On September 23, 1908, the New York Giants led their bitter rival the Chicago Cubs by 1 1/2 games in the pennant chase and were playing the final game in a five-game series between the two teams. This would be the last time the teams would meet during the regular season, so it was the best time for the Cubs to tie it up or for the Giants to gain some breathing room in the race for first. Giants legend Christy Mathewson and Cubs pitcher Jack Pfiester were pitching in a 1-1 deadlock heading into the end of the game. In the bottom of the ninth, the Giants managed to get runners on first and third with two outs. New York shortstop Al Bridwell came up to bat and ripped a seemingly game-winning single to right field. Giants leftfielder Moose McCormick ran in from third base and scored the winning run as the hometown crowd stormed the field.
Fred Merkle, a 19 year-old rookie, was the runner on first base during the hit. After the hit, he looked towards home plate and saw McCormick score the final run. Thinking the game was over, Merkle ran towards the throng to join in the celebration, but he left the base path and ran off the field before he touched second base. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers (one of the guys from the infamous Tinker to Evers to Chance double play combo) realized this, and called for the ball so he could get the force out at second and negate the run.
But the Cubs centerfielder threw the ball over Evers' head and it ended up in the hands of Giants third base coach Iron Joe McGinnity. McGinnity also realized that Merkle forgot to touch second, so he threw the ball into the crowd hoping the Cubs couldn't retrieve it. Evers dove into the cheering crowd and emerged with a baseball, most likely a different one, and ran over and touched second base. Umpire Hank O'Day declared that Merkle was out and the run was negated, the game was to go into extra innings.
The game was not finished that day and had to be declared a tie because order could not be restored and the fans could not be removed from the field. The teams ended up being tied for first at the end of the regular season, so they both had to play in a one-game playoff to determine who was to go to the World Series. The Cubs beat the Giants in the playoff and ended up beating the Detroit Tigers for the 1908 championship (which is still the last World Series the Cubs have won).
Merkle was never forgiven by the NY fans for his mistake. That play was dubbed Merkle's boner by the press, and Merkle was forever taunted as being a "bonehead" wherever he went. He went to play 14 more seasons of very solid baseball for several different teams, including the Cubs. He managed to play in five World Series, but his teams lost them all. He also coached the Yankees in the 1926 World Series, but that also ended up being one of the few Series that franchise has lost. He coached a semi-pro team in Florida in 1929, but quit after a player reportedly called him a bonehead.
After retiring from baseball in 1927, Merkle became a recluse, eventually dying alone in 1956, forever associated with his one great mistake.