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?"
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.