The Last Tripleheader

This article was written by A.D. Suehsdorf

This article was published in 1980 Baseball Research Journal

Only one tripleheader has been played in the majors in this century and that was 60 years ago.

Considering that, in this Age of Television, nine innings may take three or more hours to play, it is unlikely that we shall soon see another one.

The last tripleheader was played on October 2, in the final week of the 1920 season. The Brooklyn Robins were leading the National League comfortably. The Giants were second, no threat but well enough ahead of the Reds, the fading World Champions, who had won 80 and lost 69 and were 3½ games ahead of the Pirates.

Cincinnati was at Pittsburgh for a three-game series, after which the season would end with single games: Pirates at Chicago and Cardinals at Cincinnati. The Pirates’ chances were slim, but four wins and four Red losses would put them in third place by half a game. Aside from the honor of nosing out the old champs, there would be the tangible reward of the third-place players’ share of World Series receipts. Divided among some 25 men, this would not be an impressive amount by current standards, but it would exceed the fourth-place team’s share, which was nothing.

Unluckily, the Friday game was rained out. Now three-and-a-half behind with three to play, and no makeup dates available, the Pirates’ hopes were dead.

Not so fast! Supposing the teams played a tripleheader on Saturday? Barney Dreyfuss, the Pirates’ energetic owner, proposed this to Pat Moran, the Reds’ manager, who sensibly if not sportingly, refused. Undaunted, Dreyfuss got in touch with John A. Heydler, the National League’s president, in New York. As has happened once or twice before in baseball, the owner got his way. Heydler telegraphed Moran to play the three games.

Saturday the weather cleared. The first game began at noon. Moran pitched right-hander Ray Fisher, who was 10 and 10 on the season and at the end of a modest career spent mostly with the Yankees. George Gibson, the old catcher, long a Pittsburgh favorite and now in his first season as manager, picked his ace, lefty Wilbur Cooper, winner of 24 games, his career high.

The Reds went to bat with the lineup that had served them for two years: Morrie Rath 2B, Jake Daubert 1B, Heinie Groh 3B, the excellent Edd Roush CF, Pat Duncan LF, Larry Kopf SS, and Earl “Greasy” Neale RF, who would soon find a new career in football and eventually serve several seasons as coach of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Second-stringer Bill Rariden caught Fisher.

The Pirates had stumbled since the glory days of Fred Clarke, even finishing eighth in 1917, but were on the way back. There was a World Series triumph not too far ahead, in 1925, and three players who would help make it happen were already on hand: Max Carey, the skillful outfielder and base stealer, and two rookies, Clyde Barnhart at third and Pie Traynor at short. Carson Bigbee was in left field and Billy Southworth, later a fine and patient manager of the Cards and Braves, in right. Charley Grimm was at first and another rookie, Cotton Tierney, at second. Walter Schmidt caught Cooper.

It was no contest. The great Cooper didn’t have a thing. The Reds bombed him for ten hits and eight runs in 2-2/3 innings, and went on to win, 13-4. Kopf had two triples, Roush two doubles, and the Reds stole seven bases on Schmidt. A susceptibility to theft ran in the family. Walter was the younger brother of Boss Schmidt, Detroit’s principal catcher in its losing Series of 1907-8-9, when the Cubs and Pirates stole 50 bases in 16 games!

Young Traynor, playing his 16th game for Pittsburgh, went 1 for 4, handled nine chances, including a double play, and made two bobbles at short. He would later switch to third base.

Despite all the hits and runs, the rout was completed in 2:03, and the Reds, 4½ ahead with 3 to play, were definitely the champions of third place.

Moran sat most of his regulars down for the second game and started a lineup with four pitchers in it. In addition to Buck Brenton on the mound, Dutch Ruether was at first, Fritz Coumbe in center, and Rube Bressler in right. This was the transitional year for the Rube. After winning 26 and losing 31 in seven years as a pitcher for the A’s and Reds, he was switching to the outfield (and 1B) and would swing a big bat for the Reds and Dodgers until 1932.

The Pirates made a few changes but kept a predominantly right-handed lineup against Brenton. They didn’t play the right-left percentage much in those days. Traynor was benched.

The game was close for six innings. In the seventh the Reds exploded for seven runs and won easily, 7-3. Brenton’s win was his second of the season. The Pirates’ Jimmy Zinn was pounded for 14 hits, including three by Hod Eller, Cincinnati’s best pitcher, who was having fun subbing at second and first.

Time: 1:56 — 18 full innings in one minute under four hours!

