This article was written by John McMurray
After the Red Sox purchased his contract in the middle of the season, Neal Ball played in only 18 regular-season games for Boston in 1912, collecting nine hits. To the baseball world, Ball is better remembered for a defensive play he made against Boston three years earlier while playing shortstop for the Cleveland Naps: the first unassisted triple play in major-league baseball history.
In the first game of a doubleheader played at Cleveland’s League Park on July 19, 1909, Boston’s Heinie Wagner singled to lead off the second inning against Cleveland starting pitcher Cy Young, who was pitching in his first season for the Naps after playing for eight years with the Red Sox. Jake Stahl moved Wagner to second base with a bunt single. On a hit-and-run play, the next batter, Amby McConnell, lined a 3-2 pitch up the middle. Ball leaped to catch it, forced Wagner at second base, and then tagged Stahl to record the third out.
“I thought I could spear it and had visions of a double play,” said Ball. “I reached into the air and came down with the ball. By this time, Wagner was on third and Stahl was only a few feet from second. I ran over and touched second for the second out. Stahl was slowing up and reversed his tracks toward first, but I overtook him and tagged him out to complete the triple play.”1
Ball recounted details of his unassisted triple play more modestly during an interview in 1948 at his home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “Nobody has asked me to tell it in thirty years, I guess,” Ball said, “but you ought to know I wouldn’t forget how in a hundred.”2
After McConnell hit the ball, Ball recalled, “I didn’t think there was a chance of getting it but I was on the move toward second and I gave it a try anyhow. It was dead over the bag by then so I jumped and the darned thing hit my glove and stuck. The rest was easy. Wagner was way around third base somewhere and when I came down on the bag he was out. I just stood there with my hands out and Stahl ran into them. He was halfway down when the ball was hit and couldn’t stop. That’s all there was to it. I can still remember how surprised I was when the ball hit in my glove.”3
Ball’s great-niece, Kathia Miller, writing in 2009 on the 100th anniversary of the unassisted triple play, said that the 11,000 people at the game gave Ball “a great ovation” and that removing all of the hats that had been thrown on the field in appreciation delayed the game by 20 minutes. She said Ball was so unassuming that after making the play he merely put his glove down and returned to the dugout, leading Cy Young to ask: “Where are you going, Neal?” To which Ball succinctly replied: “That’s three outs.”4
A little-noted postscript to Ball’s feat: In the bottom half of the inning he led off for Cleveland and he hit his first major-league home run (and his only home run of the season) on the first pitch he saw from hurler Charlie Chech. The sportswriter who interviewed him in 1948 noted, “… Home runs were rare enough in those days, but this one was, in its way, as remarkable as Ball’s play in the field and possibly as rare. For he hit the ball over the head of Tris Speaker in center field and ran all the way home while the great man chased it. Such a thing simply was not done. Ball is no longer the only man ever to make a triple play unassisted, but he is likely to remain forever the only one to make a triple play and a home run in the same inning. The feat was so notable that Ban Johnson, president of the league, had a medal struck and presented to Ball in commemoration.”5 Speaker, of course, was known for playing a very shallow center field, which certainly contributed to his setting the record for unassisted double plays by an outfielder, and which probably contributed to Ball’s big hit.
Batting eighth in the lineup, Ball also had a double later in the game. The next day he posed for a photograph along with McConnell, Wagner, and Stahl commemorating the historic play.
Ball is almost universally credited with having the first unassisted triple play in major-league history, as an unassisted triple play originally credited to Paul Hines with Providence in 1878 has been disputed. According to an article published in The Sporting News on July 29, 1909, Hines claimed that he had made a triple play unassisted, but “the files of a Providence newspaper state that one of his teammates got the third out.”6
Largely due to the persistence of amateur historian Jules J. Bues, a close friend of Ball, the glove that Ball used to make the triple play was presented to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1952. It was put on permanent display there on March 16, 1953. On March 7, 1955, the jersey Ball was wearing when he made the triple play was added to the display. Bues’ persistence even led to Ball’s feat being commemorated in photographs at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Tokyo.
