The Unassisted Triple Play

Bill Wambsganss: His Unassisted Triple Play in the 1920 World Series is All People Remember of him.

 Short of the one time in history that Chicago White Sox center fielder Johnny Mostil crossed all the way over to catch a towering fly foul ball down the right field line back in the 1920s, it is the rarest out play in baseball;;. It is the unassisted triple play, a play that’s rare enough, even when several defensive players are involved. Do you remember that iconic moment in the Walter Matthau-Jack Lemmon movie, “The Odd Couple,” when Felix calls Oscar at Shea Stadium, where Oscar is working as a sportswriter at a Mets game, just to ask what he wants for dinner? The call causes Oscar to turn his back and miss the only triple play he ever would have been privileged to witness, and it wasn’t even the unassisted kind.

How special was that frustration?

I don’t have the figure on total triple plays, but there have been only fifteen unassisted triple plays in baseball’s modern era. Fourteen (14) of these occurred during regular season games and the one (1) most famous solo shot job by Bill Wambsganss of the Cleveland Indians happened in the 1920 World Series. Neal Ball, a Detroit Tiger shortstop, pulled off the first one in 1909.. The most recent “UTP” happened one hundred years later, when second baseman Eric Bruntlett of the Philadelphia Phillies pulled off a familiar line drive catch, touch, and tag play on the batter and two baserunners. Bruntlett’s pattern was identical to the execution path taken by Neal Ball and, in fact, all the “UTP” plays are worked as one of two patterns: catch, touch, and tag – or else – catch, tag, and touch.

More exactly, twelve (12) of the “UTP” have gone down as line drive captures, followed by a tag of second base to retire te runner who left from there, and then finished by a tag of the runner trying to reach second from first base.The other three (3) “”UTP” also have started with  line drive catches, followed by tags of a runner trying to advance from first, and then finished with a touch of second base to retire the man who was off from there.

Not surprisingly, eight of these “UTP” have been pulled off by shortstops, five (5) by second basemen, and only two (2) by first basemen. Surprise catches of line drives and runners in motion with nobody out are the apparently requisite conditions for one to happen, plus a little luck on positioning and the flow of action. Both of the fist basemen plays were of the catch, tag, and, touch second type – and you can almost see what to happen to make these possible. They each had to catch drives running toward second as they then tagged the runner moving from first before touching second to retire the runner trying to get back there. George Burns (Threw Right) did it as a first sacker for the 1923 Boston Red Sox; Johnny Neun (Threw Left) did it for the 1927 Detroit Tigers.

The complete list of MLB “Unassisted Triple Play” guys by position, team, and date of execution Cleveland Indians)through this morning’s publication includes:

(1) Neal Ball, SS (Cleveland Naps) (07-19-1909)

(2) Bill Wambsganss, 2B (Cleveland Indians) (10-10-1920) *

(3) George Burns, 1B (Boston Red Sox) (09-14-1923)

(4) Ernie Padgett, SS (Boston Braves) (10-06-1923)

(5) Glenn Wright, SS  (Pittsburgh Pirates) (05-07-1925)

(6) Jimmy Gooney, SS (Chicago Cubs)  (05-30-1927)

(7) Johnny Neun, 1B (Detroit Tigers) (05-31-1927)

(8) Ron Hansen, SS (Washington Senators) (07-30-1968)

(9) Mickey Morandini, 2B (Philadelphia Phillies) (09-20-1992)

(10) John Valentin, SS (Boston Red Sox) (07-08-1994)

(11) Randy Velarde, 2B (Oakland Athletics) (05-29-2000)

(12) Rafel Furcal, SS (Atlanta Braves) (08-10-2003)

(13) Troy Tulowitzki, SS (Colorado Rockies) (04-29-2007)

(14) Adrubal Cabrera, 2B (Cleveland Indians) (05-12-2008)

(15) Eric Bruntlett, 2B (Philadelphia Phillies) (08-23-2009)

* Only UTP in World Series History.

One other list note: After Cooney and Neun collected UTP credit on consecutive days. May 30-31, 1927,  major league baseball did not see another such play for forty-one years. It’s amazing how that works.

Paul Hines Almost Had the 1st Unassisted Triple Play in Baseball History Back in 1878

Neal Ball of the 19th century is given disputed credit for the first unassisted triple play on an execution pattern that varied greatly from all the others on our official list. For one thing, Ball was a center fielder, not an infielder. Here is what happened and why it is disputed:

On May 8, 1878, Neal Ball of the Providence Grays was playing in a Grays road game with the home club Boston Red Caps. With Boston runners on second and third, center fielder Hines caught a line drive from Jack Burdock that the runners thought was uncatchable. When he caught it, both runners had already passed third. Hines tagged third, which, by the rules of the day, meant both runners were out. To make certain, he then threw the ball to Charlie Sweasy at second base for a back up tag of that base.

“It is still debated whether this was truly an unassisted triple play. (Modern rules would indeed have required either the ball to be conveyed to second base to put out the runner who had been on that base and had not tagged up, or that runner to be tagged.) According to the Society for American Baseball Research, the runner coming from second, Ezra Sutton, had not yet touched third base, which would mean that even by 19th century rules the play was not complete until Hines threw to second, and thus the play was not unassisted.[2] Ernest J. Lanigan’s Baseball Cyclopedia, 1922, which covers professional baseball back to 1876, states on p. 157 that Neal Ball in 1909 was ‘the first major leaguer to make an unassisted triple play.’ The Sporting News Baseball Record Book, which covers records back to 1876, likewise does not list Hines’ play in the section on unassisted triple plays.” – MLB UNASSISTED TRIPLE PLAYS / 19TH CENTURY – Wikipedia.

My personal opinion is that we have to disallow the Neal Ball “UTP” because of the doubt that runner Ezra Sutton had ever touched third base on his way home from second. Had he been confirmed as having touched third on his way as the second runner coming home, then both runners would have been retired by 19th century rules when Hines touched third base, but that’s not what happened. Hines threw to Sweasey for a tag of second base, just to make sure.

Now, by the time the play concluded, neither runner was a threat to go back to their bases of origin. They were near their dugout, watching what was going on. Had Neal been driven for credit on the first “UTP” in history, he could have simply run the ball to second base himself and stepped on the bag and had the whole thing sewed up as a “UTP” – either way you sliced it, but he did not. Paul Hines apparently was playing the game to win and not to set some kind of landmark fielding record – and isn’t that what baseball is supposedly about?

“Winning? DUH!”


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8 Responses to “The Unassisted Triple Play”

  1. Doug S. Says:

    I was the sole umpire of a 13-14 year old Pony League game in LaVernia TX (near San Antonio) and got to call a UTP.

    Situation was runners on first and second with of course no outs.

    Team batting puts on a double steal and the batter hits a hard liner up the middle and the Pitcher jumps and snags it and his momentum takes him towards the RF side of second base. He then tags the runner going from first to second about 10 off 2nd base. Next he sees the lead runner attempting to get back to 2nd and he ran over and tagged him about step off the base rather than touch 2nd base. So it was in effect a tag – tag DP with the Pitcher.

    Still a highlight to my umpiring – I do have a few interesting ejection stories as well.

  2. Patrick Callahan Says:

    Bill:
    If # 6 was played in the Cubs park my Dad (Harry A. Callahan) was in attendance at that game and was sitting in the seats near the field looking down the line from 3rd. base to 2nd. base. I recall him telling me the story in his last years when I would take him to the Astros game. He was a young man during the golden age of sports and saw many of the game’s classic players in action. He was a great fan.
    regards…..
    PAC

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Pat –

      That one happened at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, but I’m sure your dad back in Chicago was very much aware of Jimmy Conner’s accomplishment soon after it happened.

  3. Matt R Says:

    Wambsganss’ unassisted triple play occurred in Cleveland, OH in a WS game against the Brooklyn Superbas (1920.) I have visited League Park many times – believe it or not it still stands near East 66th and Lexington. You yourself can stand on the infield which still to this day is a ball field. How amazing is that? Cy Young pitched for Cleveland in both leagues, including on this field. Shoeless Joe Jackson roamed the outfield here and lived in a house about a block away.Babe Ruth hit his 2nd most number of HR’s here, due to the friendly dimensions to right. If the place could only speak!

  4. Art Audley Says:

    Regarding Ron Hansen of the Washington Senators-Hansen came to the Senators prior to the 1968 season in a multi-player trade with the Chicago White Sox, including an infielder named Tim Cullen.

    3 days after Hansen completed his UTP he was traded BACK to the White Sox for, you guessed it, Tim Cullen. This undoubtedly pleased Hansen as the Senators finished in 10th place with a 65-96 record.

  5. Tom Trimble Says:

    Bill,
    I think #1 should be the 1909 TP.

  6. surf fishing Gear Says:

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    The Unassisted Triple Play | The Pecan Park Eagle

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