Though it was now late in the afternoon, Game 3 got underway. Pittsburgh batted first this time, Cincinnati technically becoming the home team The Pirates scored three in the first and three in the sixth, while Jughandle Johnny Morrison, making the only start of his rookie year, shut out the same makeshift Reds lineup with four hits. At the end of the sixth darkness was descending on the Smoky City and the game was called. Pittsburgh 6, Cincinnati 0. The umpires were Peter Harrison, behind the plate for all three games, and the famous Hank O’Day, chief umpire the day of Fred Merkle’s never-to-be-forgotten base-running error in 1908.

Traynor got no hits, had five chances, no errors. He was still a year away from becoming the Pirates’ nonpareil third baseman.

The time of the game was 1:01 -24 innings of play in precisely five hours.

Cincinnati went home 4½ ahead of the Pirates. The Reds lost to the Cards and Wee Willie Sherdel in 12 innings on Sunday, while the Pirates were beating Lefty Tyler in Chicago. So the season ended with Cincinnati 82-7 1 and Pittsburgh 79-75. As third-place winners the Reds earned a total of $10,744.14. For fourth place the Pirates won zilch.

In an initial burst of enthusiasm the press reported that this was the first tripleheader in major league history. From a purist’s point of view this is probably correct. However, there were two other occasions when three games were played in one day. On both occasions there was a morning game, followed by a break in the action and then an afternoon doubleheader. There were two admissions; such was not the case with the 1920 trio of games.

A search of the records revealed that the Brooklyn Bridegrooms of the National League won three games at home on Labor Day, September 1, 1890. And whom did they beat? Pittsburgh, then known as the Innocents. (They became Pirates a year later after pirating a player incautiously left off another team’s reserve list.)

Why three games? Probably because of crosstown competition. This was the one year of existence for the Players’ League, and an opposition Brooklyn club, led by the popular Monte Ward, was playing a doubleheader against Buffalo. Since the NL had altered its schedule to assure that its teams would be playing in Brotherhood towns on the same day, the Bridegrooms’ three games probably offered a better attraction than the upstarts’ two. Actually, morning game attendance was light, with only 915 attending.

Brooklyn, managed by Bill “Gunner” McGunnigle, was a fine team, about to win the flag in its first season in the National League. The Innocents, riddled by nine desertions to the Pittsburgh entry in the Players’ League, were dreadful. They would finish the season in eighth place, with a 23-113 record, 66½ games behind Brooklyn.

The first game — begun at 10:30 a.m. — looked like a runaway for the Bridegrooms. However, in the top of the ninth, with Brooklyn leading 10-0, the Innocents came alive. They scored six runs and filled the bases with “two hands out” and third baseman Doggie Miller up. He rapped a hit deep to left field, a triple at least, possibly an inside-the-park home run. The three base runners scored, and Doggie was carrying the mail around second as center fielder Darby O’Brien caught up with the ball and threw to Germany Smith, who had run out from short to take the long throw. “O’Brien and Smith handled the ball very cleverly,” reported the New York Times. Germany whirled, and as fine shortstops have been doing for 90 years since, made the classic throw to the plate to nail the desperate Doggie “by a few inches.” Brooklyn 10, Pittsburgh 9.

Game 2 was also tight, Brooklyn winning, 3-2. Game 3 was one of the iron-man performances so typical of baseball’s early days. Dave Anderson, who lost Game 2, returned to try again for the Innocents. He pitched the distance but lost to the Bridegrooms 8-4. Adonis Bill Terry, who had played left field for Brooklyn in the first two games, pitched the victory. His place in left field was taken by pitcher Bobby Caruthers, who had won the first game.

The other three-game marathon took place in Baltimore on September 7, 1896, which was also a Labor Day affair. Doggie Miller and Gunner McGunnigle were again involved, this time with the Louisville Colonels — McGunnigle as manager and Doggie as a utility player in his last year, who also saw service as one of the umpires in the afternoon contests. They lost to the Orioles 4-3, 9-1, and 12-1.

The Colonels were almost as bad as the Innocents, lying dead last in a 12-team league and finishing 53 games behind the Orioles, then at their peak. These were Ned Hanlon’s incomparables — McGraw, Keeler, Jennings, Kelley, and so on. Keeler, for example, had seven hits and five stolen bases for the day. Wilbert Robinson was lauded for catching all three games without a flaw of any type.

After a reasonably close first game, won by Dr. Arlie Pond, the Orioles put on their hitting shoes and rapped a total of 30 hits good for 21 runs in the two afternoon games off Louisville’s Art Herman and Bert Cunningham, neither of whom was relieved. After eight innings of the third game, the teams agreed to quit. It was getting dark and enough was enough. The Baltimore Sun told the story in banked headlines:

Baseball to Burn
Louisville on the Fire
In Three Successive Games
Warmed Up in the Forenoon
And Done Brown on Both Sides
On a Pretty Afternoon