowl-bound 1928 University of California football team that defeated six of nine opponents in a 6-1-2 season. Although he never weighed more than 175 pounds and usually played five pounds lighter than that, Riegels led the Golden Bears in conference minutes played that season and was voted onto the All-Coast team. He was an excellent blocker, but his true strength was at "roving center" on defense, a position comparable to today's middle linebacker. Cal's Rose Bowl foe, Georgia Tech, was undefeated in nine games and had outscored its opposition 213 points to 40. The Jan. 1, 1929, game figured to be a defensive struggle. And so it was.
There was no score in the second quarter when, on first down from his own 24-yard line, Tech halfback J.C. (Stumpy) Thomason broke over the left side of the line for a six-yard gain and then was hit hard by Cal safety Benny Lom and end Irv Phillips. The ball popped loose and squirted forward to the 34, where the ever-alert Riegels scooped it up on the dead run (defensive players were allowed to advance opponents' fumbles in college football then) and started for the near sideline. Four Tech tacklers blocked his path, so he swerved sharply to his left, giving ground all the way. It was then, running away from his pursuers, that he saw a clear route to the goal line and went for it. It was a fateful miscalculation, because the goal line he so enthusiastically headed for was his own.
As Riegels sped away, Cal tackle Steve Bancroft called out to guard Bert Schwartz, "Boy, am I glad I didn't pick up that fumble, because I'd have run the other way." Upstairs in the broadcast booth, a discombobulated Graham McNamee bellowed into the microphone, "What's the matter with me? Am I crazy?" Riegels had created such confusion that some of his teammates even threw blocks for him on his mad dash to infamy. Only Lom seemed to have the presence of mind to give chase. "You're going the wrong way!" he shouted, tears of anguish streaming down his cheeks. But his words were lost in the roar of the crowd of 66,404. "I didn't use my head," Lom later lamented. "If I hadn't tried to yell, I could have nailed him on the 20." As it was, Lom finally caught up with Riegels on the Cal 10.
"Get away from me!" Riegels commanded, apparently thinking his teammate was trying to crab his act. "This is my touchdown!" And he broke free again. Lom finally got hold of him on the one-yard line and was in the process of aiming him in the right direction when a swarm of Georgia Tech tacklers, led by Frank Waddey, pushed the two of them into the end zone.
Referee Herb Dana ruled the ball dead on the one. Lom attempted to punt the Bears out of danger on first down, but Tech tackle Vance Maree blocked the kick and the ball rolled out of the end zone for a safety. Thomason added a touchdown in the third quarter to give Tech an 8-0 lead. Then, with 1:15 left in the game, Lom passed to Phillips for a Cal touchdown, and right half Stan Barr added the extra point for what might have been a 7-6 win for the Bears. But Riegels's wrong-way run had given Tech the game, 8-7.
Riegels's boner was the subject of about 4,500 feature stories and an estimated 250,000 column inches in newspapers across the country the next day, according to an article preserved in one of Riegels's scrapbooks. Grantland Rice hoped the young man wouldn't take his mistake too seriously. And the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized, "The tragedy of Roy Riegels' terrific race to the wrong goal in the New Year's Game is that it is likely to stick with him through life. Fred Merkle made his boneheaded play in baseball 20 years ago, and it is his only bid for notoriety to this day."
But Riegels endured. Lost in the fuss was the fact that in the second half of that game, he played with such fury that Tech's All-America center, Peter Pund, called Riegels the best lineman he had faced all season. Neither Cal coach Nibs Price nor Riegels's teammates blamed him for their disappointing loss, and Riegels was elected team captain for 1929, his senior season. He made several All-America teams that year and was cocaptain, with the famous Dutch Clark, of the West team in the 1930 Shrine East-West game in San Francisco.
Riegels went on to coach high school, junior college and armed forces football, to become a business success and to weather in good humor the unwanted media reminiscences that boo-boos by other football players regularly provoked. When Alabama's Tommy Lewis jumped off the bench to make an illegal tackle in the 1954 Cotton Bowl game, Riegels wrote him a this-too-shall-pass letter of condolence. But he could only retreat into discreet silence when, during an NFL game in 1964, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall "pulled a Riegels" and ran 60 yards with a 49er fumble to a safety. It was a wrong-way run that brought out all the old Riegels jokes and all the embarrassing newspaper photographs. Marshall went on to considerable fame, and his boner was soon forgotten, while Riegels's remains part of football's mythology.
Today, aged and ailing, Riegels still manages a smile as he thumbs through dog-eared scrapbooks filled with such headlines as, ROY RIEGELS LOST DIRECTION and LONE MISTAKE COSTS CALIFORNIA VICTORY. "You know," he says slowly, "I really wasn't a bad football player. But for the life of me, I still don't know how or why I did what I did." He dismisses the damning memorabilia with a hearty wave. "Now I ask you, isn't this a hell of a way to become famous?"
It sure is. But you can say one thing for boner fame—it's not fleeting.