“I don’t believe in Zimmerman!”John Lennon, “God,” 1970

One of the values of knowing history is that you can recognize repeat situations when they arise. We humans are pretty creative, but somehow every generation has to work itself into some scrape that a previous class already tried out. Sometimes it’s a historical blunder on the scale of invading Russia from the west with winter coming on; other times, it’s just hiring Raul Mondesi.

The benefit to recognizing a repeat situation as it manifests is that you can call it off before, say, you trade this year’s Jay Buhner for this year’s Ken Phelps, or your Iraq becomes your Vietnam, and consequently someone else’s problem. In some cases, it’s just fun to know that even if you missed something the first time around, chances are it will come up again so you can see it for yourself. For example, it’s safe to say that none of our readers were in attendance at Game Six of the 1917 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants, and so they didn’t see the controversial play that iced the championship for the American League. Fortunately, Monday’s Angels-Blue Jays game was just as good as a time machine–and not just any time machine, but the deluxe model with the cruise control, the heated mirrors, and the side mirrors that fold down when passing through a dangerously narrow aperture, handy for automotive proctological exams and navigating the capillaries of longtime smokers.

The score was tied 5-5 with two out in the bottom of the 10th at Toronto and two runners on. Chris Gomez was standing on second. He had reached on a fielder’s choice, then was pushed into scoring position by Eric Hinske‘s walk. Simon Pond came to the plate. Pond grounded to first baseman Casey Kotchman, who dove for the ball and knocked it down. Pitcher Ben Weber stood at first, waiting to receive the ball for the 3-1 put out. Gomez rounded third, trying to score. Second baseman Adam Kennedy picked up the ball and fired it to catcher Ben Molina. Gomez was now in a rundown. Molina chased him up the line, then threw the ball to third baseman Alfredo Amezaga. Gomez reversed field and headed back towards home. Amezaga threw the ball to…he didn’t throw it to anyone, because there was no one to throw it to. Gomez scored. Game over.

The Angels play was a fluke. Kotchman or Weber, normally next in line in the rundown hierarchy, had been taken out of the play by Pond’s grounder. There was no goat, really, unless you want to blame Molina for not holding the ball.

When the original version of the play took place in 1917, there was no doubt that there was a goat. He was third baseman Heinie Zimmerman, and though he didn’t deserve the rap for blowing the World Series for the Giants, he was such a bad guy that one can look at his horns as something of a karmic evening of the scales.

John McGraw’s collection of Giants is obscure today, and most of the players are familiar only to aficionados. Jim Thorpe was a late acquisition. There were two future Hall of Famers on the club, Highpockets George Kelly and Ross Youngs, but both had only cups of coffee with McGraw’s outfit. By contrast, the White Sox of 1917 remain famous. These were the same White Sox that sold out the World Series two years later. The whole “Eight Men Out” crew was here: Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Claude Williams, et al.

The White Sox were up three games to two going into the sixth game of the seven-game Series. The home team had won each of the five games, so as the Series returned to New York there was an expectation that the Giants could sweep the last two games for the win. Red Faber of the Sox and Rube Benton of the Giants threw zeros at each other for the first three frames. Then the Giants came apart, and Zimmerman was in the middle of it. Sox second baseman Eddie Collins opened the top of the fourth with a grounder to Zimmerman. “The Great Zim,” as he was sometimes called, threw the ball away, allowing Collins to reach second. Joe Jackson batted next, and he lifted an easy fly ball to right fielder Dave Robertson–who dropped it. Collins moved to third.

Happy Felsch came to the plate. He swung. Collins, going on contact, broke for the plate. Felsch tapped the ball to pitcher Benton, who picked it up and fired to third baseman Zimmerman. Collins was now trapped. Zimmerman ran Collins towards the plate and threw to catcher Bill Rariden. Rariden ran Collins back towards third and threw to Zimmerman. Collins slammed on the breaks and headed back to the plate. Zimmerman looked to throw, but Rariden was nowhere to be seen. First baseman Walter Holke, who should have been there too, was still at first. Desperate, Zimmerman ran at Collins, finally chasing him across home plate. Jackson went to third, Felsch went to second during the run down. Both were plated moments later as Gandil singled to right field. The Giants were in a 3-0 hole from which they never recovered. The final score was 4-2 White Sox.

The New York Times called the rundown, “Zim’s deathless outburst of stupidity.” McGraw was already suspicious that Zimmerman had thrown the game. As it turned out, it was an idea not totally without foundation. Even so, McGraw had to admit that Zim had not been at fault on the play. “The man to blame for it was Holke, who stood at first base watching Heinie instead of covering the plate.” “Who was I supposed to throw the ball to?” Zimmerman asked. “[Umpire Bill] Klem?”

No one cared for Zimmerman’s protestations, perhaps because he already had a reputation as a poor fielder and a violent character. In early 1920, the Sporting News said Zimmerman, “may not fit into modern-day orderly baseball. He is doubtless uncouth, vulgar and altogether unreliable, but even so he has some of the qualities that excite a certain sort of admiration…There is no refinement in Zim’s make-up, the veneer of civilization on him is so thin that the cave man stuff shows through in large spots.” In 1917 he was fined for throwing a ball at an umpire.

