Human beings make mistakes, a fact in daily evidence on our baseball fields, where on Saturday the Marlins' Jose Reyes bobbled a bouncer during a home game against the Reds and thereby committed the 500,000th error in major league history. Never mind that the accounting of all those errors is itself fraught with human error: Someone had to get the scarlet letter E, a milestone to be worn like a millstone.
Human error is a redundancy, of course, and imperfection makes life and baseball interesting. "Just what baseball should be," President Coolidge said after watching the Giants beat the Senators in Game 1 of the 1924 World Series. "Even to the errors."
Americans have celebrated baseball ineptitude almost since the game's beginning. In 1863, six years before Cincinnati fielded the first professional team, a New York Sunday Mercury box score "decided to highlight the failure to make a play, noting players' Catches Missed," as Alan Schwarz writes in The Numbers Game, his history of baseball statistics. Catches Missed became Errors of Fielding, a phrase shortened to Errors, which derives from the Latin errorem: "wandering, straying."
In that sense, the consummate errors in baseball history were committed in 1919, when White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte admitted to "intentional errors" in helping to throw—one might say overthrow—the World Series for $10,000. In Game 4 against Cincinnati, Shoeless Joe Jackson made a bad throw to the plate that Cicotte cut off and "muffed on purpose." Later he "purposely made a wild throw" for his second error. Or so he confessed to a grand jury presided over by Judge Charles A. MacDonald in 1920, ascribing the errors to a brief moral wandering. "I would give anything to undo it," said Cicotte, in tears. "I have lived a thousand years in the past year."
Errors—moral or physical, accidental or volitional—have a way of elongating time. "A lifetime in one play," is how Yankees pitcher Tommy John described his three errors on a single play on July 27, 1988, when he bobbled a roller by Milwaukee's Jeffrey Leonard, who reached first base on the error. John threw to first anyway, the ball sailing (as he later put it) "to the batboy in rightfield," where Dave Winfield retrieved it and threw home in an effort to catch the Brewers' lead runner, Jim Gantner. Alas, John cut off that throw too, and threw the relay "to their trainer in the dugout," as he told reporters, adding, "I do that every once in a while to keep the team loose."
It wasn't the worst inning of the decade. Two years earlier catcher Bob Brenly, gamely playing third base for the Giants, committed four errors in the fourth inning of a game in which he also hit two home runs, including the game-winner. Brenly's day was far better than Andy Leonard's on June 14, 1876, when the Boston second baseman committed nine errors in a nine-inning game. Only Vanna White has turned more E's.
Some of the game's most boneheaded plays—literally boneheaded, as when Jose Canseco let a fly ball bounce off his hat and over the wall for a home run—technically weren't errors. Such is the cruelty of the stat that it often punishes effort while letting incompetence walk.
Consider that the man who committed more errors than any player in history—Herman Long, who played for Boston's National League team at the turn of the last century—is a borderline Hall of Famer. Despite committing 1,096 errors, or two-tenths of one percent of baseball's total, he was, for his time, a competent defensive shortstop. It's one reason Long lasted 16 seasons in the majors. He made errors of great quantity, not quality, or you'd already know his name. As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith put it, "Immortality can always be assured by spectacular error."
Two ballplayers have known this better than any others. Of the most spectacular errors in baseball history—the greatest of E's—one was never scored as such. That scarcely made a difference to the Giants' 19-year-old base runner, Fred Merkle, who failed to advance all the way from first to second base while the presumptive game-winning run crossed home plate against the Cubs. The run was nullified, the game ended as a tie, the Giants lost the replay and Chicago went on to win the pennant by a single game.
At the end of his career, Merkle retreated into baseball exile, in Daytona Beach, and only returned to the Polo Grounds in 1950, when his 19-year-old daughter, Marianne, begged him to attend Old Timers' Day. What greeted him at his first baseball game since 1926—an extended standing ovation—brought Merkle to tears.