This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles
This article was originally published in “Baseball in Pittsburgh,” the 1995 SABR convention journal.
While Forbes Field had its share of legendary home runs—Mazeroski’s 1960 Game 7 World Series clout and Babe Ruth’s ﬁnal three—the old park was the scene of some memorable defensive moments as well: unassisted triple plays by Pirate shortstop Glenn Wright on May 7, 1925, and Cub shortstop Jimmy Cooney on May 30, 1927; and the bare-handed catch made by New York Giant right ﬁelder Red Murray on August 16, 1909.
Murray’s grab is the least remembered today, because it happened nearly 90 years ago and none of its principals are alive to retell it. But the story was a familiar favorite more than 40 years after it took place. The Gene Mack-style renderings of Forbes Field from the 1950s usually depict an “x” marking the spot where Murray made his dramatic grab, and no less than Honus Wagner frequently cited it as the greatest catch he ever saw.
In August of 1909, the Pirates were playing better than .700 ball and had healthy leads over the second-place Cubs (defending world champions) and the third-place New York Giants. On August 16, John McGraw’s Giants visited Forbes Field and staked their ace, Christy Mathewson, to a 2-0 second-inning lead. But Buc hurler Vie Willis, Hall of Fame class of 1995, was equal to the task and kept the Pirates close.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Giants were clinging to a 2-1 lead. A strong wind began to swirl around the ﬁeld. The crowd of roughly 11,000 could see a threatening sky approaching from the direction of Schenley Park, beyond the outﬁeld wall. Wily veteran Mathewson stalled, hoping that the oncoming storm would douse the game with his team in the lead. Legendary umpire Bill Klem ordered the bottom of the eighth to begin, prompting Pirate manager Fred Clarke to bat his pinch-hitting specialist Ham Hyatt for Willis. Mathewson delivered the ﬁrst ball as a crash of thunder bellowed and a zigzag ﬂash of lightning lit the darkening grandstands. Hyatt met the ball and swatted a ringing triple to right ﬁeld. The ﬁreworks in the sky and on the ﬁeld were followed by a brief lull during which Ed Abbaticchio was sent in to pinch run for Hyatt. Mathewson did his best to kill time but while the rain patiently held back, Abbaticchio came around to score on a Jap Barbeau sacrifice ﬂy.
With the score tied, the storm’s approach was heralded by multiple thunderous booms. The next batter. Tommy Leach, belted a double to right. Hall of Famers to-be Fred Clarke and Honus Wagner were coming up. The winds kicked up so much dust that the players were barely discernible from the stands. Large rain drops began to fall. Mathewson induced Clarke to pop out weakly to short, and with ﬁrst base open, Wagner was intentionally walked. With two outs, two on, and the sky near bursting, Dots Miller strode to the plate. In the darkness, Mathewson’s pitches were difficult to see, but Miller met one squarely and drove it into deep right center. Center ﬁelder Cy Seymour and right ﬁelder Red Murray sprinted in all-out pursuit.
Prom the stands the ball looked to be heading for the wall, a home run or at least a two-run triple. Seymour pulled up, apparently losing sight of the ball. Murray continued into the gap at full speed, stretched his bare right hand as far as he could, and snared the sailing liner just as another lightning bolt cracked behind him, framing his body in light. Years later, Mathewson recalled, the accompanying crash of thunder “fairly jarred the earth.” The inning and the rally were over in dramatic fashion. The deluge arrived. Soon the game was called, ending as a 2-2 tie.
Accounts of the game the following day proﬁled Murray’s grab with descriptions such as marvelous, wonderful, and magnificent. The Pittsburgh Leader proclaimed in a headline, “Murray’s Catch Greatest Ever Made on Ball Field,” explaining that the play as well as the scene, “will never be duplicated.”
More than a few eyebrows rose in disbelief when Honus Wagner told the story of Red Murray’s lightning-lit catch to those who would listen. Sportswriter Sid Mercer, a founder of the Baseball Writers Association of America, nevertheless gave it credence. Mercer recalled that in later years the New York Giants re-enacted the miraculous barehanded catch on Pullman cars. With the large lamps of the train car dimmed, Murray would pose as though he were snagging the Miller line drive, while somebody struck a match behind him, silhouetting his form just the way the lightning had in Forbes Field.