Cornelius Ball, Jr. was born on April 22, 1881, in Grand Haven, Michigan. (One account lists his birthdate as September 11, 1883.)7 He was the second son of Cornelius Ball, an immigrant from the Netherlands, and Wilhelmina Mieras. The two had nine children. Neal was the fifth. Thinking that he would never have a son, Cornelius Ball named his third daughter Cornelia, after himself. Then the Balls went on to have four boys, including Neal.8
Miller, his great-niece, said all four boys were “excellent baseball players” but that Neal was the only one of the four who would play baseball on Sunday, refusing to adhere to the Dutch Reform Church’s mandate not to do any work on Sundays. He learned to play baseball while growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. While he was initially pursued by the Detroit Tigers in 1902, Neal signed for more money with the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association, where he was assigned the locker once used by John McGraw.9
Ball began his professional career as a shortstop for Toledo in 1903 before moving to Cedar Rapids of the Three-I League later in the season. During the next two seasons with Grand Rapids, he also played some at second base.
Ball almost played for Atlanta in 1906. He was in a competition there for the shortstop job with Lou Castro, and, according to one account, “Castro kidded Ball out of the Atlanta job.” As manager Bill Smith tried to decide between the two players, Castro would tease Ball with comments like: “I’ve got this job clinched. Now watch me scoop this one. See that peg? What chance you got? Better go back to the bushes.” Castro’s chiding apparently got the best of Ball, who came to believe that Castro really was the better player. “Of course, Neal’s playing dropped off when he got into that frame of mind, and any manager would have chosen the peppery Castro.”10 Ball was back with Cedar Rapids in 1906.
In 1907 Ball moved to Montgomery of the Southern League, where there was no one else competing for the shortstop position. There, “Ball came into his own and soon was the sensation of the league, discussion being rife all over the circuit as to whether he or Nicholls, of Memphis, was the best shortstop.”11 According to Kathia Miller, Ball stole 55 bases in the first 50 games of that year.12 Near the end of the season his contract was sold to the New York Highlanders, and he made his major-league debut on September 12, 1907.
Ball, who was 5-feet-7 and weighed 145 pounds, played in only 15 games for the 1907 Highlanders. The right-handed batter hit one double and one triple while batting .205. Most often, he played behind Kid Elberfeld at shortstop, though Ball did play in five games at second base.
With Elberfeld injured for much of the 1908 season, Ball became a regular at shortstop, playing in 130 games there. Although he had a productive year at the plate, getting 110 hits, knocking in 38 runs, and stealing 32 bases, his defense was abysmal; he made 80 errors,
Elberfeld returned, and on May 18, 1909, Ball was sold to the Cleveland Indians, where he became the regular shortstop, setting the stage for his unassisted triple play two months later. Generally, though, his defense remained a sore point, as Ball committed 46 errors in 96 games in 1909. Terry Turner often took over at shortstop for Ball, leaving Ball to play as a utility infielder much of the time as he continued to struggle.
Still, Ball had his moments in Cleveland. In 1911 he enjoyed one of his best seasons at the plate, finishing with a .296 batting average and 21 stolen bases. He set a career high with 122 hits in 116 games for the Indians, who finished in third place in the American League with the help of Shoeless Joe Jackson, whose .408 batting average set a record for a rookie.
On June 25, 1912, the Naps sold Ball to the Red Sox for $2,500. Cleveland had Ray Chapman ready to take over at shortstop, and Roger Peckinpaugh also played there from time to time. With Heinie Wagner, one of the victims of his unassisted twin killing, as the regular shortstop with the Red Sox, Ball was limited to playing a utility role for the remainder of the season. In 18 games with Boston he collected 10 hits, including two doubles, while batting .200. A contemporary account said, “He has had but little work to do and has acquitted himself very creditably.”13
Ball made one appearance in the 1912 World Series. He pinch-hit for starting pitcher Buck O’Brien in the eighth inning of the third game, and was struck out by Giants pitcher Rube Marquard. It was the only World Series appearance of his career.
Ball played in 23 games for the Red Sox in 1913, batting a career-low .172. With Wagner well established at shortstop, Ball was sold to the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, and never played in the major leagues again. He finished his seven-season major-league career with 404 hits, four home runs, 151 stolen bases, and a .250 batting average.
