10 biggest gaffes in baseball history

January 22nd, 2022

The original version of this story was published in 2018.

Baseball history is filled with blunders. Other sports have their blunders, too, naturally, but no sport celebrates and memorializes its mistakes, its flubs, its errors, its slip-ups, its faux pas quite like baseball.

In fact, the word "boner" -- as in short for "bonehead play" -- was invented for baseball. It may have been invented specifically for "Merkle's Boner," one of the most famous blunders in baseball history. We'll get to Merkle in a second.

The thing about baseball blunders is that they can happen to anybody, from stars to scrubs. Trent Grisham's bobble in the 2019 National League Wild Card Game is just the latest example. Babe Ruth himself committed one of those blunders. We are focusing, by the way, on plays specifically on the field. Often we you see such a list of blunders, they will include ill-advised trades like Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio or Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas or the Red Sox selling off Ruth. They will include team collapses like that of the 1978 Red Sox or the '64 Phillies. That's not what this list is about. We are simply looking for honest mistakes made on the field at the wrong time.

Anyway, here are the 10 biggest blunders in baseball history:

1. Merkle's Boner, Sept. 23, 1908
We are about to come up on the 110th anniversary of this one, and yet once you know the story it never grows old. The Giants and Cubs were playing in a critical game -- they were tied atop the National League standings with less than two weeks left in the season. The game was played at the Polo Grounds, and the score was tied 1-1 and New York had runners on first and third. Fred Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie making his first big league start, was the guy at first.

The Giants' Al Bridwell hit a "single" to right field, which "scored the winning run." You will note the quotation marks. New York fans rushed on the field to celebrate. It should be said here that in those days, everyone was pretty lenient about the technicalities involved with walk-off plays. With fans all over the field, the players generally wanted to get inside as quickly as possible. An overjoyed Merkle, who at 19 was the youngest player in the NL that year, neglected to touch second base. By the customs of the day, it didn't have to be a big deal.

Two future Hall of Famers -- Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers and umpire Hank O'Day -- turned what might have been a meaningless oversight into baseball's greatest blunder. Evers got a baseball -- it might have been the right ball, it might have been a spare, he might have taken it from a fan in a bowler hat, there are many stories -- and stepped on second base. O'Day consulted with other umpires and then called Merkle out, nullifying the run. Because of darkness, the game ended in a tie. The Giants and Cubs ended up with the same record at season's end, and the game had to be made up. Chicago won the makeup game to win the pennant.

Merkle ended up having a long and distinguished Major League career, but he never shook Merkle's Boner. He played in five World Series, and his team did not win any of them.

2. Alex Gonzalez error, Oct. 14, 2003
You might remember the situation: The Cubs led the Marlins, 3-1, with one out in the eighth inning. They were five outs away from a chance at their first World Series victory since … well, since the year of Merkle's Boner. Florida was rallying, it had scored a run and had runners on first and second.

That's when Cubs ace Mark Prior forced a 20-year-old to hit an apparent double-play grounder to shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Even in those days, Cabrera couldn't run. The ball took a nice sweet hop up to Gonzalez's backhand side; it was a dream of a ground ball. The inning was over. Chicago would be three outs away from the World Series.

And Gonzalez plainly and unceremoniously booted it. The Marlins ended up scoring eight runs in the inning and, eventually, winning the series and the World Series.

To this day, I have no earthly idea how this is not the way that game is remembered. Instead, people remember it for a foul ball that a lifelong Cubs fan named Steve Bartman very reasonably and logically reached up to catch. Gonzalez somehow escaped his place in baseball's blunderhood.

3. Red Sox blow Game 6, Oct. 25, 1986
While Gonzalez mostly escaped ignominy, poor Bill Buckner had to take the fall for a series of blunders by his teammates in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Everybody remembers Buckner's error -- Mookie Wilson topping a grounder, the ball going through Buckner's legs, Ray Knight racing around to score the winning run.

