Fielding Feats

This article was written by Emil Rothe

This article was published in the 1978 Baseball Research Journal


In the early days of organized baseball, newspaper accounts of games frequently highlighted fielding plays rather than other aspects of the game. Fans in those days placed a high premium on skill in the field. Today spectators still show appreciation for and do applaud extraordinary feats of fielding but, seemingly, only at the moment they occur. Fielding plays tend to be more quickly forgotten than batting or pitching accomplishments. Even acts of baserunning proficiency rate higher with current observers of the baseball scene. A fielding gem without parallel is duly printed in the record books and that’s usually the end of it.

One exception to this general rule, however, is the unassisted triple play. As any knowledgeable baseball buff can tell you, there have been eight such happenings in all of major league history. The first to turn the trick was Neal Ball of Cleveland. That was on July 19, 1909 in the second inning. When his team came to bat in the bottom half of the same inning, Neal hit an inside-the-park home run. In essence, Ball concentrated all his heroics for the entire season into that one inning because the homer was the only one, he hit all year. Triple killings engineered by a single player are identified in the record books with details of the proceedings-something that is NOT done with most other record-setting performances.

Through the years there have been remarkable happenings afield that ought to be identified by something more than a line of type. The purview of this piece is to enumerate a few worth remembering.

Triple plays, however perpetrated, are rarities. Often an entire season is completed without even one being executed in the major leagues. The most recent year in which the triple play category drew blanks in both leagues was 1974. In 1975 only one was made (by Montreal). The following year the National League had one and the American League collected two.  Last year (1977) proved to be a TP bonanza-six went into the books and California made two of them.

Against this background, the Chicago Cubs of 1965 victimized opposing teams three times during the season to equal a big-league record held by only four other teams. Don Kessinger owns the distinction of having taken part in all three. But, the strangest fact of all, pitcher Bill Faul was on the mound when each of the triple killings was made. Bill was not on the hill that much that year, appearing in only 17 games.

Most triple plays take place in the infield with runners at first and second. The batter hits a line drive that seemingly is headed for a safe landing. The runners dash for the next base under a full head of steam but some infielder makes a spectacular stab of the drive which results in what, in retrospect, appears to be such an easy play that one wonders why more are not made.

Triple plays initiated by an outfielder are something else. Charlie Jamieson of the Cleveland Indians turned the trick twice in the same year, May 23 and June 9, 1928, and he’s the only one who can make that claim.

The TP on May 23 was executed in the ninth with the bases full of White Sox and the score tied. Bud Clancy hoisted a short fly to Jamieson in left; Johnny Mann tried to score from third and was “out a mile.” Catcher Luke Sewell fired to brother Joe at second, trapping Ray Schalk off the bag. Schalk, in desperation, ran toward third where he was an easy target for Johnny Hodapp’s tag. The Sox won anyway with a run in the tenth.

The second triple killing, June 9, came in the second inning of a game with the New York Yankees. The Yankees had Ben Paschal on third and Tony Lazzeri on first when Jamieson came in to make a fine catch of a line drive by Joe Dugan. Charlie’s quick throw to Lew Fonseca at first doubled Lazzeri and Paschal was nailed at the plate when he tried to score on the play, Fonseca to Luke Sewell. The TP didn’t help the Indians, they dropped the game, 7-3.

One of the most thrilling plays in baseball occurs at the plate when a runner on third attempts to score following an outfield catch. With the runner and the ball speeding toward home, a sense of suspense builds until the umpire, amid a cloud of dust, signals the winner of the race. That kind of double play is not exactly uncommon, but it is not run-of-the-mill, either.

On April 26, 1905, Jack McCarthy, playing center field for the Chicago Cubs, started three such DPs in a single game. No other outfielder has ever done that. To add to the drama, each runner that he flagged down represented the tying run in what eventually resulted in a 2-1 win over Pittsburgh. The catcher that day was Jack O’Neill, who also established a record with three DPs by a backstop. Stranger still, neither McCarthy nor O’Neill were regulars. McCarthy played the outfield in only 37 games and O’Neill was behind the plate in 50.

Some 90 years ago the American Association enjoyed major status. Jackson Nelson, playing right field for the New York Metropolitans, took part in three double plays June 9, 1887, but only two were consummated at home. The third was completed at second. He did throw out a third runner at the plate in that game but it was not part of a DP.

Only one additional outfielder posted three double plays in one game and that was Ira Flagstead. He was playing for the Boston Red Sox April 19, 1926 when he flagged down two Philadelphia runners at the plate following caught flies. The third twin killing was started by Ira but involved third baseman Fred Haney, second baseman Mike Herrera, and, finally, catcher George Bischoff.

