October 15, 1917, the Polo Grounds. World Series Game 6: Chicago White Sox @ New York Giants.
The Series’ clincher for the Sox was not without some controversy, and 99 years later certain elements of one particular, pivotal play, remain in question. The play, of course being the botched rundown of Eddie Collins in the top of the fourth inning, which ended up being the winning run, and cemented Giants third baseman Heinie Zimmerman as the goat. But was that an unfair label?
Zimmerman, a stalwart, but maligned infielder in the back nine of his career in ’17, was no stranger to implication. Throughout his 13 years in the bigs, Zimmerman was often in questionable situations of all sorts, and he earned a reputation as a ballplayer who was never quite as good as he should have been (1). His subpar play in the 1917 Series only served to fuel such talk. In six games, he batted just .120 and committed three errors, the last of which was a costly throwing error that allowed Eddie Collins to reach first base in the crucial fourth inning of game six. Collins would subsequently score the winning run on the famous chase to the plate.
With Collins on first, Shoeless Joe Jackson lifted a flyball toward Giants right fielder Dave Robertson, who dropped the ball, advancing Collins to third and Jackson to second. Sox slugger Happy Felsch then rapped a grounder back to pitcher Rube Benton, who wheeled and threw to Zimmerman at third, having caught Collins breaking for home. The rundown started normally, until Collins slipped past catcher Bill Rariden who was caught too far up the line. Inexplicably, neither Benton or first baseman Walter Holke was covering the plate! Zimmerman was thus forced to chase Collins all the way home. Collins, the faster runner, beat Zimmerman to the dish, giving the Sox a lead they would keep. They would go on to win the game and the World Series.
Some sources have conflicting reports on what Rariden actually did. Most agree he took at least one throw from Zimmerman, threw it back, but by then he was too far up the line and Collins ran past him. Other reports make it seem that Rariden was hardly engaged in the rundown at all, having broke far up the line immediately, leaving Zimmerman nobody to throw to from the outset. With obviously no video of this play, these details may never be fully revealed.
The snafu’d rundown, along with his lackluster play in the first five games and the key throwing error on Collins’ grounder, made Zimmerman the fall guy in New York. He would long be mentioned in the same vein as other infamous Giant goats like Fred Merkle and Fred Snodgrass, having to vehemently deny accusations that he allowed Collins to score.
Where the hell was everybody?
In that rundown situation, with the catcher and and third baseman engaged with the runner, the question becomes why didn’t either Rube Benton or Walter Holke cover the plate? There should have been at least one, if not two backups for catcher Bill Rariden, regardless of how long he stayed in the rundown, yet there were none. Once Rariden was out of the play, Zimmerman had nobody to throw to. He famously asked after the game “Who the hell was I supposed to throw to, (umpire) Bill Klem?” And Zimmerman was right. Even skipper John McGraw placed the blame on Benton and Holke for not covering the plate, but the fans and media alike would continue to assault Zimmerman for the broken play, no doubt aided by his poor series, crucial error early in the inning, and a string of insinuation and questionable actions throughout his career.
The eyebrow-raising would continue for Zimmerman the next two years, especially after first baseman and master game-fixer Hal Chase, formerly of the Cincinnati Reds, would join the Giants in 1919. McGraw, taking a gamble (no pun intended), on signing Chase in an effort to straighten him out would see the plan backfire as Chase and Zimmerman would form a potent betting duo. A grand jury was convened to investigate gambling in baseball in 1920, and McGraw and other Giants players would testify to Zimmerman and Chase’s agendas for fixing games in 1919. In the wake of the famous Black Sox scandal that season, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis would ban both Zimmerman and Chase from the game (2).
The sad tale of Heinie Zimmerman remains an interesting piece of baseball history. For although his reputation of never fulfilling his great potential drew the ire of fans and reporters, and his sidekicking with Hal Chase surely sealed his fate, he should not be to blame for the ’17 Series. He made the only play he could’ve made. The extenuating circumstances surrounding him and that series unfortunately made him the goat.
Photo Credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bf/Heinie_Zimmerman.jpg/220px-Heinie_Zimmerman.jpg