Monday, January 23, 2012

Baseball's Fourth Commandment by J. D. Thorne

I came across the “10 Commandments of Baseball” on an advertising card from Bill Zuber’s Restaurant and Dugout Lounge in the Amana Colonies of Iowa that had been a keepsake of my Dad’s. The “Commandments” composed by Joe McCarthy, were printed by the thousands many years ago. Over a span of twenty-four years, McCarthy managed the three most storied franchises in the golden age of baseball: the Chicago Cubs, the New York Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox. He still holds the highest winning percentage for any Major League baseball manager.

McCarthy's principles are at the center of my classic book called The 10 Commandments of Baseball: An Affectionate Look at Joe McCarthy's Principles for Success in Baseball (and Life) published by Sporting Chance Press. This post touches on McCarthy's Fourth Commandment.

Commandment Number Four: “Keep your head up and you may not have to keep it down.”

There are several ways of looking at the meaning of this commandment. Perhaps the most essential message is that a player needs to pay attention and keep his head in the game in order to be proud of his performance.

Three Men on Third

A classic example of the importance of keeping “your head in the game” is the infamous “three men on third” episode at old Ebbets field in Brooklyn on August 15, 1926. The Dodgers were playing the Boston Braves. Brooklyn came to bat in the seventh inning. Their first hitter, Johnny Butler, singled. The next hitter, Frank DeBerry slapped a double to score Butler. Pitcher Dazzy Vance came to bat and, singled sending DeBerry to third base. The next hitter, Chick Fewster, was hit by a pitch, loading the bases. The legendary “Babe” Herman, (dubbed by Dazzy Vance “the headless horseman of Ebbets Field”) took his place at the plate and the stage was set for the forthcoming drama. Herman belted a line drive to right field. DeBerry, the runner on third scored easily. Vance however, who had been on second, thought the line drive was going to be caught, and held up until he saw the ball drop safely before heading for home. He rounded third base, ran halfway to the plate before deciding he would not be able to beat the throw in, reversed himself and started back to third base. Meanwhile, the runner on first base, Fewster, was tearing around the base path to get to third, and arrived there just as Vance was returning to it. They looked at each other for a moment, but then turned their gaze to watch the hitter, Herman. Herman was watching no one, and with his head down and legs churning, was trying to stretch his double into a triple! When Herman finally looked up a few feet from the bag, he saw his two teammates standing haplessly there as the Braves third baseman was taking the throw from the outfield. Excitedly, the third baseman tagged everyone within reach, including the umpire! Herman tried to reverse field but was thrown out trying to get to back to second.

Fred Merkle

The all time champion of alert baseball play was second baseman Johnnie Evers of the powerhouse Chicago Cubs teams in the first decade of the 1900’s. Not only was he acclaimed for it, but the opposing player against whom he applied his chief observation was nicknamed “bonehead” for falling victim to it. The name “Bonehead Merkle” is synonymous with stupid play even though the unfortunate Mr. Merkle was doing what everyone else did at the time. However, for Johnny Evers, it worked out to win a championship for the Cubs.

The 1908 National League pennant race is ranked among the most exciting season finishes ever. Late in the season, Evers began noticing that in situations where there was a runner on first when a player ahead of him on second or third scored the winning run to “end” a game, the runner on first was failing to run all the way to second base thinking the game was over. However, under the rules of baseball, a runner does not score if there is a putout at first or a force play out on the final play to end an inning even if the runner crosses home plate before the out is made. Evers discussed this with umpire Hank O’Day after a game in Pittsburgh, and O’Day agreed with Evers’ interpretation. Sure enough, it happened again a few days later at New York’s Polo Grounds on September 23, 1908, in a game against the archrival Giants and their Hall of Fame Manager, the feisty Irishman, John McGraw.

To break a 9th inning 1 to 1 tie score, the Giants Al Bridwell singled in from third base what appeared to be the winning run. As was the custom of the day, rookie Fred Merkle, who had been on first, saw the run score and stopped running half way to second base to head for the clubhouse as fans stormed the field celebrating the apparent victory. However, amidst the chaos, Evers summoned the ball from the grandstands and stood with it on second base proclaiming the force out because Merkle never touched second base. The second base umpire refused to make the call claiming he had not seen the play. The call was deferred to the game’s home plate umpire, Hank O’Day, who declared Merkle out to end the inning and cancel the score of the “winning” run. Because of the pandemonium of the fans on the field, he then declared the game a tie.

The Giants and Cubs finished the season a week later in a tie for first place because of the ruling. The Cubs won a special tiebreaker game to win the league pennant, and then proceeded to win the World Series.

Keep Your Head in the Game and Be Positive

This commandment tells you to be alert at all times. And being alert also requires a positive outlook. A negative attitude can hurt you in many ways, but it also disrupts your attention. Do not waste a minute grieving over last inning’s error or strikeout. Being ready for the next play or the next at-bat is what counts. As Joe McCarthy said about Baseball, “You can’t freeze the ball in this game. You play until the last man is out.”

Image is J.D. Thorne, courtesy of David Bernacchi
Copyright 2012 Sporting Chance Press, Inc.

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