April 23, 2016
I wrote this in 2014, before I understood it’s significance. It is extremely significant! Wait till tomorrow!
- Merkle’s Mistake
Scripture Reading: James 2: 8 – 13
Key verse: James 2: 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (ESV)
It’s also known as “Merkle’s Boner”, which in 1908, at least, meant “Merkle’s Bone-headed Base-running Blunder” Whatever you call it, it was Bad – at least for the Giants; it was great for the Cubs. Fred Merkle, a rookie first baseman for the New York Giants actually did something a lot of the players of his day did; he just did it at the wrong time.
OK, what happened? To make a long story short, in the National League in 1908, there were three good teams: the Pittsburgh Pirates, the New York Giants, and the Chicago Cubs. The Giants had won the 1904 and 1905 pennants, while the Cubs won the pennants of 1906 and 1907. It was nearing the end of the season; the Cubs were in New York to play the Giants on September 25th, 1908, hoping to hang on to hopes of catching them. These were the Cubs of the famous infield combination of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance: Joe Tinker at short, Johnny Evers at second, and “The Peerless Leader”, first baseman and player-manager Frank Chance.
In the bottom of the 9th, with the score tied at 1, the Giants had the winning run on third, Moose McCormick, with 19-year-old rookie Fred Merkle at first. The batter, Al Bridwell, drove a single into the outfield off Cubs’ pitcher Jack Pfiester, scoring McCormick from third easily with the winning run. Jubilant Giants fans swarmed onto the field to celebrate… too soon.
There was one guy on the Cubs that noticed something. Eagle-eyed Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers, one of the most intelligent men in the game, driven to win, saw what Merkle did. He had done something not uncommon in that day – as soon as McCormick scored the winning run (and running into the clubhouse), Merkle, who was running from first base, veered off the basepath before touching second, also heading for the clubhouse. Evers saw his chance: a runner who is forced must touch the next base or the run cannot score. Most had ignored it before, but this was a huge opportunity for the Cubs to stay alive.
Evers yelled at umpire Hank O’Day. He demanded the game ball so that he could put Merkle out at second. All this time, though, there was pandemonium on the field, with antagonistic Giants fans refusing to leave. Outfielder Solly Hofman had the ball, but as he tried to get it to Evers, Iron Man Joe McGinnity of the Giants, who had been coaching third, tried to interfere with the play. Finally, a Giants’ fan came out of the struggle with the ball and heaved it deep into the stands. Both managers – Chance of the Cubs and John McGraw of the Giants, came out to argue their case with the umpire.
The umpires tried to gather and decide what to do. Meanwhile the Cubs had to have a police escort off the field and out of the stadium. The umpires ruled the next day that Merkle was out, the run didn’t score, and the game was still tied. The league president ruled that the game had to be replayed in its entirety, if it was needed. It was needed – the two teams were tied at the end of the season. So, under incredible pressure from the Giants fans, the Cubs won the game, 4 – 2, winning their third straight pennant. And then, they went out and won the 1908 World Series over Ty Cobb and his Detroit Tigers. And, yes, that was indeed the last Championship the Cubs have won.
What could Merkle do? He actually continued his career – he was the Giants’ regular first baseman for three pennant-winning seasons, got traded to Brooklyn, then to the team that he helped win in 1908, the Chicago Cubs. In 1918, he played in his fifth World Series in 8 years (but never did win a Championship). He kept playing in the Minors, only briefly to reappear in the Majors with the Yankees in 1925. What he didn’t do is wallow in defeat, or say “everybody else did it!” He just picked himself up and kept going on.
Our Scripture today, however, deals with the fact that that one little mistake can be all it takes to sink you – spiritually. Fred Merkle violated one small, obscure rule most ball players weren’t even aware of. But, because he didn’t do it properly – touch the next base – his team lost a win and was ultimately defeated.
In James 2, the discussion is about showing partiality – treating people differently or unfairly because of who they are. He makes it very clear in verses 1 – 7, giving an example of treating a rich man one way, and dishonoring a poor man, simply because he’s poor. There is no doubt that partiality is a serious sin. He sums it up in verse 8: If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. (ESV) That’s as simple as it gets; if you do that, you can’t help but live as a Christian should. That summarizes all the Law and the Prophets – living a life of self-sacrifice on the behalf of all who are in our sphere of influence. After talking again about the sin of partiality, he gets to the connection with the story: one mistake, one sin, is enough to shatter the unity of the law. Just like one mistake was enough to shatter the win for the Giants, one sin (as in the area of showing partiality) makes fulfilling the law, to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, impossible. You can’t pick and choose – if one rule is violated, it damages everything. If we show lack of love in one area, it ruins our ability to live out the royal law of love everywhere.
The law of liberty is genuine freedom from sin. As the Holy Spirit works in us, He changes us from the inside by applying the principles of Scripture to our hearts, freeing us from sin’s bondage and making us more and more able to obey God. Then we can show mercy to others, because when we show mercy, we show the world that we have received God’s mercy.
One mistake, one bone-headed play – the Giants don’t win a game that was essentially already won. One sin, one lack of love – shatters the unity of the law of love. We can’t say we are fulfilling the law of love if we don’t show love in one area. One final analogy: if you hit a window with a hammer, it really doesn’t matter where you hit it – it will shatter in any case. So it is with the law of love – one violation, and the whole thing shatters. So, be careful of what might seem a small thing – it won’t be so small a thing in the end.
Paul said the same thing in Romans 13:10 – “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (ESV) Just have an attitude of self-giving to all around you; you’ll keep the whole law. Just don’t let that one sin bring it down.
Thought: The bone-headed play is not to show love to your neighbor.
- The Strange Tale of Charles “Victory” Faust