This article was written by Richard L. Burtt
This article was published in the 1980 Baseball Research Journal
The three-base hit made a tremendous comeback in 1979 with outstanding leadership totals in both leagues. George Brett led the American League with an even 20, the most since Dale Mitchell of Cleveland hit 23 in 1949. The Kansas City Royals hit 79 in 1979, the most for any team in the majors since the Pittsburgh Pirates hit 80 in 1944. Even the K. C. catcher, Darrell Porter, got into double figures with 10. In the National League, Garry Templeton hit 19, the most since Willie Mays hit 20 in 1957. It marked the third straight year that the switch-hitting Cardinal shortstop led in the NL, a new Senior Circuit record.
The resurgence in triples comes after almost a generation of the lowest figures in the game’s history. In 1969, for an extreme example, Del Unser led the American league with only 8. In three other seasons in that era the AL leader had only 9. The National League has fared somewhat better with the low figure at 10 in 1962, when four players were tied.
The ratio of triples to total hits has not been constant during this century, having started out in the early years much higher and having significantly declined in favor of the home run. From 1900 to 1920 three-base hits represented 5.5% of all hits and home runs Jess than 2%. In the period from 1921 through 1946, triples dropped to 4.3% of all hits and home runs moved up to 4.9%. But the great change has occurred during the post-World War II years (1947-79) when triples became just 3% of all hits and home runs went up to 9.2%.
Over the last 80 seasons the frequency of triples has fallen from one in 18 hits to one in 33 hits. At the same time, the home run, which occurred but once in about 55 hits iii the first two decades of the century, is now seen once in each 11 hits. The home run has not only replaced many triples but has also cut into the singles and doubles totals. These basic hits represented 93% of all hits in the earlier period, but now are less than 88% of the total. In regard to the relationship between triples and home runs, a strange thing happened with the Houston club in 1979, which also seems to support the resurgence of the three-base hit. The Astros hit 52 triples compared to only 49 home runs. The last time a club hit more triples than homers was in 1949 when the Chicago White Sox hit 66 triples and 42 homers.
Going into the 1980 season, there have been nearly 76,000 triples hit in the majors since 1900. The National League has the edge with 38,274 over the AL with 37,653. This counts the 1900 season in the Senior Circuit, which is balanced out by the four seasons when the AL had two more teams than the NL. The reason the National League leads in triples is because of one club which has completely dominated the three-base hit category in this century. Just as the New York Yankees have dominated in home runs for part of this period, the Pittsburgh Pirates have done even better in triples and for essentially the entire period since 1900.
During the 80 seasons since 1900, the Pirates have led 40 times and have finished second 23 times. In comparison, their chief NL rival has been the Cardinals with 13 firsts and 23 seconds in 80 years. In the American League, there has been no such dominant club. The Washington/Minnesota franchise ranked first or second on 33 occasions and the Yankees 30 times. Actually the Pittsburgh dominance started prior to l900. The club also led the NL in 1893, 1897, and 1899.
In the period 1900-20, one of every 14 Pirate hits was a triple compared to one of about 18 for all of major league baseball. In the 1921-46 period, the Pirate ratio had slipped to one in 18, but the major league average had dropped to one in 23. In the latest period, 1947-79, the Pirates hit one triple in every 27 hits, while the over-all average was one in 33. So, while the Pirate triple ratio has continued to drop, the club has maintained its edge over other teams.
Why has there been such a domination of the Pittsburgh club in three-base hits? The obvious answer would appear to be Forbes Field. For 62 of the last 80 years, spacious Forbes was the home of major league baseball in Pittsburgh. The size and configuration of this park was conducive to batted balls rolling a long way, to outfielders running no end while chasing the ball, and then throwing to very deep cutoff men. The fences, except near the right field foul pole, were at such great distances that many potential home runs became very long outs, or if they were line drives, they frequently went for three bases, and sometimes for four (ten Pirates hit inside the park homers at Forbes in 1925).
