This article was written by Richard Hershberger
This article was published in the Spring 2016 Baseball Research Journal
On May 8, 1878, the National League club of Providence hosted their counterparts from Boston. In the eighth inning Providence turned a triple play, initiated by center fielder Paul Hines. Was it the first unassisted triple play, or was the play completed by Providence second baseman Charlie Sweasy? This has long been a subject of debate, to the present day. This article will reexamine the question, considering contemporaneous game accounts and the rules of 1878.
The undisputed facts are as follows: Boston had two men on base, Ezra Sutton on second and Jack Manning on third. The batter, Jack Burdock, hit a soft line drive—probably what would later be called a Texas Leaguer—over the shortstop’s head. It was obvious that the shortstop wouldn’t catch the ball, so Sutton and Manning took off running. Hines charged in from center field, making a spectacular shoestring catch. His momentum carried him forward and he kept running to third base and stepped on the bag. Charlie Sweasy, the second baseman, then called for the ball. Hines threw the ball to Sweasy, who stepped on second base.
The running catch was the first out. There is agreement that Manning was at or near home plate when Hines tagged third base, making another out. The dispute is whether Hines’s tag of third also put out Sutton. There are two questions. In legal terms, there is a question of fact and a question of law.
The question of fact is on which side of third Sutton was when Hines tagged the base. Was he with Manning near home plate, or was he between second and third? If the latter, then the third out unquestionably was made by Sweasy tagging second, with Hines getting an assist.
The question of law arises if Sutton was past third base. Under the 1878 rules, did Hines’s tag of third base put him out, or was it Sweasy’s tag of second?
The Historical Debate
The contemporaneous accounts reached, as will be shown below, different conclusions, but there was little further discussion at the time. The historical debate began in earnest about ten years later, and dealt almost entirely on the question of fact. The main exponent of the play’s being unassisted was Tim Murnane. He had been the Providence first baseman in the game. After he retired from the playing field he became a sportswriter for the Boston Globe. He recounted the famous play, crediting Hines for making it unassisted.
This provoked a response from William Rankin, a veteran sportswriter with the New York Clipper. Rankin was cantankerous and contrarian. He delighted in debunking baseball myths. His typical technique was to use the Clipper files to correct others’ reminiscences.1 He approached the Hines triple play in his usual manner. He consulted the Clipper’s biographical sketch of Hines in the December 5, 1879, issue, which included a description of the play:
In the Providence-Boston game, at Providence, R.I., on May 8, 1878, the Bostons wanted one run to tie the score, and had men on second and third bases, with none out and Burdock at the bat. He made a seemingly safe hit just over the short stop’s head, which was captured on the fly close to the ground by Hines, after running at terrific speed, and, keeping straight on, he touched third base, and then completed a brilliant triple play by throwing the ball to second base before the respective occupants of the bases could return.2
Rankin reprinted this, pointing out that it showed that the triple play was not unassisted.3
Murnane responded with his own recollection:
The writer at the time played first base in the same game for Providence, and a short statement might convince The Clipper that the play was made. Manning and Sutton were on third and second respectively. There was one out [sic: should be “no one out”] and Burdock was at the bat. One run was needed to tie the score in the eighth inning. Burdock hit a short line fly that would have touched the ground about twenty feet back of second base. The base runners, seeing the impossibility of any one getting the hit, went for home. Sutton had touched third before Hines had the ball, which he got within a few inches of the ground. He had nearly lost his balance, and was past second base before he got straightened up. Hague stood on third base ready to take the ball when Hines sent it to him, but Sutton, who was near the home plate, saw there was no chance to get back, and Hines kept on running until he stood on third base. As the men were forced, all three were out. Every one seemed to be mixed up, and Hines walked down the line to second, touched the base and tossed the ball to Tommy Bond, the Boston pitcher. As the men never attempted to go back when Hines touched third base, he had accomplished a triple play.4
Rankin responded by referring to the Clipper’s original game account, in the May 18, 1878, issue, which confirmed the 1879 version, and concluded that Murnane was simply wrong.5 Murnane confirmed his version with Hines himself. This led to the final piece of the puzzle, so far as Rankin was concerned. This came the following summer, when Ezra Sutton, the runner from second, who was still playing professional ball, gave his version:
Hines is wrong; for at the time I had not reached third base, as he claims, but was fully twenty feet away from that point when the ball was caught.6
This set the terms of the dispute. Murnane, backed by Hines, claimed that Sutton was past third base when it was tagged. Rankin, backed by Sutton, claimed that he was not. Other participants in the game chimed in on either side. Most articles over the next few decades simply restated one position or the other, or left the conclusion open. Minor variants crept in, such as a claim that Hines, after tagging third, ran down and tagged Sutton.7 Another variation: Hines caught the ball, then tagged second before running to and tagging third base.8 The essential question remained the location of Sutton when Hines tagged third.