But Buckner -- well, for one, he shouldn't have been out there. His legs were completely shot by 1986, and Red Sox manager John McNamara had made a regular habit of putting in Dave Stapleton as a defensive replacement in the late innings. Mac either forgot or neglected to do that in Game 6. But even more to the point, Buckner's error came after Boston had already blown a 5-3 lead. With two outs, Calvin Schiraldi gave up three consecutive hits and a run. In came Bob Stanley with runners on first and third, and he threw an infamous wild pitch that probably wasn't a wild pitch.

That is to say, the ball should absolutely have been caught by catcher Rich Gedman. At first glance, it looked like the pitch was way inside, but because Mets hitter Wilson jumped out of the way like he was being attacked by a swarm of bees. A replay showed the ball drifted a bit inside, but was absolutely catchable; it actually ticked off Gedman's glove as he reached a bit too lackadaisically for it. That scored the tying run.

On the next pitch, the Red Sox probably had Knight picked off; second baseman Marty Barrett raced to second and Knight was completely off balance. But Stanley didn't make the pickoff throw.

Then, and only then, did Wilson hit the grounder to first that went through Buckner's legs and sealed Boston's fate.

4. Umpire Jim Joyce misses the call, June 2, 2010
The thing to remember about all these blunders is that, as mentioned, they're honest mistakes made by people trying their best. Pressure changes the atmosphere.

Detroit's Armando Galarraga had a perfect game for 8 2/3 innings, and when a perfect game is going on, everyone feels a heightened awareness. When people (especially in the movies) say "Don't look down," what they're saying is "don't think about how high up you are." As Galarraga pitched to Jason Donald with two outs in the ninth, everyone knew what was at stake.

Donald hit a weak ground ball to the right side of the infield … as soon as it was hit, everyone knew it would be a close play. Cabrera (who is an integral but innocent player in two of the Top 4 blunders) ranged far off the bag to pick it up. He then turned and threw to Galarraga, who ran over to cover first. Galarraga and Donald converged at the bag. Cabrera began to celebrate a perfect game.

On replay, there could be no doubt. Donald was out, and it wasn't even that close.

Umpire Jim Joyce called him safe. This was before instant replay review, so the perfect game was nullified.

Nobody felt worse about this than Joyce himself. But so it goes with baseball blunders. I've asked big league umpires this question: While fully understanding that as an umpire you can't get caught up in the moment, don't you have to be sure on a play like that before calling the guy safe and blowing a perfect game.

To a man, they all said that you focus on the play and make the call as you see it. Period. It doesn't matter the situation.

That makes sense. But me, wow, I would have been sure before calling Donald safe. I guess that's why I couldn't be a big league umpire.

5. Lonnie's Lapse, Oct. 27, 1991
Nobody ever seems to talk about this one, but Lonnie Smith's baserunning blunder in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series had a huge effect on baseball history.

Let's recap the moment. It was the eighth inning in a scoreless tie between Atlanta and Minnesota, a classic pitching duel between a couple of future Hall of Famers, John Smoltz and Jack Morris.

Smith led off the inning with a single. His Braves teammate and 1991 NL MVP Award winner Terry Pendleton followed up by crushing a long double to left-center -- the ball landed in front of the wall and bounced high in the air. Smith was no longer the speedster he had been as a young man, but he was fast enough. He should have scored easily. But he didn't.

And here's why: On Smith's way to second base, he saw Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch faking a throw to second base, as if a ground ball had been hit to him. Smith did not entirely fall for this -- he didn't slide into second -- but something about it threw him off. He went into second base, rounded the bag and then stopped. Smith looked to the outfield to see what was happening, but he held his place at second for a good three or four seconds. Then he jogged into third base. If Smith had been even halfway alert, he would have scored without a throw.

Had Smith scored, it's likely the Braves would have won the game and the World Series. Had he scored, let's be honest, it's possible that Morris -- who eventually pitched 10 scoreless innings for one of the great Game 7 performances ever -- might have had a harder time getting into the Hall of Fame. Had Smith scored, Atlanta's dynasty might have looked different.

As we know, Smith didn't score.

