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Evers, meanwhile, was a vital part of Cubs teams that went to four World Series and won two championships. His rise is reliably told in the statistics of the era. Again, truths: From 1903 to '08 he averaged 134 games and was among the top five in the league in stolen bases three times. By the end of his career he had been first or second in most at bats per strikeout six times. The guy did not whiff.
There are practical differences between major league baseball in the first two decades of the 20th century and the game as it is played today. All of the players were white. (Uncle Johnny was born 16 years after the abolition of slavery.) Fielders wore tiny gloves, barely larger than modern ski mittens. The fields were much more uneven than today's. The period from 1900 (or earlier) to approximately 1919 was called the Dead Ball era for good reason: Baseballs were kept in play, and over the course of games they were beaten to a pulp.
In this world Evers was an exceptionally effective fielder. He was nicknamed the Crab. Some writings attribute the name to his manner of scooting low along the dirt to dig out ground balls, but many more ascribe it to his willingness to argue any point with anybody. Evers would stay up at night reading the rule book, looking for loopholes to exploit—time that would one day prove very useful.
The Cubs had 116 victories in 1906, tied with the 2001 Mariners for the most in major league history even though those Cubs played seven fewer games. Evers played 154 of the 155 games, more than any other member of that team. The Cubs were upset in the World Series by the crosstown White Sox, but in '07 they won 107 games and swept the Tigers and 20-year-old Ty Cobb for the championship. Evers hit .350 in the Series and had two doubles and three stolen bases. It wasn't until a year later, though, that his name would be indelibly written in the pages of baseball history.
The 1908 National League pennant race has been the subject of at least two nonfiction books—Cait Murphy's Crazy '08 and G.H. Fleming's The Unforgettable Season—and a significant part of Eric Rolfe Greenberg's novel, The Celebrant, a fictional account of the life of Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson. The novel refers to Evers as "that hard, pitiless man, beloved everywhere in Chicago save his own team's clubhouse." This was surely informed by the fact that Evers, angered over a ball thrown too hard from too close, didn't speak to Tinker from '07 to at least '09.
The '08 season reached a climax on Wednesday, Sept. 23, at the Polo Grounds in New York, in a game between the Cubs and the Giants. The two teams were tied in the standings with another 10 games to play after that one, in which the score was tied 1--1 going into the bottom of the ninth. Mathewson had held the Cubs to five hits, while Uncle Johnny was "the criminal of the afternoon," the New York Herald wrote, "doing some highway robbing of a serious nature. He stole a single from [Moose] McCormick in the fourth inning by jumping up in the air and stabbing one that looked good for two sacks." There were two outs and McCormick was on first when 19-year-old rookie first baseman Fred Merkle—who was making his first career start because Fred Tenney had an attack of lumbago—lined a single to right. Then, with Merkle on first and McCormick on third, shortstop Al Bridwell singled to center. McCormick trotted home from third, and a celebration began. "Perfect ladies are screaming like a batch of Coney barkers," wrote The New York Times. Fans rushed the field.
Precisely what took place next will never be known, though this much seems certain: Merkle began running toward second base, but when it became apparent that McCormick would score easily, and fans swarmed the field, Merkle veered off and ran toward the Giants' clubhouse in centerfield. This was common practice. Some seconds—or minutes—later, Evers stood on second base with the ball. Home plate umpire Hank O'Day called Merkle out, disallowed McCormick's run, leaving the score tied, and called the game because of darkness. "In a moment, the scene became one of the wildest confusion," wrote the New York Tribune. "A dozen fights started."
It's not clear—and will never be clear—how the baseball wound up in Evers's hands on second base, or even if it was the baseball that Bridwell hit into centerfield. That is part of the fascination with what came to be known, cruelly, as Merkle's Boner. The ball might have been thrown in from center by the Cubs' Solly Hofman. Once it was thrown in, it might have been intercepted by Giants pitcher Joe (Iron Man) McGinnity, who was coaching third base that day, and McGinnity might have lost it to charging Cubs players or thrown it into the stands, where Cubs retrieved it, possibly by decking a fan in a bowler hat. Then again, the recovered ball might not have been the one that Bridwell struck. All of these scenarios have been described in reporting of the day and in subsequent books and articles. But one thing rings true: The impetus for the force-out was "the quick-witted Evers, ever on the alert to gain a point," wrote the New York Press.
Nineteen days earlier, during a game in Pittsburgh, Evers had similarly tried to annul the Pirates' winning run in the 10th inning. The umpire was O'Day, and the player on first base was Warren Gill. But O'Day claimed not to have seen either Gill leave the field early or Evers touch second base. The run counted. The Cubs protested to National League president Harry Pulliam, who did not overrule the call, allowing Pittsburgh's victory to stand. But Evers had planted a seed in O'Day's head (and in those of his own teammates), and on Sept. 23 O'Day was surely watching when Merkle left the field and Uncle Johnny touched second base.
Again Pulliam did not overrule O'Day, though Pulliam was so shaken by the controversy that it was one of the reasons he shot himself dead 10 months later. The Cubs and the Giants finished the season tied for first. Chicago won a one-game playoff at the packed Polo Grounds on Oct. 8 and went on to defeat Detroit again in the Series.