October 10, 1920: A game of World Series firsts: unassisted triple play and grand slam

This article was written by Joseph Wancho

A pivotal Game Five in the 1920 World Series was on the horizon in Cleveland. With the Series tied at two wins apiece, the Brooklyn Robins and Cleveland Indians were looking to gain an important advantage with a victory. If the visiting Robins captured a win, they would be assured of a return to Ebbets Field. If the Indians came out on top, they could close out the Series with two more wins at home. (The 1920 World Series was a best-of-nine affair.)

Each club was sending its ace to the mound for the elusive triumph. A rematch of Game Two was on tap as Brooklyn’s Burleigh Grimes and the Indians’ Jim Bagby would toe the rubber. Grimes was the winning hurler in Game Two at Ebbets Field, shutting out the Indians, 3-0. Grimes had given up seven hits and four walks, but his spitball and fastball had let the Tribe advance only one runner to third base. That was in the eighth inning when Grimes issued three of his four free passes. Bagby, who notched 31 wins for Cleveland in 1920, surrendered two earned runs in the defeat. He did not strike out a single batter in six innings of work.

The Cleveland batters thought they were on to something when they zeroed in on the tendencies of Robins catcher Otto Miller. “Each time he tossed dirt forward a spitball was delivered, the fastballs coming when he threw dirt between his legs to the rear.”1 When the word got out after the Series, the Robins brushed it aside. Grimes especially decried the use of dirt, in any manner, as a way of giving signs.

Much like the day before, thousands of people milled around League Park before the gates opened on this Sunday for Game Five. There were some wry observations that there must be a lot of empty pews in the churches of Cleveland. It seemed as if everybody, whether they had tickets or not, was milling about at E. 66th Street and Lexington Avenue. Some fans were perched atop houses across the street, getting a different vantage point of the day’s events. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that neighboring churches around the park where in morning services as the stands began to fill up. Sermons were punctuated with shouts of “Hooray for Tris!”2 Player-manager Tris Speaker was who the congregations were cheering. The future member of the Hall of Fame was in his fifth season with Cleveland, after a stellar career with the Boston Red Sox.

The pattern of scoring in the first four games of the Series indicated that whichever team crossed home plate first won the game. Also, of the 16 runs scored by the two teams, 13 came within the first four innings. Game Five would follow both of these patterns. Bagby surrendered a leadoff single in the top of the first inning, but allowed no further damage. Charlie Jamieson led off the bottom of the frame hitting a ball to Ed Konetchy that the big first baseman could not field cleanly, and Jamieson was given credit for a hit. Bill Wambsganss followed with a clean single to left field. Tris Speaker laid down a bunt toward the mound, and when Grimes fell down trying to hurry his throw, Speaker had a hit. With the bases loaded, Elmer Smith crushed a home run over the right field wall and the 45-foot screen atop the wall. It was the first grand slam in World Series history. The Cleveland fans erupted at the historic blast, and the noise did not let up for the remainder of the game.

Bagby was not that sharp either. Brooklyn was getting hits, but couldn’t convert them into runs. In the second inning Konetchy ripped a line drive to deep left field for a triple, his first hit of the World Series. Robins second baseman Pete Kilduff then lifted a fly ball to left field. Jamieson made the catch and fired home to catcher Steve O’Neill who tagged out Konetchy for a twin killing.

Cleveland increased its advantage in the fourth inning when Doc Johnston singled off Grimes’s leg. He went to second on a passed ball charged to Miller. A groundout by Joe Sewell got Johnston to third base. With Bagby on deck, O’Neill was given a free pass with the hope that the Robins could turn two. Bagby upset that strategy with a home run to right center, the first home run by a pitcher in World Series play. Cleveland led 7-0.

Jamieson followed with another single past Konetchy. Brooklyn skipper Wilbert Robinson had seen enough and waved in Clarence Mitchell from the bullpen to replace Grimes. “My spitter just wouldn’t work right and therein lies the story in a nutshell of my inability to stop the Indians,” said Grimes. “I was not right, that’s all there is to it. If I had been right the Indians would not have hit me so hard.”3

In the fifth inning the Robins got consecutive singles from Kilduff and Miller. Pitcher Mitchell stepped up to the plate and hit a liner to second baseman Wambsganss. Wamby moved to his right, leaped, and snared the liner. The runners were moving, and Wamby stepped on second base, turned, and tagged a shocked Otto Miller barreling toward him for an unassisted triple play. The Robins catcher was not the only one caught off guard. The whole park fell silent, trying to figure out what had just unfolded on the field. Then cheers erupted through the autumn air. Almost a century later it remained the only unassisted triple play in a World Series.

Cleveland added another run while Brooklyn scored its only run in the top of the ninth inning to avoid a shutout. Unbeknownst to the Robins at the time, it was the last run they would score in the Series. Cleveland won 8-1, and then shut out the Robins in the next two games to close out the series.

The Robins outhit the Tribe, 13 to 12, but the two homers accounting for seven runs decided the outcome early. Smith described his round-tripper: “It was a straight fast one about chest high I crushed over the fence in the first round with the bases full. I wasn’t a bit nervous, though I had missed a couple of spitters and I was in the hole with two strikes and one ball charged against me and I knew that these three lads on the sacks were pulling hard for me to deliver, while I couldn’t help but feeling the excitement in the stands. That home-run pitch was just what the doctor ordered. I hit it as squarely on the nose as I ever hit any ball and I could feel it was destined to travel the way it cracked off my bat.”4

Tris Speaker was glowing after the big win. “When Brooklyn threatened, some or one of our players started a double play or made some other star play. I concede that Brooklyn fought gamely to the finish, but it was all in vain, for they were pitted against a team with an irresistible offense as well as defense. Nothing could beat us today. The Series is not over, but I am confident we will win,” said Speaker.5

It seemed as if Grimes could not escape his performance that day. Almost six decades later, he entered a bait shop near his home in Wisconsin. The owner and some customers were chatting near the counter and stopped talking when Grimes entered. Knowing he was a former big-league player, the owner pointed to a daily trivia question on a beer sign. “Who hit the first grand slam in World Series History?” the question read. The group did not know of Grimes’s part in that bit of history and Grimes gave the answer “Elmer Smith” before the question was out of the owner’s mouth. “I knew he’d know it,” said the owner as Grimes paid for his bait. Grimes turned to ask the men. “And do you know who surrendered that home run? One Burleigh A. Grimes,” said the old spitballer. He turned and left before the others could react to the news.6

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Notes

1 Joe Niese, Burleigh Grimes: Baseball’s Last Legal Spitballer (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2014), 69.

2 Fred Charles, “Fans in Ecstasies as Tribe Triumphs,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 11, 1920, Gr: 3.

3 Niese, 70.

4 Cleveland Press, October 11, 1920.

5 “Proud of Every Indian in Game Spoke Declares,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 11, 1920: 15.

6 Niese, 72.