The argument for the unassisted version was gradually bolstered by interviews with other participants in the game. The most thorough of these was reported by Smith D. Fry in 1913 for Baseball Magazine. Fry began with Nicholas Young, the former president of the National League, who had in 1878 been the league secretary. Young claimed that he had never heard of any doubt expressed about the play being unassisted, which if true suggests he hadn’t been paying attention. In any case the source of his authority is unclear. There has never been any suggestion that he was present at the game. Next, Fry interviewed Charley Snyder and Doug Allison, the two catchers in the game, then Hines himself, and finally he corresponded with umpire Charley Daniels. They all agreed that Sutton had been past third base. Daniels added that he called out, “Three out. Side out,” before Hines threw the ball to Sweasy. Allison has the variant that Tom Carey, the shortstop, took the ball from Hines and threw it to Sweasy, and as Sweasy tagged second base he and Carey shouted to the crowd, “Just for good measure.”9
This is how the debate has remained to this day. A recent example is an essay “Three in One?” by Kathy Torres in the SABR publication Inventing Baseball.10 Another is a post entitled “Paul Hines and the Unassisted Triple Play” by John Thorn on his blog Our Game.11 Torres is noncommital, while Thorn (now the official historian of Major League Baseball) affirms his belief that the play was unassisted. MLB.com, on the other hand, does not include the play from its list of unassisted triple plays, implicitly rejecting the claim.12
The Contemporaneous Accounts
What did the newspaper accounts at the time say about the play? A review was made of eleven accounts (two of which are duplicated, appearing in identical form in two additional newspapers). Six are from Boston newspapers: the Daily Advertiser, Globe, Herald, Journal, Post, and Evening Transcript. Two are from Providence papers: the Journal (duplicated in the Providence Bulletin) and the Press (duplicated in the Providence Star). Two are from Cincinnati papers, the Commercial and the Enquirer. These were all published the day after the game. The last is from the weekly New York Clipper, the closest thing to a baseball newspaper of record at this time, from the issue of May 18, 1878.
The accounts that reach the necessary level of detail agree that Sutton was past third. Several are silent on the question, but none suggest that he was between second and third. The Globe unequivocally wrote “…Hines kept on to third, which both Manning and Sutton had passed running home on the fly…” The Daily Advertiser stated that Manning and Sutton “started for home, and never looked behind them until they reached there” while the Commercial said of them “both of whom had reached home plate.” In no account is there any suggestion that Sutton loitered between second and third or that he made an attempt to return after he as passed third.
The question would seem to be answered. The evidence is overwhelming that Sutton was indeed past third base. In retrospect, the competing version with Sutton between second and third never made much sense. This was a slow-developing play, with Hines running in from center field all the way to third base, then throwing to second. If Sutton had been cautiously lingering midway between second and third he would have had ample time to get back to the bag. If he had passed third base and was scrambling to return to second he would have had to run past Hines on his way back. This scenario would require special pleading such that the play was even more remarkable than as reported.
The Contemporaneous Interpretations
With the facts of the play established, the next question is was this considered an unassisted play? The Boston Globe clearly states that it was: “Hines kept on to third, which both Manning and Sutton had passed running home on the fly, and there stopping, made a triple play with no assistance.” But at the same time the account in the Providence Journal expressly states that the throw to second is what retired the last run and completed the triple play: “[Hines] touched third, thus, unassisted, putting out both Burdock and Manning, and then threw swiftly to Sweasey, retiring Sutton, and completing a brilliant triple play…”
The opinion that the play was assisted was the more widely held. Of the eleven accounts, seven unambiguously indicate that the throw to second completed the play. Three of the four that count the triple play as unassisted were Boston papers: the Globe, Journal, and Post, with the Cincinnati Enquirer the one other paper holding this position. These positions are often stated in the narrative descriptions of the game, and are reflected in the box scores. Figure 1 shows the box score from the Providence Journal. Note that Hines is credited with fielding four outs and one assist and Sweasey has one out and two assists, and that the summary assigns credit for the triple play to Hines and Sweasey. Compare this with Figure 2, showing the box score from the Boston Globe. Hines here has five outs and zero assists while Sweasey has zero outs and three assists.
Figure 1: The box score from the Providence Journal of May 9, 1878. Hines is credited with four outs and one assist, while Sweasy is credited with one out. The summary credits the triple play to both. The box scores from the Press and Star of Providence, the Boston Daily Advertiser, the Cincinnati Commercial, and the New York Clipper are similar.
Figure 2: The box score from the Boston Post of May 9, 1878. Hines is credited with five outs and zero assists, while Sweasy is credited with zero outs. The box score from the Boston Journal is similar.
