This article was written by Tom Collelo
This article was published in 1989 Baseball Research Journal
A thing of beauty and suspense, the triple may be the most exciting twelve seconds in sport. Unfortunately, it’s rapidly disappearing from the baseball box score.
WITH THE EXCEPTION OF the almost extinct inside-the-park home run, the triple is rarest of hits. This was not always So. For more than fifty years after the founding of the major leagues, the home run was the rarest hit, followed by the triple, double, and single. The logic behind this was obvious: The farther a batter struck the ball, the more bases he could reach.
Even such changes as overhand pitching and enclosed ballparks did nothing to affect the natural order of hits. From 1901 to 1929 the average distribution was: 76.9 percent for singles, 15.2 percent for doubles, 5.3 percent for triples, and 2.7 percent for homers. In the pre-Ruthian years, there were roughly three to four times as many triples as homers. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of everyday players who ended their careers before 1930 had more three-base hits than home runs. This list includes Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, George Sisler, and Sam Crawford; the latter holds the career record for triples with 312.
The heyday of the three-base hit was the nineteen-teens. The newly built concrete-and-steel parks had huge outfields and distant fences, with foul lines often in the 370-foot range and with center-field fences more than 450 feet away. Although a new ball was used after 1910, it was dead by modern standards and often doctored by the pitchers, so outfielders played shallow. Balls hit over their heads or line drives in the gaps (especially in the early innings before the ball got soft) could roll to the deepest part of the park. With pitching dominant and low scores common, the strategy of the times was that it was often worth the risk of stretching a double in order to get one base closer to home. In 1912 Owen Wilson set the single-season record with 36 triples and helped the Pirates establish the team record of 129.
The emergence of the home run in the 1920s was the death knell of the three-base hit. This event was no accident, but a conscious effort by the team owners noting the correlation between the increase in home runs and the rise in attendance. The baseball establishment assisted the triples-to-homer shift in two significant ways. First, the architecture of the ballparks was changed. The outfield fences were moved in, shortening the distance for a home run and reducing the length of outfielders’ throws to third. The second alteration was the ball. In the 1920s it was given a more resilient center and many more new balls were used per game. When the “rabbit ball” was introduced in 1930, batting averages and home runs skyrocketed.
By 1920 the ratio of triples to home runs had dropped from three or four to one to only two to one. By the late 1920s triples and home runs were virtually even. In 1929 home runs surpassed triples for the first time. Over the years the gap has widened. In the late 1940s there were about 2.5 home runs for every triple. A decade later that ratio was more than three to one, and by 1988 there were almost four round trippers for every three-base hit – a level of domination the triple never enjoyed over the homer.
A review of the career leaders for the four types of hits reveals that none is more biased by era than that for triples. The singles, doubles, and home run leader lists all show “ancients” interspersed with “moderns.” Of the top fifty players on the triples list, however, only Stan Musial (twentieth place) and Roberto Clemente (twenty-eighth) played after World War II. Until 1945 it was fairly common for the triples leader to have 20 or more in a season. But since then, only Dale Mitchell, Willie Mays, George Brett, and Willie Wilson have reached that figure (and the latter two did it on artificial turf but more on that later). At the other extreme, Del Unser won the 1969 American League triples crown with eight, and in four other years (excluding the 1981 strike season) players with nine triples have taken the top spot in the AL. In the National League the low points were 1962 and 1982. In 1962 Johnny Callison and Willie Davis tied for the triples lead with 1-0, and in 1982 Dickie Thon won the triples leadership with the same number. To put this kind of hitting into context, consider that the notoriously torpid Ernie Lombardi had nine triples in 1932.
SINCE THE BANNER YEAR of 1912, the frequency of three-base hits has fallen 64 percent, from 16.5 per 1,000 at bats to the 1988 figure of 5.9 per 1,000. Much of this slide was concentrated in the homer-happy 1930s, when the frequency of triples fell by four per 1,000 AB.
Upward and downward fluctuations have occurred over the years. However, major modifications in the game, such as expansion, the strike zone, and mound height changes of the late 1960s, and the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League have had only minor impact on the triple’s demise. Other factors, including the building of uniform ballparks and the trend toward faster outfielders, probably have increased the decline of the triple. On the other hand, one development that has had a positive statistical effect has been the proliferation of ballparks with artificial turf. Because the ball moves faster on turf and can get through the outfielders more easily, the number of triples hit on turf from 1985 to 1988 exceeded the number hit on grass by an average of 2.6 per 1,000 at bats. Over the long run, however, this development has not stopped the triple from dropping further; it has merely cushioned its fall.
Even with the beginning of the 162-game schedule in 1961-62 and the increased use of artificial turf in the 1970s, one must retreat to the 1932 Senators to find the last team that hit as many as 100 triples in a season. At the other extreme, the Baltimore Orioles may have set the rock-bottom standard for three-base hits. In 1977-88 they finished last in the triples column seven times and next to last the other five times. In 1988 the Yankees, with 12 triples, broke the 1986 Orioles’ record (13) for fewest triples in a season.
Based on at least 1,000 career at bats, all of the worst triples hitters played after 1945. Some notables in the triples Hall of Shame are Earl Averill (no triples in eight big-league seasons), Terry Crowley (1 triple in fifteen seasons), Cookie Rojas (621 at bats in 1968 without a three-base hit), and Darrell Evans (1 triple in his last 2,449 at bats).
BY AND LARGE, CATCHERS form the bulk of bad triples hitters. Of those players with at least 1,000 at bats and a triples-per-1,000 ratio of less than 2.0, almost two-thirds have been catchers. Recently, however, the number of non-catchers on the list has been growing. To put the 2.0 ratio into perspective, again consider that Ernie Lombardi registered a career ratio of 4.6 triples per 1,000 AB. In contrast, Jose Canseco, the modern-day personification of speed and power, had a triples per 1,000 at bat ratio of 2.07 after three full seasons.
Despite these trends, the data seem to indicate that even in a boom year for extra-base hits, triples seem destined to remain an insignificant offensive statistic. In 1986 triples constituted 2.31 percent of all hits, the lowest ratio ever. In the extra-base-hit boom year of 1987, this figure barely increased to 2.36 percent, and by 1988 it was 2.32 – nearly back to the record low. If the pattern continues – and there is nothing to suggest that it won’t – one of the most exciting plays of the game, the three-base hit, will be relegated to baseball’s statistical scrapheap.
Tom Collelo is a Library of Congress research analyst specializing in Africa and the Middle East. Playing in an over-30 league, he has no triples.