A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How is an unassisted triple play accomplished in baseball?

September 21, 1984

Dear Cecil:

I have three baseball questions, one technical, one historical, and one theoretical. (1) The record books credit about a dozen players with unassisted triple plays. How, exactly, is this done? (2) Has any team ever made nine double plays or more in a game? (3) Which is more elegant, a perfect game accomplished in 27 pitches, each batter hitting into an out, or one accomplished in 81 strikes, giving the position players nothing to do at all? (Warning: Roger Angell himself refused to answer this question.)

Cecil replies:

Roger is a good fellow, Pete, but when it comes to fine moral judgments, you'd best stick with Unca Cecil. Let's take your questions in order:

(1) In your "typical" unassisted triple play (there have been only eight or so in major league history), you've got men on first and second. The batter hits a hard shot to either (a) the shortstop or second baseman, who catches it to put out the batter, touches second, retiring the lead runner, and then tags out the runner arriving from first, or (b) the first baseman, who tags out the first base runner and then runs to second before the lead runner can return.

One of the classic unassisted triple plays (and the only one ever to occur during a World Series) happened in 1920, in the fifth game between the Cleveland Indians and the Brooklyn Robins (Brooklyn used this wimpy nickname during the time the team was coached by Wilbert Robinson). Cleveland was leading when Pete Kilduff and Otto Miller reached base safely to open the fifth for Brooklyn. Clarence Mitchell then drove to right. The immortal Bill Wambsganss, the Cleveland second baseman, made a leaping catch, stepped on second before Kilduff could get back, then tagged the startled Miller. Other notable events during the 1920 Series included the first grand-slam homer and the first homer by a pitcher in Series history. (Cleveland won the game and the Series.)

Then we have assisted triple plays such as the one on September 7, 1935, when Boston Red Sock Joe Cronin hit a line drive toward third. It bounced off the head of third baseman Odell Hale and into the hands of shortstop Bill Knickerbocker, who started a TP. I know this is a little off the track, but it just came up on my 365-Days-In-Sports desk calendar, and I couldn't stand not to use it.

(2) Not in the majors. The record is seven double plays in a game, which two teams have managed to do: Yankees, August 14, 1942, and Astros, May 4, 1969.

(3) The number of pitches thrown during a perfect game is no more relevant than the number of brush strokes used to paint the Mona Lisa. A perfect game is just that: perfect. To cavil about the minor details of such a performance is to proclaim that one has the morals of a newspaper publisher. I need say no more.

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