In the final game of the 1912 World Series, Fred Merkle hit a clutch RBI single in the top of the 10th inning that gave New York the lead over Boston, putting himself in a position to be the hero and officially atone for his transgressions that made him a lifelong goat. The first batter of the inning hit a long fly ball to center field, which was dropped by the Giants centerfielder. That man was named Fred Snodgrass, who became baseball’s next major scapegoat just four years later. And Merkle did not get off easy either; he backed off a foul ball later in the inning, earning a volley of “Bonehead Merkle Does It Again” headlines and consequently the anger of his manager John McGraw. But this chapter is about Snodgrass, the man whose dropped fly ball earned him a permanent spot in the baseball doghouse.
While attending St. Vincent’s College, now named Loyola Marymount College, Snodgrass and the baseball team trained with the New York Giants in three exhibition games during spring training. John McGraw umpired the games. In February 1908, McGraw visited Los Angeles and inquired about Snodgrass, whom he remembered from those spring training games years prior. Both men later met at the hotel where McGraw was staying, and McGraw offered Snodgrass a $150-per-month contract, which Snodgrass later accepted and ultimately traveled with the team to Texas for spring training. Snodgrass made his debut in the majors for the Giants on June 13, 1908, and was present for the aforementioned Fred Merkle incident on September 23. It would not be the first time that a Giants player named Fred would be the victim of ritual scapegoating by the New York media and fans.
Snodgrass spent the bulk of 1909 on the bench, playing in 28 games and hitting .300 in 70 at bats. In 1910, he was toiling away as a third-string catcher when McGraw approached him about playing in the outfield, an opportunity at which Snodgrass jumped. He would up hitting .321 in 123 games with 44 RBIs and 33 stolen bases. When the Giants went to the World Series, eventually losing to the Philadelphia Athletics, Snodgrass was a regular, playing in 151 games and hitting .294 with 77 RBIs and 51 stolen bases. In 1912, New York won the pennant with a 103-49 record and faced the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Boston won Game 1, and Game 2 was called in the eleventh inning on account of darkness, ending it in a tie. New York evened the series at a game apiece with a 2-1 victory in Game 3, but Smokey Joe Wood struck out eight in a 3-1 Red Sox victory in Game 4. Boston edged Christy Mathewson in Game 5, but New York broke through with two more wins that evened up the series at three games apiece. Since Game 2 ended in a tie, an eighth contest was needed. Boston won the coin toss to host the final game, where Fred Snodgrass’ downfall eventually took place.
Once again, the game entered extra innings. Fred Merkle, the goat four years prior, singled to give New York a 2-1 lead in the top of the tenth. In the bottom of the frame, with Christy Mathewson on the mound, Clyde Engle lofted a harmless fly ball into right-centerfield. Snodgrass, the centerfielder, called for the ball, but dropped it. Engle wound up at second base. The error seemed to have little immediate effect on Snodgrass; he made a brilliant diving catch on the next play that robbed Harry Hooper of extra bases. Mathewson, on the other hand, could not settle down, and he walked Steve Yerkes on four pitches. With Tris Speaker up, Mathewson induced the Boston star to pop up into foul territory on the first pitch. Mathewson, perhaps acting on instinct or perhaps acting on mistrust of Merkle because of the 1908 blunder, called for catcher John Meyers to catch it. It instead dropped in front of Mathewson, Merkle and Meyers. Speaker took advantage and singled in Engle. Steve Yerkes later scored the winning run on a sacrifice fly from Larry Gardner, giving the Red Sox the World Series.
In ancient tales featuring scapegoating rituals, the aftermath is rarely discussed, especially from the point of view of the exiled. The community carries on living, free of its sins until it must perform the ritual again, while the scapegoat is left to wander alone in the wilderness. The Fred Snodgrass situation shows the damaging effects that scapegoating rituals within Major League Baseball have on the scapegoated. Even though McGraw, like he did for Merkle, refused to cast blame on the eventual scapegoat, the New York media still crucified Snodgrass. The next season, his blunder became known as the “$30,000 Muff,” referring to the sum that separated the winner’s share from the loser’s share. The next day’s New York Times headline read, “Sox Champions on Muffed Fly. Snodgrass drops easy ball, costing his teammates $29,540.00. Boston winning 3-2.” In the article, the paper wrote:
Write in the pages of World Series baseball history the name of Snodgrass. Write it large and black. Not as a hero; truly not. Put him rather with Merkle, who was in such a hurry that he gave away a National League championship. Snodgrass was in such a hurry that he gave away a World Championship. It was because of Snodgrass’s generous muff on an easy fly in the tenth inning that the decisive game in the World Series went to the Boston Red Sox this afternoon by a score of 3-2, instead to the New York Giants by a score of 2-1.
Fans and players throughout the league also held Snodgrass’ blunder with them through the years, frequently reminding him of his scapegoat status with a quick, snarky blow. In 1914, Boston Braves starter George Tyler taunted Snodgrass by throwing the ball into the air and dropping it, which drew a roar of approval from the Boston fans. At the end of the 1917 season, Snodgrass got into a contract dispute, quit baseball and returned to California to start a farming career. Nonetheless, the memory of his exile still haunted him. According to an interview Christopher Bell performed for his book, one day Snodgrass was in a grocery store when he dropped an egg. Someone said, “Dropped one again, Fred?” Even seemingly positive moments of remembrance, like getting asked for an autograph, proved to be directly correlated to his mistake, and to none of his successes in baseball.
Now, the concession has been made by many that Fred Snodgrass was the easiest scapegoat in this situation, that fans found him the most blamable. The question is: Why? He was unfairly saddled with total blame that should have logically been placed on other teammates, or at least on the collective unit. Mathewson should have let Merkle catch the pop foul, but he instead ordered Meyers to run after it, a foolish mistake in retrospect. Furthermore, no one seems to remember that Snodgrass made a tremendous catch on the ensuing play; had he not done that, the game would have ended even earlier. Longtime baseball writer Fred Lieb wrote, “The muff by Snodgrass was only one link in a chain of strange events. Mechanical errors such as his are part of the game and happen to the greatest players. McGraw, knowing this, gave the outfielder a raise in salary for 1913.” At least partial fault rests with the media. Both Merkle and Snodgrass played in New York, the country’s biggest media market. The nine scapegoats profiled in Christopher Bell’s book played in the following cities: New York, New York, Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Boston, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Boston and Philadelphia. Consolidated, four are located in New York, two in Boston, two in Southern California and one in Philadelphia, cities ranked first, second, fourth and fifth on the list of top media markets in the United States. This is no coincidence; scapegoats have simply never arisen in smaller media markets, most likely because of the mass exposure sure to ensue following any mistake, especially one that cost a team in this big media market a crucial game.
There are a few other things to keep in mind about Merkle and Snodgrass. Both played in the early 1900s, when baseball existed as America’s sole National Pastime. Professional football, the most popular sport today, had not yet been born. Neither had NASCAR or professional basketball, two other sports that battle baseball for viewership. Thus, when something went wrong in baseball, it instantly vaulted into the nation’s focus. Furthermore, news was consumed exclusively through newspapers, which created a pool of opinions watered-down from what we experience today. Television was far away, and the first radio broadcast would not occur until 1921. When Merkle and Snodgrass committed their now-infamous mistakes, the public read about it from sensationalistic journalists looking to make a national splash with a juicy scoop, one that often involved casting blame on someone. There were no bloggers or talk-show hosts or SportsCenter anchors to shed an opposing light on the situation. Once sportswriters placed the blame, it was there to stay.