There also were two near-contemporaneous discussions of the matter. The New York Clipper and the Chicago Tribune at this time included weekly question-and-answer sections. Some unnamed persons in Providence made a bet on whether or not the triple play was unassisted. They appealed to a “local authority” who ruled that “the ball must be thrown to second.” The loser in this decision then appealed to the Clipper, appearing in the May 18, 1878, issue:
[Question:] A player is on 3d and another on 2d, no one out. The batsman strikes a high ball towards centre-field, on which the men on bases run home. Centre field catches the ball on fly, and runs to third base, both of the runners having run home. Are not both of them out by the catcher of the fly-ball touching third base before they returned to that base without his throwing the ball to second base? [Answer:] Certainly they are.13
This in turn provoked an appeal to the Tribune, appearing in the May 19, 1878, issue:
[Question:] …Now will you please pass on the matter, and quote the rule, if there be one, to cover the matter? Answer—The thing is simple enough. Sec. 12 of Rule 5 reads: “Any player running the bases on fair or foul balls caught before touching the ground must return to the base he occupied when the ball was struck, and retouch such base before attempting to make another or score a run, and said player shall be liable to be put out in so returning, as in the case of running to first base when a fair ball is hit and not caught flying.” The man who was on second base must return to that base, it being the one he occupied “when the ball was struck,” and he can be put out by holding the ball on that base (not some other base) before he gets back. So far as putting the man out is concerned, the ball might as well be held on the manager’s nose as on the third base. It would affect as much one way as the other.14
The Rules Question
The question of fact turns out to be a garden path. Sutton certainly was past third. There was no disagreement at the time. Where opinions differed was how to score the play. Was Sutton out at third, or at second? Here we turn to the rules. The relevant rule in 1878, as the Tribune noted, was Rule V Section 12:
Any player running the bases on fair or foul balls caught before touching the ground must return to the base he occupied when the ball was struck, and retouch such base before attempting to make another or score a run, and said player shall be liable to be put out in so returning, as in the case of running to first base when a fair ball is hit and not caught flying [i.e. a fielder with the ball need only tag the base, not the player].15
Can the runner be put out only from his original base, or can he be put out the same way at an intermediate base he has passed? The rule does not explicitly say.16 There is room to interpret it both ways, hence the disagreement between newspaper accounts.17
What was the official ruling in 1878? Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure. The home club’s official scorer would send a score sheet to the NL secretary. Should a rules interpretation be necessary, the league secretary would be the next step up, followed by the league president, board of directors, and ultimately the annual league convention.
No interpretation above the club scorer was believed necessary at the time. Baseball had not yet reach a stage in its development where people felt questions such as this needed necessarily be authoritatively answered. There was no question but that it had been a triple play, so neither club had any argument to appeal to a higher authority. The score sheet was not disputed and would therefore be the operative document. Sheets from this era, however, do not survive.
It would be typical for the official scorer to also be a local baseball reporter. Lewis Meacham of the Chicago Tribune, for example, was the Chicago Club’s official scorer. The Tribune’s box scores can stand in as a proxy for the official score sheet for games played in Chicago. But this only works if the identity of the official scorer is known, and what paper he wrote for. This is not the case here. The Providence Club has received comparatively little attention from modern researchers, so it is possible that this information could be uncovered in the future. What is known at this point is that the Providence papers examined here all agreed that the triple play was only completed when the ball was thrown to Sweasy.18
Interpreting the Later Debate
How can a debate that has gone on for so long have been so beside the point? This is not hard to understand. Murnane, writing for the Boston Globe, had access to the Globe’s archives, one of the papers that reported the play as unassisted. It is likely that Murnane didn’t even realize that there had been any other interpretation. Rankin, working from the Clipper’s archives, knew that it had reported the play as being completed by the throw to second. He too most likely did not know that it had been reported any other way. They were talking past each other. Rankin resolved this by accepting the implicit assumption about the rules interpretation, and recasting the dispute as being about the fact of where Sutton was. This was only possible because the Clipper’s account was ambiguous on this point. By casting the argument this way Rankin and Murnane were no longer talking past each other: they were merely disagreeing about what happened, with neither realizing that this was not the right question.
There also is the issue of incentives. The later debate was an extended exercise in chewing the fat: a topic for mid-winter discussion once discussion of the previous season had been exhausted but before there was much to talk about for next season. The incentive is to tell a good story. An unassisted triple play is a better story than a more conventional play.
An illustrative example is an interview of George Wright from 1915 in The Sporting Life. Wright had been with the Boston Club in 1878. The interview rambles, with Wright telling old war stories. When he gets to the Hines play he tells how when Burdock hit the ball “it was obvious to the coacher on third base that it was going over the head of the shortstop. Consequently the coach signaled wildly for the two runners to go home.” Then when Hines makes the catch the coach “was dumbfounded. He never thought for a second that Hines would try for the play, in fact he did not realize what had happened until it was all over. Then comes the denouement: “I know—because I was the coacher on third.”19 Wright had nothing to prove to anyone, so he was happy to turn this into a story he told on himself: a story which is much better if in relation to an epic play.