6. Babe caught stealing, Oct. 10, 1926
It was the seventh game of the 1926 World Series, with the Cardinals leading the Yankees, 3-2, in the bottom of the ninth and an ancient Pete Alexander on the mound for St. Louis.

In the triumphant scene of the movie "The Winning Team" -- when Ronald Reagan played Alexander* -- the ending was clear cut: Alexander struck out the last Yankee to clinch the World Series. It played better that way.

(Note: "The Winning Team" offers the single best baseball trivia question around: Name the only player who was named for a president and portrayed by a president in a movie. You know the Reagan part already. "Pete" Alexander's full name was Grover Cleveland Alexander.)

In any case, the real story is much less dramatic. Alexander didn't strike out the last guy. He actually walked the Bambino to put the tying run on base with two outs.

This brought up the Yankees' cleanup hitter … who was Bob Meusel. You may ask: Why in the world wasn't Lou Gehrig hitting cleanup for the Bronx Bombers? It's a fair question: Gehrig was only 23 that year, and though he had the better season, Meusel was no slouch. He hit .315 with moderate power in 1926 … a year earlier, he led the American League in home runs and RBIs.

Meusel was a threat. But he didn't get to hit against Alexander. Instead, Ruth took off in a stolen-base attempt and was thrown out to end the World Series.

People argued a lot about Ruth's play. The next day, a writer named Thomas S. Rice wrote a glowing article about Ruth's mental dexterity for baseball -- "George Herman (Babe) Ruth is a baseball genius, no less," he wrote -- and said that considering the wet conditions and the deadness of the ball that late in the game, his steal was a smart gamble. It just didn't pay off.

Yeah. No. By 1926, Ruth was 31, his body had ballooned, his legs were shot, he had the wear and tear of a whole season dragging him down. Meusel and Gehrig were coming up. Making that out trying to steal: A Ruthian blunder.

7. Mickey Owen's passed ball, Oct. 5, 1941
Owen had two passed balls all of the 1941 regular season. He also set a record that year for most consecutive putouts without recording an error. Owen was a really good defensive catcher. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

In Game 4 of the Dodgers-Yankees series, Brooklyn held a 4-3 lead with two outs in the ninth. Dodgers pitcher Hugh Casey was cruising, and sure enough, he struck out Tommy Henrich for what should have ended the game and tied the series at 2-2.

The ball dived down, though, and Owen could not come up with it. The ball rolled away and the alert Heinrich reached first. People would argue whether it was a passed ball or a wild pitch -- it was ruled a passed ball -- but in the end, what does it matter? The Yankees scored four runs to take the game, then won the series in five games.

8. The A.J. Play, Oct. 12, 2005
We can argue about who deserves this blunder … but as the line goes, mistakes were made.

The Angels had won the first game of the 2005 AL Championship Series, and Game 2 was tied, 1-1, in the ninth inning. The Halos' Kelvim Escobar struck out A.J. Pierzynski to seemingly send the game into extra innings. Angels catcher Josh Paul rolled the ball to the mound and began to run off the field.

But then Pierzynski ran to first base. It was all pretty confusing. Paul seemed sure that he had caught the third strike. Pierzynski -- always one of those stir-the-pot type of players -- ran to first as if Paul had dropped it. Home-plate umpire Doug Eddings, based on his reaction, didn't seem to have strong feelings either way.

Replays showed that Paul did catch the third strike, but there was no official replay then. Eddings ruled that the ball hit the dirt and Pierzynski was safe. Who to blame? Paul? He was right in thinking that he caught the ball, but you can't just assume the umpire will be with you. Eddings? Yeah, you might want to make your call clearer. Pierzynski? You can't blame him. Man, that guy knew how to get under opponents' skin.

After a stolen base and a smash off the wall in left, the White Sox won the game and ultimately moved on to win the World Series.

9. Don Denkinger call, Oct. 26, 1985
I have this blunder much lower than almost anybody else for a specific reason. Yes, it was a badly blown call by Denkinger. The Cardinals led the game, 1-0, and they had the irrepressible Todd Worrell on the mound ready to close things out. Jorge Orta led off the inning for the Royals, and he hit a squibber to the right side, St. Louis first baseman Jack Clark reached it and threw to Worrell covering first. Denkinger called Orta safe. He was out. By replay, he was very out.