With the Orioles in 1914, Ball coached and became a teammate of young Babe Ruth, who had recently joined the team from St. Mary’s Industrial School. Miller detailed an incident involving Ruth and Ball during spring training in 1914, when Ruth as a pitcher was learning hand signals from Ball, who was playing as a catcher. Ball apparently signaled for a “waste pitch,” which Ruth delivered down the middle of the plate. The pitch was hit solidly by the batter, leading Ball to ask Ruth why he threw such a hittable pitch. “Well,” said Ruth, “I threw it right by his waist.”14
As Miller also recounted, Ball recalled that “Babe was the dumbest and the strongest player I had ever met. He had baseball sense. You’d only have to tell him something once.” Ruth and Ball became friends, and Ruth came to Ball’s home to get his approval to marry his first wife, Helen Woodford. Neal told Ruth: “Aw, go ahead; she seems like a nice gal.”15
After Baltimore in 1914, Ball played with Richmond and Toronto in the International League as well as in Pittsfield, New Haven, and Springfield in the Eastern League. He managed the Bridgeport Hustlers of the Eastern League in 1916, led Augusta of the Sally League in 1922, and managed the New Haven Profs of the Eastern League in 1925.and the Pittsfield Hillies, also of the Eastern League, in 1926.16
In 1921 the 40-year-old Ball hit .300 as the regular second baseman for the New Haven Indians, managed by Chief Bender. In a game against the Waterbury Brasscos, the Waterbury pitcher, Jerry Kahn, had a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning. At that point, according to a 1951 account:
“Then, up strode Neal Ball, looking harmless enough after several discouraging experiences with Kahn’s deceptive shoots. With the fans starting to file out of the park, Neal took a half-hearted swing and knocked one of those dime-a-dozen pop flies just inside the foul line that Phil Rizzuto could have caught in his hip pocket. Nine times out of ten, any Eastern League third baseman could have shut his eyes and pulled it out of the balmy June air.
“But this time, the third baseman thought it was the left fielder’s or shortstop’s ball and vice versa—and Jerry Kahn’s no-hitter went a-glimmering in the gathering dusk. The saddest man in Mr. [George] Weiss’ ball park that afternoon wasn’t Jerry Kahn—a smiling kid who laughed it off and proceeded to get the next batter—but an old timer named Neal Ball who had played the game right up to the end, but, great sportsman that he was, hated to ruin a masterpiece.” 17
In somewhat of a surprise move, since many suspected that the job would go to Jack Flynn, Ball became president and manager of the Pittsfield Hillies of the Eastern League in 1926.18 The Hillies finished in last place and Ball was fired before the end of the season. He joined the Springfield Hampdens, working as a coach and scout. A sportswriter described him as “always one of the best liked players in major league baseball.” The sportswriter quoted New Haven team president George Weiss as saying, “I think Springfield is to be congratulated on obtaining a man of Ball’s character as a coach and a scout.”19
Ball retired to Bridgeport, Connecticut, after leaving baseball. with his second wife, Estelle. (His first wife, Maud, had died.) Estelle’s father had moved there at around the same time that Ball was performing well in the minor leagues. Neal and Estelle had no children. 20
In retirement Ball sold hats and also managed a bowling alley.21 His baseball accomplishments were not forgotten, and in January 1951 he was honored by the Connecticut Sports Writers Alliance for his contributions to the sports scene in Connecticut. (Former major leaguer Red Rolfe was one of the other honorees.)22
More than two decades after he retired from baseball, New York Herald Tribune writer Al Laney described Ball’s temperament: “At 64, Ball is still the same bouncy, nervous, friendly man he was in 1910. He has most of his hair and seemingly all of his old energy. He bounces out of his chair to get his scrapbooks, his old photographs and to show off the big fish he has mounted. He leads the pleasantest sort of life, in which fishing seems to be the main activity. He knows all the good spots near Bridgeport and, once or twice a year, he takes long fishing trips, especially to Vermont.”23
Ball remained interested in baseball in retirement, traveling to New York to see games from time to time. “He seems to have no complaint whatever against life,” said Laney, “and the only thing he can think up is over the fact that the American League has denied him a lifetime pass. The National League, in which he never played, long ago gave him a pass, and he resents mildly the fact that he must pay his way into American League games.”24
Ball died on October 15, 1957, at the age of 76 at his home in Bridgeport. A resident of Bridgeport for more than 40 years, he had been inactive and in failing health for some time. The official cause of death was listed as pulmonary edema. He was survived by his wife, Estelle (nee Beardslee); by his brothers John W. Ball of Pontiac, Michigan, and Jay of Kalamazoo, Michigan; and by his sisters, Mrs. William Schrier and Mrs. Minnie MacDonald, both of Kalamazoo. He is buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, in Bridgeport.