Dummy Hoy of the Washington Nationals in 1899 and Jim (Sheriff) Jones of the New York Giants in 1902 threw out three men at home in a game but not as parts of double plays.

An unassisted double play by an outfielder is an unusual occurrence. Two in a season by any one gardener is the best ever in the majors and only four men have done that-Socks Seybold (Athletics) in 1907; Tris Speaker (Indians) in 1918; Adam Comorosky (Pirates) in 1931; and, most recently, Jose Cardenal in 1968 while in a Cleveland uniform.

Tris Speaker is the only man ever to make the play in the World Series. Playing a shallow center field was a Speaker trademark. In the 1912 World Series between his Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants the Giants swamped the Red Sox on October 15, 11-4, to tie the series but Tris had his moment in the ninth inning. With Giant catcher Art Wilson perched on second, Art Fletcher sent a drive on a line toward center. Wilson thought it would fall in safely and headed for third.  Speaker raced in, speared the ball on a dead run and had time to trot in to step on second to double up Wilson.

While on the subject of double plays involving outfielders, consider the 1965 statistics for Rocky Colavito. He played in every one of Cleveland’s 162 games and did not have a single charged error while handling 265 putouts and 9 assists. He was a part of only one double play the entire year-quite a contrast to the three in one game by McCarthy.

The season of fielding perfection by those who regularly patrol the far reaches of major league parks has been achieved 16 times, most recently by “old reliable” Carl Yastrzemski for Boston in 1977. While Yaz’s 1 .000 fielding percentage encompassed 22 fewer games than Colavito, he handled more chances than Rocky-287 putouts and 16 assists, including one DP.

Baby Doll Jacobson was a major league outfielder for 11 years, mostly with the St. Louis Browns. Shortly after changing his Brownie uniform for that of the Red Sox in 1926, Baby Doll played in seven consecutive games in right field (actually 64-1/3 innings) without getting a single putout or having one assist in all that span.

When one witnesses a baseball game, he can expect to see a number of balls hit on the ground, picked up by an infielder, and thrown to first for putouts or to other bases for forceouts. Or, he’ll see a catcher throwing out a baserunner on an attempted steal, or an accurate throw from an outfielder cutting down a runner trying for an extra base or attempting to advance following a catch. All of those, of course, are recorded as assists. Once, however, a team played a complete nine-inning game without putting even one assist in the box score. The Cleveland Indians defeated the New York Yankees on July 4, 1945 in the first game of a doubleheader. Steve Gromek was the Cleveland pitcher who induced the Yankees to hit his pitches into the air. The Tribe outfielders hauled in 15 flies and Jeff Heath, in left, collected eight of them. Four pop-ups were handled by the infielders. Catcher Frankie Hayes caught two foul flies, and Gromek fanned four. Two ground balls, the only ones that New York hit, happened to go to Mickey Rocco at first and they became unassisted putouts. This is the only time in major league history that a team played nine innings without an assist. Two years earlier, August 8, 1943, the St. Louis Browns did not tabulate a single assist in a game with Cleveland but that one only went eight innings.

Normally a shortstop can be expected to be a busy guy in a ball game, fielding ground balls, hauling in pop flies, and covering second on attempted steals, among other chores. Eddie Joost, for example, playing short for Cincinnati May 7, 1941, handled 19 chances in a nine-inning game. Considering that example of infielder industry, how does one account for Toby Harrah’s inactivity? On June 25, 1976 the Texas infielder stood around in the shortstop’s spot in Arlington, Texas for two whole games with the White Sox and didn’t have a single chance the whole day. That’s the major league record.

Fielding stats used to be carried in the official box score and one could almost always expect the P0 column for the first baseman to be in double figures. He is, after all, on the receiving end of a great majority of throws following infield grounders, yet, since the turn of the century, three first sackers have played an entire game without a putout or an assist. On September 1, 1974, while playing for Oakland, Gene Tenace joined Ripper Coffins of the Cubs (June 29, 1937) and Bud Clancy of the White Sox (April 27, 1930) in such “non-involvement.”

In marked contrast, Cub first baseman Ernie Banks, in a nine-inning game, chalked up 22 putouts May 9, 1963. Dick Ellsworth, throwing sinking fast balls, held the Pirates to two hits and had them beating the ball into the ground all day. During the game Banks made a wide throw to second trying for an inning-ending out. That potential assist became an error but, it provided for an additional putout when the next batter was thrown out at first. So, an error by Ernie made it possible for him to tie a major league record set by two American Leaguers, Tom Jones of St. Louis and Hal Chase of New York back in 1906.

