A Real Baseball Oddity: The Unassisted Triple Play

A Real Baseball Oddity: The Unassisted Triple Play

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Unassisted Triple Play and 1920 World Series Photo Gallery
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Another Baseball Odity: The Unassisted Triple Play

“Funny thing, I played in the big leagues for thirteen years and the only thing anybody seems to remember is that once I made an unassisted triple play in a World Series.” – Bill Wambsganss, reflecting on the only unassisted triple play in World Series history.

My recent post about cycles, natural cycles, and reverse natural cycles got me thinking about another baseball oddity: the unassisted triple play. There have been only fifteen in baseball history, so it’s even rarer than a perfect game. The first was completed by an obscure player named Neal Ball in 1909. The second one, by Bill Wambsganss in the 1920 World Series, is by far the most famous.

According to one source I found, there have been 210,000 major league games. Divided that by 15, and you get one unassisted triple play every 14,000 games! 

The unassisted triple play, the perfect game, hitting four home runs in one game, hitting the natural cycle, and five extra-base hits in a game are comparable in terms of rarity, but all the others require extraordinary effort and skill. But the unassisted triple play is essentially a matter of luck: a combination of the right circumstances with the relatively simple effort of catching the ball and running in the right direction with it. Troy Tulowitzki said of his feat, “It fell right in my lap.”

The First Unassisted Triple Play

Neal Ball of the Cleveland Indians accomplished the first unassisted triple play, doing so on July 19, 1909. Ball was a backup infielder not known for his defensive skills. He was playing because of an injury to starting shortstop, Terry Turner.  Cy Young was on the mound that day for the Indians. Ball executed the play against the Red Sox at League Park. In the second inning of the game, Ball caught Amby McConnell’s line drive, stepped on second base to retire Heinie Wagner, and then tagged outfielder Jake Stahl as he was advancing towards second. Because the play was unprecedented and turned so swiftly, the ball players on the field didn’t know the inning was over and the crowd of 11,000 were unsure of how to react. After the game, Ball remained humble about the feat and simply said that anyone could have made the play. The glove he used is on display at the Hall of Fame.

 

The 1920 World Series Unassisted Triple Play

The most famous unassisted triple play was turned by the Indians’ Bill Wambsganss in Game Five of the 1920 World Series. Second baseman Wambsganss caught a line drive hit by Brooklyn’s Clarence Mitchell. He then stepped on second for a put out on Pete Kilduff, and tagged Otto Miller coming from first base. It’s still the only unassisted triple play in postseason play. Later in the game, Clarence Mitchell made history again by hitting into a double play, accounting for five outs in two straight at-bats. This game also saw the first grand slam in World Series history, hit by Cleveland’s Elmer Smith, and the first Series home run by a pitcher, Cleveland’s Jim Bagby, Sr.

The 15 Unassisted Triple Plays

Of the fifteen players who accomplished unassisted triple plays, eight were shortstops, five were second basemen and two were first basemen. The shortest time between two unassisted triple plays occurred in May 1927, when Johnny Neun executed the feat less than 24 hours after Jimmy Cooney. Conversely, it took more than 41 seasons after Neun’s play before Ron Hansen performed the feat on July 30, 1968, the longest span between unassisted triple plays. The last player to make an unassisted triple play is Eric Bruntlett on August 23, 2009. Only Neun and Bruntlett executed unassisted triple plays that ended the game.

Here is the list of the 15 unassisted triple plays in major league history:

1. Neal Ball, Cleveland Indians, SS, July 9, 1909
2. Bill Wambsganss, Cleveland Indians , 2B, October 10, 1920
3. George Burns, Boston Red Sox, 1B, September 14, 1923
4. Ernie Padgett, SS, Boston Braves, October 6, 1923
5. Glen Wright, Pittsburgh Pirates, May 7, 1925
6. Johnny Cooney, Chicago Cubs, SS, May 30, 1927
7. Johnny Neun, Detroit Tigers, 1B, May 31, 1927
8. Ron Hansen, Washington Senators, SS, July 30, 1968
9. Mickey Morandini, Philadelphia Phillies, 2B, September 20, 1992
10. John Valentin, Boston Red Sox, SS, July 8, 1994 
11. Randy Velarde, Oakland Athletics, 2B, May 29, 2000
12. Rafael Furcal, Atlanta Braves, SS, August 10, 2003
13. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado ROckies, SS, April 29, 2007
14. Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland Indians, 2B, May 12, 2008
15. Eric Bruntlett, Philadelphia Phillies, 2B, August 23, 2009.

-Gary Livacari

Photo Credits: All from Google search

Information: Excerpts edited from the Unassisted Triple Play Wikipedia page; the Neal Ball Wikipedia Page; and Baseball Almanac.

Statistics from Baseball-Reference.com 

Subscribe to my blog for automatic updates and Free Bonus Reports: “Memorable World Series Moments” and “The Handy Dandy World Series Reference Guide.”

 

I’m a baseball historian who also loves to write. My forte is identifying ballplayers in old photos, and my specail interest is the Dead Ball Era.

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