Another example is the account by the umpire, Charlie Daniels. The 1915 Baseball Magazine article was not the first time he had told this story. A similar version appeared four years earlier.20 His contribution became part of the standard version. The problem is that Daniels was not, as he would recall it, the umpire at this game. That was John A. Cross. It is entirely possible that Daniels was present. The National League at that time maintained a list of approved umpires, with the names submitted by the various clubs. Daniels was based out of Boston, and Cross out of Providence. He might well have made the short journey to Providence to watch the game. Daniels also had a much longer umpiring career, extending through the 1880s, while Cross’s career was brief and unremarkable. Daniels was part of the baseball community, telling and retelling the story of this memorable play he had witnessed. It was natural for his hearers to assume he had been the umpire. After enough retellings, he came to remember it that way, too. We need not take Daniels to have been a conscious liar, but neither should we take at face value the details of his version, with his instantaneous call of three outs while the ball was still seemingly in play.
There were only two people with an incentive to tell the story differently. The standard version has Sutton making a base running blunder. It is natural that he would favor a different version, where he was put out presumably through no fault of his own. Then there was Rankin, the driving force behind skepticism about the play. Rankin was a natural contrarian, so for him the incentive was to debunk the generally favored version.
The incentives also favored an argument about a concrete fact rather than an abstract rules debate. It is easy to make and to understand an argument about where the runner was. It is much harder to make and the understand an argument about rules interpretation.
As much as anything, the lesson to be taken away is that not only do stories improve in the telling, but people forget what the issues were at the time of the events described.
The conclusion here is sadly unsatisfying. The best story would be to show conclusively that Hines had indeed made an unassisted triple play. We could remove the asterisk from the record, and tell the young ones the story of Hines’s amazing play. The next best story would be to show conclusively that Hines had in fact not made an unassisted triple play. This would tidy up the record, and Rankin was not entirely wrong about the pleasures of contrarianism. What we have here is perhaps the worst outcome. The available evidence shows that the most common opinion at the time was that the play was not unassisted; that the official scorer most likely shared this opinion; but the evidence is not conclusive. The only hope for a final resolution is if the official scorer of the Providence Club should be identified, and should he be a newspaper reporter, and should his account be available. Until then, the asterisk must remain.
RICHARD HERSHBERGER writes on early baseball history. He has published in various SABR publications, and in “Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game.” He is a paralegal in Maryland.
- Related link: Click here to view the SABR Triple Plays Database, a comprehensive listing of all MLB triple plays since 1876
2 New York Clipper, December 5, 1879.
3 New York Clipper, January 26, 1889.
4 Quoted in the New York Clipper February 9, 1889.
6 New York Clipper, June 29, 1889.
7 Cleveland Leader and Herald, January 22, 1889.
8 Alfred Spink, The National Game, National Game Publishing Co., St. Louis: 1910, 262.
9 Smith D. Fry, “The Most Sensation Play in Baseball,” Baseball Magazine, October 1913, 69-72.
10 Bill Felber, ed., Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century (SABR: Phoenix, AZ, 2013), 18-19.
11 John Thorn, Our Game blog, MLB.com, http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/05/05/paul-hines-and-the-unassisted-triple-play/
13 New York Clipper, May 18, 1878.
14 Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1878.
15 Constitution and Playing Rules of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, Rule V Section12 (Chicago: A.G. Spalding and Bro., 1878).
16 As a point of information, the modern rules clarify this question. Rule 5.09(c)(1) (Rule 7.10(a) prior to the 2015 reorganization of the rules) reads: “Any runner shall be called out, on appeal, when… after a fly ball is caught, he fails to retouch his original base before he or his original base is tagged”. Sutton would not be out at third under the modern rules, as it was not his original base. One way to look at the question is as whether the modern language is an alteration or a clarification of the older rule.
17 Thorn in his blog post cites 1878’s Rule V Section 15, “Any base-runner failing to touch the base he runs for shall be declared out if the ball be held by a fielder, while touching said base, before the base-runner returns and touches it.” This is not the relevant rule. It applies to a runner rounding the bases and missing a base. There is no hint that Sutton missed third base.
18 There is some indirect evidence hinting that the Providence Dispatch might have been the de facto organ of the club, and its baseball reporter the club’s scorer. Unfortunately the daily edition appears not to have survived, and the Sunday edition has detailed reports only from the previous Saturday.
19 Sporting Life, November 20, 1915.
20 Hartford (CT) Courant, June 9, 1911.