As for his defense, the Times described a typical Zim game against the Cardinals: “The space between Heinie Zimmerman and third base yesterday was a block wide. Half a dozen Cardinal hits found their way through. Heinie didn’t even flirt with them…The crowd began to jeer Heinie Zimmerman in the eighth which was just like trying to annoy a duck with water…Every time [Rogers] Hornsby made a good stop at third the crowd yelled, ‘Heinie, that’s the way to do it.'” The crowds of 1919 were very good at composing elaborate, multi-word chants.

McGraw knew what he was getting into when he picked up Zimmerman from the Cubs in 1916; Zim was then serving out a 10-day suspension for “lying down on the job.” It didn’t matter to McGraw; throughout his career he maintained the stubborn belief that he could take troubled ballplayers and change them, if not into good citizens, at least into reasonably professional ballplayers. The history of McGraw’s teams is littered with players like Bugs Raymond, Bill Dahlen, Turkey Mike Donlin, and even the relatively benign but occasionally disgruntled Casey Stengel. All were considered, to varying degrees, to be difficult personalities.

In Zim’s case, what attracted McGraw was his bat, though even that was overrated. Today Zim would be known as an RBI man, that fictitious producer of runs. His one transcendent moment had come in 1912, when he led the National League in hits, doubles, home runs, and batting average. His .372 average, 14 home runs, and 103 RBIs were for many years thought to represent a triple crown, but subsequent research has found that he was credited with four RBI too many, dropping his final total behind that of Honus Wagner.

Zimmerman did succeed in leading the NL in RBIs in 1916 and 1917, though he never came close to approaching his 1912 numbers. An impatient contact hitter, Zim failed to put many runs on the scoreboard after 1914, but oh, the hypnotic power of those RBIs. Still, before we condemn McGraw for his primitivism and congratulate ourselves for our enlightenment, we should acknowledge that the Little Napoleon must have known something about what he was doing; languishing in fourth place with an indifferent 54-58 record at the time of Zim’s acquisition, the Giants went 27-4 down the stretch, including winning 26 games in a row.

So much for McGraw’s brilliance. He later outsmarted himself by trying to turn his “Mastermind” powers on the “corkscrew mind” of Hal Chase. Not only did McGraw fail to redeem a player he knew was as crooked as a politician, but Zimmerman was drawn into Chase’s orbit and began to exhibit a similar predilection for fixing games. Not only did his own play in a crucial 1919 series raise suspicious, but Zimmerman also tried to bribe other Giants to throw a late-season contest. One of his intended targets, Fred Toney, notified management.

McGraw dropped Zimmerman like a hot rock, but for what he later claimed were legal reasons he lied about his reasons, initially telling the press that Zimmerman was, “tired. His eyes have been bothering him. He’s been complaining that he can’t judge the hops on a ground ball as it comes down to him. I told him to knock off for the rest of the season.” After McGraw was called to testify in the trial of the eight Black Sox, the truth of the matter was revealed and McGraw felt free to speak. “You can quote me, and make it as strong as you like, that Zimmerman was dropped by the New York Club for attempting to bribe [outfielder Benny] Kauff and Toney to throw ball games…Zimmerman, for that matter, confessed his guilt to Mr. Stoneham and myself when I called him to account after he had been suspended in September of 1919.” According to McGraw, Zimmerman had said, “The Giants couldn’t win the pennant. The season was nearly over and I saw no harm in picking up a little easy money.” Ironically, Benny Kauff was later banned from baseball himself, either for stealing a car or just being weird.

No formal charges were filed against Zimmerman, and until the Black Sox matter came to a boil in late 1920, it was assumed that Zimmerman’s career would roll on. The Giants released him to the Pirates, a charade carried out for the same obscure legal reasons that had stilled McGraw’s tongue. It was rumored that Zimmerman would take over third base for the Pirates. The Buccos had Pie Traynor on hand, but he was just 20 and the Pirates thought maybe he was a shortstop, maybe he was a third baseman, maybe he was an eggplant. In truth, Zimmerman was finished in baseball.

In March, 1921, Zimmerman issued an affidavit stating that although he had invited Toney, Kauff, and Rube Benton to fix a game on behalf of a “certain party,” he himself had done nothing to fix the game. He also insisted that the offer was accepted by the players. Pete Rose-like, in the absence of direct proof of his involvement, Zimmerman’s affidavit confirmed what until then had been merely suspicion.

Out of baseball, Zimmerman returned to his native Bronx, New York and worked as a steamfitter. Continuing his track record of positive associations, he partnered with gangster Dutch Schultz on a speakeasy in 1929-1930. He never sought reinstatement and shunned the game until his death in 1969 at the age of 82.

The botched World Series rundown was just one play in a long career, and it wasn’t even Zimmerman’s fault. Almost 90 years later, the play is still cited as one of the great screw-ups in World Series history. It just goes to show that sometimes bad things happen to bad people.

Thank you for reading

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