A quick defense of Denkinger -- and this is probably true of the Joyce call above -- that's one of the hardest calls in baseball, the pitcher covering first base. And this was particularly awkward because Clark's throw was behind Worrell, who spread out to catch it. There were a lot of moving parts. Look, it's Denkinger's job to get that call right, and he didn't, so I'm not excusing it. But I am saying that it was a harder call than the replay made it look.

But this isn't my reason for putting this call lower than others. My reason is this: Unlike most people, I think the Royals would have won the game anyway. It has become canon that Denkinger cost the Cardinals the series. But two things make me think they would not have.

First reason: That Royals team was absurdly resilient. They weren't all that good -- the third- or fourth-best team at best in that generation of Kansas City teams -- but they were tough and unbreakable. The Blue Jays had them down, 3-1, in the AL Championship Series, and the Royals beat them three straight, the last two in Toronto. The Cards also had them down, 3-1, and had a chance to end the series in St. Louis. The Royals won to send it back to Kansas City.

Second reason: That Cardinals team was beginning to disintegrate. Yes, the Orta call was a bad one, but it was hardly a game-ender. It just meant the Royals had a man on first with nobody out. St. Louis had a dominant reliever on the mound. Kansas City had a very mediocre lineup, and George Brett wasn't coming up anytime soon. Stand up and finish the job.

The Cardinals couldn't. On the next pitch after the Denkinger call, Steve Balboni hit a foul popup that should have been the first out. Clark ran over to the dugout and and completely lost sense of where he was, the ball bounced harmlessly away; Balboni followed with a single.

JIm Sundberg -- with two strikes -- got down a bunt in an attempt to move over the runners, but Worrell threw out Orta at third for the first out. The Cards seemed to be regaining their footing. But they weren't. Next batter, Hal McRae, and Worrell crossed up catcher Darrell Porter -- passed ball, runners moved to second and third anyway.

After the Cardinals intentionally walker McRae (which you assume they would have done had Sundberg been able to get down the sacrifice bunt), Dane Iorg hit the single that scored the tying and winning runs.

And the next day, the Royals blew up the Cards, 11-0, in a game so ridiculous that the only thing anyone outside of Kansas City remembers about it is that frustrated St. Louis starter John Tudor had to go to the hospital after hitting an electric fan.

Don't tell me the Cardinals would have won that game if Denkinger had made the right call. They offered no evidence whatsoever that they would have.

10. Snodgrass' Muff, Oct. 16, 1912
Fred Snodgrass really got a bad rap. Yes, he made an error in the 10th inning of Game 8 (there was a tie) of the 1912 World Series. And yes, that runner eventually came around to score the tying run (followed shortly after by the winning run). But really, it was just an error. Those happen. There was nobody out, bottom of the 10th, Snodgrass' Giants, up 2-1. That hardly cost New York the game.

Fred Engle hit the fly ball the bounced out of Snodgrass' glove; it turned out to be a two-base error. OK. But on the next play, Harry Hooper hit a long fly ball that Snodgrass made a dazzling play on to pull in for the first out. It was such a good play that Engle didn't even tag up; he thought the ball would drop and was already close to third when the ball was caught.

The legendary Christy Mathewson was the Giants' pitcher, and he walked Steve Yerkes to put runnrs on first and second. Mathewson then coaxed Tris Speaker to hit a foul popup that undoubtedly should have been caught for the second out. Do you want to know who should have caught it? Do you really want to know?

Fred Merkle.

Ah, how it all comes around. Speaker's foul dropped harmlessly, and he then singled in the tying run. Runners moved to second and third on the throw home. After an intentional walk loaded the bases, Larry Gardner hit the sacrifice fly that scored Yerkes and won the World Series.

Snodgrass certainly played a role in the loss, but for more than 100 years, he has been blamed for the Giants losing the 1912 World Series, and he doesn't deserve that.