“Ball, Neal.” No author, title, or date given. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Ball, First to Make Unaided Triple Play in Majors, Dies: Former Infielder Was 76; Glove Used in Feat Now in Cooperstown Shrine.” No publication given. October 15, 1957. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Baseball Hall of Fame to Get Neal Ball Glove.” No publication given. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Sam Cohen, “Ball’s feat Hits 60th Anniversary, Connecticut Sun Herald, July 27, 1969.
“Connecticut Writers Honor 3,” January 30, 1951. No publication given. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Walter Graham, “Neal Ball Will Coach Local Club This Year: Former Major League Player and Eastern League Manager Signed by Hampdens—Directors Vote for Most Valuable Player Award.” No publication or date given. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Al Laney, “Stuck in His Glove: Cleveland Vet, at 64, Taking Life Easy at Bridgeport, Conn.” New York Herald Tribune, February 11, 1948.
Kathia Miller e-mails to author, January 3-5, 2011.
Kathia Miller, “On the Ball for Historic Fielding Feat,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 19, 2009.
Kathia Miller, “Guest Commentary: Unassisted Triple Play was One for the Record Books,” Naples (Florida) News, July 20, 2009.
Neal Ball, Death Certificate.
“Neal Ball, 76, Dies in Home: Baseball Figure Made First Unassisted Triple Play in 1909.” No publication or date given. . From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Neal Ball Dies at 76,” New York Times, October 15, 1957.
Dan Parker, “Neal Ball Gets Tardy Acclaim for Triple Play,” No publication given, January 25, 1951. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Player-Manager Assumes New Role,” Hartford Courant, March 6, 1926.
“Substitute Infielder Ball,” October 12, 1912, No publication given. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Triple Play By Neal Ball: Naps’ Shortstop Completes the Feature Unassisted.” No publication given. July 19, 1909. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Triple Play Hero Dies,” Bridgeport Post, October 16, 1957.
Untitled article, October 1912. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Untitled article, The Sporting News, July 29, 1909. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
1 “Ball, First to Make Unaided Triple Play in Majors, Dies: Former Infielder Was 76; Glove Used in Feat Now in Cooperstown Shrine.” No publication given. October 15, 1957. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
2 Al Laney, “Stuck in His Glove: Cleveland Vet, at 64, Taking Life Easy at Bridgeport, Conn.” New York Herald Tribune, February 11, 1948.
3 Ibid. We recognize that Ball’s two recollections of the triple play contradict each other; memories often do change over time.
4 Kathia Miller, “Guest Commentary: Unassisted Triple Play was One for the Record Books,” Naples (Florida) News, July 20, 2009.
5 Laney, op. cit.
6 Untitled article, The Sporting News, July 29, 1909. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
7 “Substitute Infielder Ball,” October 12, 1912. No publication given. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
8 E-mail to author from Kathia Miller, January 3, 2011.
10 “Ball, Neal.” No author, title, or date given. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
12 E-mail to author from Kathia Miller, January 3, 2011.
13 Untitled article, October 1912. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
14 Kathia Miller, Naples News, op. cit.
15 Kathia Miller, “On the Ball for Historic Fielding Feat,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 19, 2009.
16 “Ball, First to Make Unaided Triple Play in Majors, Dies: Former Infielder Was 76; Glove Used in Feat Now in Cooperstown Shrine.” No publication given. October 15, 1957. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
17 Dan Parker, “Neal Ball Gets Tardy Acclaim for Triple Play,” No publication given, January 25, 1951. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
18 “Player-Manager Assumes New Role,” Hartford Courant, March 6, 1926.
19 Walter Graham, “Neal Ball Will Coach Local Club This Year: Former Major League Player and Eastern League Manager Signed by Hampdens—Directors Vote for Most Valuable Player Award.” No publication or date given. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
20 Kathia Miller, Naples News, op. cit.
21 “Neal Ball Dies at 76,” New York Times, October 15, 1957.
22 “Connecticut Writers Honor 3,” January 30, 1951. No publication given. From Ball’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
23 Laney, op. cit.