“Hardly a day in my life, hardly an hour, that in some manner or other the dropping of that fly doesn’t come up, even after 30 years,” Snodgrass said in a 1940 interview. “On the street, in my store, at my home . . . it’s all the same. They might choke up before they ask me and they hesitate — but they always ask.” Even death didn’t spare Snodgrass; his 1974 obituary in the New York Times was headlined, “Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.”
In 1903, the press of the day crucified Honus Wagner for a poor World Series. In 1904, it was Jack Chesbro‘s turn since, although he won 41 games that year, he threw a wild pitch on the last day of the season, costing his New York Highlanders the American League pennant. In 1908, it was nineteen-year-old Fred Merkle, who failed to touch second base on September 23. In 1909, it was Harry Coveleski, who was accused of collapsing due to teasing by enemy batters. In 1912, the press turned on Fred Snodgrass, center fielder for the New York Giants, pinning upon him responsibility for losing one of the most exciting World Series of all time. Like “Merkle’s Boner,” the “Snodgrass Muff” is a good example of how unfair life can be.
“Snow” supposedly cost the Giants the 1912 World Series against the Red Sox, but he was only one contributor. The two teams were playing the eighth game of a seven-game series at Fenway Park. (A previous game was called due to darkness with the score tied.) The final game was an odd pitcher’s duel, with men on base constantly, but hardly anyone scoring. In the top of the tenth inning, the Giants went up, 2-1, by scoring an impossible run against Smokey Joe Wood, on in relief. Starter Christy Mathewson was still on the mound for the Giants when the bottom of the tenth began.
Wood, a very good hitter (after his arm went, he had a five-year career as an outfielder, hitting .298/.376/.433) was due to lead off, but at that moment he couldn’t grip the bat, having ended the Giants’ rally by knocking down a line drive with his pitching hand. Pinch-hitter Clyde Engle (hitting .234/.348/.298 that year to Wood’s .290/.348/.435) came up instead. Mathewson induced Engle to hit a weak fly to center field. Snodgrass settled under it, and simply dropped it. (In Los Angeles, where Snodgrass’s mother was following the game on an electronic scoreboard, she fainted.) Engle reached second by the time Snodgrass got the ball back in.
The Giants expected the next batter, Sox leadoff man and future Hall of Famer Harry Hooper, to bunt Engle to third, so Snodgrass wasn’t quite prepared for what happened next. Hooper swung away and cracked a sure triple to deep center. Snodgrass raced back to deep left center and caught the ball over his shoulder, a catch variously described as “magnificent” and “miraculous.” Engle tagged up and advanced to third. The game was not yet lost. There was one out and a runner at third, Giants leading 2-1, and a mediocre hitter, second baseman Steve Yerkes, at the plate.
But now it fell apart for the Giants. First, Mathewson, who never walked anyone, walked Yerkes. Maybe this was semi-intentional and the Giants were trying to set up a double play, maybe Mathewson was just gassed — he had thrown 310 innings in the regular season, 11 innings in the stalemated Game Two, and eight innings in Game Five. He had walked 34 batters in those 310 innings and none in his first two starts in the Series, but he passed four in Game Eight, not counting an intentional walk.
Whatever the cause, the really bad thing about walking Yerkes was that it brought the Sox’ number-three hitter, Tris Speaker, to the plate. Speaker is in the Hall of Fame, but we don’t remember him today with quite the same reverence and awe as we do Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth. Yet he was a .345/.428/.500 career hitter whose name was synonymous with defensive excellence in center field for decades. Speaker hit .383/.464/.567 in 1912 and would win the Chalmers (MVP) Award, so he wasn’t someone you wanted to put in a position to plate both the tying and the winning runs in the final game of a World Series.
Of course, even the all-time greats don’t always deliver, especially when facing off against another all-time great. Speaker hit a foul pop-up “almost in the first-base coaching box.” That would seem to be the first baseman’s play, but Merkle pulled up. Mathewson was calling for Chief Meyers, the catcher, to take it, or maybe it was the Boston bench — Meyers thought the Red Sox were yelling out conflicting instructions. Mathewson also could have caught the ball. Instead, he and Merkle stood by watching as Meyers hauled up the line, lunging as the ball came back to earth but falling just short of making the catch. Given a second chance, Speaker lined a single to right field, driving in the tying run and advancing the winning run to third.
With only one out, Mathewson walked Duffy Lewis to set up a force at any base, but a Larry Gardner sacrifice fly later the Series was all over. The Giants won the pennant each year from 1911 to 1913 and lost the World Series each time, very little of which was Fred Snodgrass’s fault. He had to live with the results the rest of his life, because somehow blame that should have accrued to Mathewson and Merkle was deflected onto him. Perhaps Mathewson was too beloved and people just couldn’t saddle Merkle with another blunder, sensing he was already doomed to go down in history as “Bonehead.”
No doubt, Snodgrass let fall a catchable ball. Had he caught that ball, and then not caught Hooper’s almost-triple, the result would have been the same: one out with a man on third. He would have done nothing “blame-worthy.” Instead, he bore all the blame. After Snodgrass’s catch of Hooper’s long fly, Mathewson walked Yerkes, called for the wrong player to catch Speaker’s pop foul, gave up a hit to Speaker, walked (albeit at McGraw’s instruction) another, and gave up a game-winning sacrifice fly.
Through that barrage, Giant manager John McGraw just sat there. He didn’t go out to the mound to check on Mathewson’s psyche or arm, didn’t call in another pitcher. He might as well have been sitting in the stands instead of the dugout, because he just watched. So is the loss on Snodgrass, on Mathewson, or on McGraw? The Giants’ alternatives to Mathewson were probably few in such a situation: Rube Marquard and Jeff Tesreau, each of whom had had a very good year, though not as good as Mathewson. Tesreau had pitched in Game Seven, but Marquard had not pitched in two days, and possessed a 0.50 ERA for the Series. Another option, Doc Crandall, had pitched two innings of relief in Game One without giving up a run. None of these options might have been better than leaving Mathewson out on the mound in the tenth inning, but 100% of Crandall might have been better than whatever portion of Matty was functional by that last inning. Was McGraw, a pioneer in using relievers in baseball, unwilling to take away from his friend Mathewson the opportunity to win the game? Perhaps the real goat was the man who made the assessment that Matty should keep pitching.