Hall inductees White, O'Day have intertwined history
Both played for Cubs franchise, both part of famous 'Merkle's Boner' game
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- During his illustrious career that spanned 20 years of the late 19th century, catcher James "Deacon" White played one season in 1876 for the Chicago Cubs, then nicknamed the White Stockings. Subsequently, White and his descendants settled in Aurora, Ill., and have since rooted for a Cubbies club that hasn't won the World Series for 105 years.
White died in 1939, which means he and his family rooted for a Cubs team that defeated the Detroit Tigers in five games to win the 1908 World Series.
"I'm a Chicago Cubs fan my whole life," said Jerry Watkins, White's great grandson. "My dad was a Cubs fan, my grandfather was a Cubs fan. James White lived with his daughter and son-in-law the last 20 years of his life. I don't know if he was a Cubs fan, but I wouldn't doubt it given the family ties and how big Cubs fans my dad and my grandfather were.
"So people who rooted [for the Cubs in 1908]? Yeah, absolutely."
Ironically, those rooting interests intersected with the career of umpire Hank O'Day. O'Day was working the plate at the Polo Grounds in late 1908 and made the call on the infamous Merkle Boner that ultimately put the Cubs in that World Series instead of the New York Giants. O'Day, who began his career as a pitcher, also played three seasons for the White Stockings from 1886-88, completing the circle.
White, O'Day and seminal Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert are to be inducted on Sunday into the National Baseball Hall of Fame under expected sunny skies in the usual spot behind the Clark Sports Center. All of them died before or around June 12, 1939, the day the Hall of Fame and Museum opened on Main Street.
Their distant heirs will all be in attendance on Sunday, giving speeches to a throng of true baseball fans in behalf of their long past family members, beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET. Hall of Fame coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. on MLB Network.
Watkins' lineage to White goes something like this: Grace White Watkins was the daughter of James White. Her son, Daniel Watkins, was Jerry Watkins' father. Jerry Watkins still lives in Illinois and owns a small children's book publishing company. He claims to be a baseball historian, and is well aware that his great grandfather spent most of his career from 1871-90 for nine teams, catching some 15-feet behind home plate sans modern equipment, including a mitt.
Consequently, Watkins describes White's hands long after his retirement as "gnarled and twisted."
"That was later in life, though," he said. "I'm sure arthritis had set in after having so many broken bones."
White was quirky, Watkins said.
"I've heard stories about my great grandfather my whole life. Some of them are family lore and may not be true, but I've done a lot of research. I think I've pretty much separated the truth from the fiction. There are some things about him that were pretty strange. A religious man, he may have been one of the last people to believe that the world was flat.
"He spent hours and hours trying to convince his teammates that world was flat. I don't know if he ever changed his mind later in life that the world was round, but he was sure it was flat when he was playing."
As a historian and Cubs fan, Watkins is obviously aware about the events of Sept. 23, 1908. O'Day was the plate umpire at the Polo Grounds that fateful day when the Giants battled the Cubs to the last out. Both teams were battling the Pirates for the National League pennant. The game in question was started for the Giants by the great Christy Mathweson and went into the bottom of the ninth tied at 1.
The Giants had runners on first and third. Moose McCormick was on first with two outs when Fred Merkle came to bat and drove him around to third with a single. Al Bridwell singled home McCormick with what appeared to be the winning running, but Merkle failed to touch second base as the crowd swarmed the field, turning toward the Giants' dugout to avoid the mob.
The Cubs noticed the gaffe, second baseman Johnny Evers wildly calling for the ball. It was thrown to second base, and O'Day called Merkle out on a forceout.
Because fans had irrevocably stopped the game, it couldn't be continued, was declared a 1-1 tie, and had to be replayed. The Giants lost the makeup game and pennant by one game to the Cubs, who went on to win what is still their last World Series title.
Merkle was 19 years old at the time, and despite being excoriated for that boner throughout baseball history, went on to play 16 seasons, ending his career in 1926 with two at-bats for the Yankees. O'Day was an umpire from 1888-1927 and worked a record-tying 10 World Series.
The White-Watkins family have memories that will last forever. And O'Day always stood proud he made the call.
"I don't think it affected his life that much," said Dennis McNamara, O'Day's grand nephew, who will deliver Sunday's speech. "A couple weeks prior to that, he was involved in a similar situation and he was instructed by the National League to enforce that baserunning rule, where the player on first had to go to second, which is what happened in the Merkle Boner. It's the integrity of the call, and he stood by it. It's lasted 100 years and nobody's questioned it, even though he played for the Chicago Cubs and he was a Chicagoan."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.