Before we accept the easy answer of the field dimensions, however, let’s consider the 18 seasons in this century that the Pirates did not call Forbes Field their home. In the first nine seasons of this period under consideration (1900-08), the Pirates played in Exposition Park, a typically expansive ball ground of that era, and in those nine years the Pirates hit more triples by a good margin than any other team in either league. During the nine full seasons of play at Three Rivers Stadium, Forbes’ successor (1971-79), the Pirates have hit more triples than any other NL team, but fall slightly behind Kansas City in the AL, which has come on very strong in triples in the last five years. Therefore, without discounting the influence of Forbes Field, let’s concede that the Pittsburgh team has had more than its share of good, fast running, line drive hitters.
Who were the Pittsburgh players who hit all of these three-baggers? On a career basis, there were no fewer than a dozen Pirates who hit 100 or more triples for the club. Included were some of the big names in three-cushion manufacture, dating back to the 1890s: Jake Beckley, Fred Clarke, Tommy Leach, Honus Wagner, Max Carey, Pie Traynor, Paul and Lloyd Waner, Arky Vaughan, and Roberto Clemente. Wagner, the all-time National League leader, hit 231 as a Pirate.
On a season basis, Pittsburgh players have led in triples 24 times. Some of these players had very high totals. In fact, the four top season totals in the NL since 1895 were by Pittsburgh players. Of course, Owen Wilson had that incredible season of 1912 when he hit 36, which is not only a major league record but one for Organized Baseball as well. Kiki Cuyler hit 26 in 1925, which has gone unchallenged in the last half century. Going back to 1897, Harry Davis hit 28, and Jimmy Williams, in his rookie season of 1899, hit 27. A Pirate hit 20 or more triples in a season on 16 occasions, which is twice as many as for any other club. And this doesn’t count the 1890 season in the Players League where two Pittsburgh players – Jake Beckley and Joe Visner – tied for the lead with 22 triples.
The strength of the Pittsburgh club in triples was not concentrated in one or two players at a time but ran through most of the regular lineup. While Mel Ott was leading the New York Giants in home runs for 18 consecutive years, the Pirates were rotating their leaders in triples almost on a seasonal basis. Take for example, the 12-year period from 1922 to 1933 when the club leaders were as follows:
1922 Bigbee and Maranville 15 1928 Paul Waner 19
1923 Carey and Traynor 19* 1929 Lloyd Waner 20*
1924 Rabbit Maranville 20 1930 Adam Comorosky 23*
1925 Hazen Cuyler 26* 1931 Pie Traynor 15
1926 Paul Waner 22* 1932 Gus Suhr 16
1927 Paul Waner 18* 1933 Arky Vaughan 19*
In 1929 and 1930 the Pirates had a record six players in double figures in triples, a feat no other 20th century club has attained once:
1929 Lloyd Waner 20* 1930 Adam Comorosky 23*
Paul Waner 15 Paul Waner 18
Dick Bartell 13 George Grantham 14
Pie Traynor 12 Gus Suhr 14
Adam Comorosky 11 Dick Bartell 13
George Grantham 10 Pie Traynor 11
The team hit a total of 116 in 1929 and 119 in 1930, figures unapproached in either league since then. The Pirates had established the major league team record with 129 in 1912. That was the season Wilson had 36 triples and Wagner was the runner-up with 20. Although the Pirates still occasionally lead the league in triples, their players have not had any high individual totals in many years. Omar Moreno in 1979 was runner-up to Templeton with 12, and Dave Parker in 1978 also was the runner-up to Templeton with 12. In 1965 Clemente arid Don Clendenon tied for second with 14 apiece. The individual totals have been down since World War II or since Johnny Barrett hit 19 in 1944. Part of this reduction could be attributed to the temporary installation of what was called “Greenberg Gardens” in leftfield from 1947 through 1953. Placing the bullpen in front of the fence cut the distance down about 20 feet and was aimed at helping the home run exploits of Hank Greenberg and Ralph Kiner.
Now that Forbes Field is gone, maybe the triple domination of the Pirates should be viewed as a thing of the past. It has certainly been reduced in recent years, with the Kansas City Royals taking up the slack. That should not diminish the important historical significance of the great three-way association of the Pirates, the three-base hit, and Forbes Field. The following statistical tabulations should confirm that status.
Owen Wilson’s 1912 Record of 36 Triples
Date Opposing Hurter and Club City Inn. RBI
Apr. 13 Bill Steele, Cardinals StL. 2 1
Apr. 18 Harry Sallee, Cardinals Pitt. 9 0
Apr. 23 Mordecal Brown, Cubs Chi. 6 1
Apr. 27 Art Fromme, Reds Pitt. 1 1
Apr. 27 Hanson Horsey, Reds Pitt. 8 0
May 3 Larry Cheney, Cubs Pitt. 3 0
May 4 Ed Reulbach, Cubs Pitt. 4 1
May 21 Bill McTigue, Braves Pitt. 7 1
May25 Jim Lavender, Cubs Pitt. 4 0
May 25 Jim Lavender, Cubs Pitt. 6 0
May 30 (1) Harry Sallee, Cardinals Pitt. 3 1
June 17 Rube Marquard, Giants N.Y. 8 0
June 18 Doc Crandall, Giants N.Y. 9 1
June 19 Joe Willis, Cardinals Pitt. 4 1
June 20 (1) Robert Keefe, Reds Cin. 2 0
June 20 (1) Harry Gaspar, Reds Cin. 10 1
June 20 (2) Art Fromme, Reds Cin. 6 0
July 2 Larry Cheney, Cubs Pitt. 8 0
July 4 (1) Ben Taylor, Reds Pitt. 4 0
July 8 (2) Wally Schultz, Phils Pitt. 8 0
July 16 Earl Ymgling, Dodgers Pitt. 4 0
July 17 Christy Mathewson, Giants Pitt. 9 0
July 19 (1) Rube Marquard, Giants Pitt. 3 1
July 22 Buster Brown, Braves Pitt. 3 1
July 25 Eddie Stack, Dodgers Pitt. 1 0
July 26 Earl Moore, Phils Phil. 1 0
Aug. 10 Clifton Curtis, Dodgers Bkn. 6 0
Aug. 16 Grover Alexander, Phils Pitt. 7 0
Aug. 23 Jeff Tesreau, Giants Pitt. 9 1
Aug. 26 (1) Otto Hess, Braves Pitt. 6 0
Aug. 26 (2) Ed Donnelly, Braves Pitt. 6 1
Aug. 26 (2) Ed Donnelly, Braves Pitt. 8 0
Aug. 27 Walter Dickson, Braves Pitt. 4 3
Sep. 7 Bill Perritt, Cardinals StL. 6 0
Sep. 29 Ed Reulbach, Cubs Chi. 8 0
Oct. 6 Frank Gregory, Reds Cin. 9 3
100 Career Triples for Pittsburgh
Honus Wagner 231 in 18 years
Paul Waner 187 in 15 years
Roberto Clemente 166 in 18 years
Pie Traynor 164 in 16 years
Fred Clarke 155 in 15 years
Max Carey 148 in 17 years
Tommy Leach 137 in 14 years
Arky Vaughan 116 in 11 years
Jake Beckley 114 in 8 years
Lloyd Waner 112 in 16 years
Gus Suhr 112 in 10 years
Elmer Smith 100 in 7 years
20 or More Triples in a Season
Owen Wilson 36 in 1912
Harry Davis 28 in 1897
James Williams 27 in 1899
Hazen Cuyler 26 in 1925
ElmerSmith 23 in 1893
Adam Comorosky 23 in 1930
Honus Wagner 22 in 1900
Paul Waner 22 in 1926
JakeBeckley 20 in 1891
Jake Stenzel 20 in 1894
Jake Beckley 20 in 1895
Tommy Leach 20 in 1902
Honus Wagner 20 in 1912
James Miller 20 in 1913
Rabbit Maranville 20 in 1924
Lloyd Waner 20 in 1929