Stuffy McInnis, through most of 19 years in the big time, was recognized as being extremely adept with a first base mitt. His fielding skill is exemplified by his remarkable season record with the Boston Red Sox in 1921. He played first in 152 games and was charged with only one error for the entire season. That one misplay against the 1549 putouts and 102 assists gave him a phenomenal .999 fielding average.  Frank McCormick equaled that average in 1946 but he played the initial sack in only 134 games for the Phils.

One of the best examples of deft ball handling occurs when a ground ball must be fielded by the first baseman and tossed to his pitcher racing over to cover the bag. Each time the play is made baseball connoisseurs marvel at the exquisite timing and, yes, beauty, of the execution. Big Rick Reuschel of the Chicago Cubs made the trip three times in one inning and made three putouts and that’s a major league mark that only two other pitchers can claim. In the third inning of a game against the St. Louis Cardinals on April 25, 1975, Rick hustled over to retire Ted Simmons, Keith Hernandez, and Ken Reitz. Jim Bagby, Jr. was the first to turn the trick while pitching for the Boston Red Sox on September 26, 1940. Another Red Sox hurler, Bob Heffner matched it June 28, 1963.

Almost nothing changes the momentum of an inning or maybe even a game as a double play. One moment a team has one or more baserunners and has hopes of scoring; suddenly, a runner and the batter are wiped out and there are two away or the inning is already over.

Seven times in nine innings the Yankees thus thwarted the A’s on August 14, 1942. Bill Dickey twice nipped baserunners following strikeouts. Johnny Murphy, who relieved starting pitcher Lefty Gomez after the sixth, initiated another, and Red Rolfe, at third, also started one.  The other three were engineered by the second base combine of Phil Rizzuto and Joe Gordon. It took an error by Rolfe in the ninth to provide the base runner that made the record-breaking seventh DP possible; Rizzuto started that one.

The Houston Astros matched the New York Yankees on May 4, 1969 when they also executed seven double killings with San Francisco the victim.

“Errors are part of the game” is a common baseball cliché, and, so the record books tabulate the game’s most embarrassing moments as well as the best of the fine ones.

Most of the error records are held by players and teams who performed in the early days of organized baseball and, yet, the rule book description of what constitutes errors has remained almost unchanged through more than a century of baseball. One can only conclude that players, equipment, and playing fields are so much better these days, or, today’s official scorers are more lenient. As a case in point, Andrew Leonard of the Boston Nationals was charged with nine bobbles in a nine-inning game on June 14, 1876, and his team made 24! Even if you discount that on the premise of an unreasonable scorer, the Detroit Tigers (1901) and Chicago White Sox (1903) are in the books for 12 in a game.

Since 1900 no player has accumulated more than five miscues in a regulation game but some in that group are generally regarded as excellent fielders including Nap Lajoie, Donie Bush, and Dave Brain. Lenny Merullo (SS-l942 Cubs), Ray Chapman (SS-19 14 Indians), and Jimmy Burke (3B-190l Milwaukee A.L.) hold the record of four gaffes in a single inning.

The Cleveland Naps of 1905 once amassed the horrendous total of seven bloopers in one inning. It happened in the eighth frame against Chicago on September 20, and, unfortunately, in front of the home folks. In that disastrous stanza each of the Cleveland outfielders (Harry Bay, Otto Hess, and Elmer Flick) erred once. Nig Clarke, the catcher, added two more. Shortstop Terry Tumer and third baseman Bill Bradley were the other offenders.

But, the most embarrassed of all must have been Roger Peckinpaugh, Washington shortstop. In 1925 the Senators won the pennant and Peck was selected as the American League’s Most Valuable Player.  In the ensuing World Series with Pittsburgh, Roger was charged with EIGHT errors in seven games. That’s a World Series record regardless of position or the number of games played.

This article is not intended to include the individual spectacular catches that dot baseball history. Great catches are not subject to comparison with others, and, so, there are no record catches. There are only those we remember and we remember those made in the brilliant spotlight of the extraordinary. In the everyday April-to-October season, big league players frequently make equally sensational plays but they lack the impact of the one made in the World Series, or the All-Star Game, or the game that decides a league championship.

Any serious baseball fan knows that Babe Ruth changed the game with his homer-hitting ability; that Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games; and that Rogers Hornsby maintained a .400-plus average over a 5-year period. Or, that Lou Brock broke Ty Cobb’s long-standing career stolen base record in 1977; and that Eddie Collins stole six bases in a game, not once but twice, and less than two weeks apart.  Or, that Cy Young won 5 11 games in his career; that Grover Cleveland Alexander won 16 shutout games in one season; and that Tom Seaver once fanned ten men in a row. Since the game of baseball is a balance of hitting, running, pitching, and fielding, should a baseball buff not also know the record-making fielding achievements? This is a start toward correcting that lack of information.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved