This article was published in 2003 Baseball Research Journal
The Detroit Tigers take credit for having made the most triple plays.1, 2 But is this correct? Actually, it is a very complicated question, and the correct answer depends on multiple definitions and positions taken. The complex answer to this seemingly simple question depends on three further questions.
First, do triple plays made only in the 20th-century count? Should triple plays in the 19th century count? What about triple plays made in the 21st century? Second, should franchise shifts count as one team, or should each individual city be a separate team? The answer to this question significantly changes the answer to our original question.
There is no simple agreement on this. Most people consider the California Angels to be the same team as the Anaheim Angels or the Los Angeles Angels. However, what about the San Francisco Giants and the New York Giants? Are the three Braves locations (Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta) one team or three? What if a team merely changes its name without changing any location such as the Houston Colt .45s to the Houston Astros? Are they the same team?
Finally, if a team switched leagues, do their records in the other league count? Most baseball fans consider the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League to be the same team as the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League. However, what about the American Association teams that jumped to the National League? Should their triple plays count? Also, after the merger of the American Association and the National League following the 1891 season, should their previous statistics be combined?
Of the present American League teams, the Detroit Tigers have made the most triple plays (33). However, the Baltimore Orioles franchise can claim a grand total of 36. They made 12 as the Baltimore Orioles (1954-present), 23 when they were known as the St. Louis Browns (1902-1953), and 1 when they were the Milwaukee Brewers (1901). Note that this does not include the three TPs made in 1901 and 1902 by the Baltimore Orioles who in 1903 became the New York Highlanders/Yankees. The Minnesota Twins franchise is third with 30 triple slaughters. As the original Washington Senators (1901-1960) they made 20, and ten more since moving to Minnesota (1961-present).
Of the present National League teams, the Chicago Cubs have made the most with 40 triple plays. Eleven of these were in the 19th century and 29 from 1901 forward. The Giants with 33 triple plays in New York as the New York Giants and six as the San Francisco Giants3 have 39. Thirteen of the New York total were in the 19th century and 20 in the 20th century.
The Braves franchise has made four as the Atlanta Braves, 30 as the Boston Braves, and three as the Milwaukee Braves, for a total of 37. Sixteen of the Boston triple plays were performed in the 19th century. Of note, the Braves and the Cubs are the only two continuous franchises from the original eight-team National League of 1876. The 1876 Cincinnati, New York, St. Louis, and Philadelphia teams are unrelated to the current major league teams.
The National League’s Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals have made 35 and 36 triple plays, respectively. The Cincinnati Reds have made 29 triple plays in the National League. However, they jumped from the American Association after the 1889 season. Cincinnati made five triple plays while in the American Association (1882-1889). Thus, the continuous Reds franchise4 has made 34.
A similar argument can be made for the Pittsburgh Pirates having made two more triple plays. As a member of the American Association (1882-1886), they made a pair. After the 1886 season, they too jumped to the National League. Thus, the team can claim 37 triple plays.
The merger of the American Association and the National League after the 1891 season resulted in a twelve-team league. The St. Louis Brown Stockings, Baltimore Orioles, Washington, and Louisville teams joined the National League, while the other four American Association teams folded. These Baltimore, Washington, and Louisville teams are unrelated to present-day major league baseball teams. However, should the present-day St. Louis Cardinals get credit for six triple plays they made in the American Association?5 This would raise their total to 42.
There is also the issue of what to do about the St. Louis Terriers and the Chicago Whales of the Federal League. After the 1915 season, there was a “merger” of the Federal League and the American and National Leagues. The Terriers were merged with the St. Louis Browns, while the Chicago Cubs and Whales combined. Of note, present-day Wrigley Field was the Whales’ ballpark. Should the Chicago Cubs receive credit for the one Whales triple play and the present day Baltimore Orioles receive the two Terriers’ triple plays? This does not seem appropriate.
Giving credit for all franchise shifts, but staying in the. same league, the top teams for triple plays (excluding Federal League figures) are presented in Table 1.
The top teams — including league transfers — for triple plays are listed in Table 2.
Excluding 19th-century triple plays, the top teams for triple plays from 1901 through the present are given in Table 3.
Table 4 presents the top teams for triple plays from 1901 through 2003 without franchise shifts.
Finally, to be complete, Table 5 lists the top triple play-makers from the other four major leagues.
So, who has made the most triple plays?
It could be the Cubs with 40 (Table 1); or the Cardinals with 42 (Table 2); or the Orioles with 36 (Table 3); or the Tigers with 33 (Table 4). It depends on your point of view!
STEPHEN D. BOREN, MD, Ph.D. is a long-time contributor to SABR publications and is a practicing physician.
JAMES A. SMITH, a retired computer operator, joined SABR in 1983. Besides baseball, he has many dedicated research interests, including submarines, the Civil War, and calendars from various cultures and eras.
HERM KRABBENHOFT, who has not yet seen a ML triple play in person, is presently researching the uniform numbers worn by players on his favorite team, the Detroit Tigers.
1. “Tigers Best at Triple Plays,” RJ Gonzalez, The Baseball Research Journal (p. 76, 1972). The article states: “Since 1901 when the American and National Leagues began operating simultaneously, there have been a total of 374 triple plays in the majors, 188 in the AL and 186 in the NL. Detroit leads all teams with 30, followed by the Cards and Pirates with 26;” It is also noted that the Detroit Tigers issued a press release (February 5, 1974) in which it was stated, “The Tigers can claim the triple play championship of the major leagues. They have made more triple-killings than any other club in modern baseball history, according to Raymond J. Gonzalez, a baseball statistician from Woodside, NY, who has tracked down every triple play made since 1900 for the Society for American Baseball Research.”
2.”Tigers Hold All-Time Triple Play Lead,” The 2003 Detroit Tigers Information Guide (p. 7). The information box states: “The Tigers’ all-time total of 33 (triple plays) is more than any other team in major league history. The Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals are tied for the National League lead with 31.” The Detroit Tigers have had such a statement published in their annual media/ information guides every year since 1978 (although for the guides from 1978 through 1982 the qualifying statement “since 1900” was included).
3. It can also be argued that the Troy Trojans, who played in the National League from 1879 through 1882, were the direct precursors to the New York Giants, since four of the 1882 Troy players were regulars in the 1883 New York lineup. And since the Troy team made two triple plays, the grand total number of triple plays pulled by the Troy-New York-San Francisco conglomerate is 41.
4. The original 1876 Cincinnati team was a distinct team from the present Cincinnati one and did not make any triple plays. Similarly, there was a short-lived Cincinnati franchise in the American Association that replaced the original AA Cincinnati team; they also did not execute any triple plays.
5. The American Association St. Louis club also pulled a triple play in the 1887 World Series against the National League Detroit Wolverines. Including this post-season TP gives St. Louis franchise a grand total of 43 three-ply killings.