The longest day

Two hours is about as long as an American can wait for the close of a Base Ball game—or anything else, for that matter.
Albert Spalding, 1911

In the year 2014, when baseball games that last less than three hours are increasingly rare, it is difficult to comprehend that there was a time when double-headers were regularly scheduled for Sunday afternoons. After the coming of illumination, the twilight-night (or twi-night) doubleheader also was commonplace. Making up rained-out games added even more two-fers to the schedule. The three-fer, however, is rare indeed. In fact, there was only one during the entire 20th century.

If you could find a Pittsburgh Pirates schedule for 1920, you would not find a triple-header scheduled for Oct. 2. As you might expect, given the date, this was a last-ditch attempt to fit in all 154 games. In those days, with only eight teams in each league, a team would face each of the other teams in the league 22 times, 11 games home and 11 away. Fewer teams meant more frequent road trips to each city, so it was relatively easy to reschedule early-season contests lost to inclement weather. Ah, but there were exceptions.

By the end of September of 1920, the Pirates had played the Reds eight times at Forbes Field. Single games were played on April 29, May 1, July 6, and Sept. 23; double-headers took place on July 5 and Sept. 22. Three games remained to be played there.

A look at the hiatus in the Pirates’ box scores in the final week of the season indicates that foul weather fouled up the schedule. They played no games on Sept. 29, Sept. 30, or Oct. 1. There is no way the schedule-makers would have given the Reds and Pirates three days off in the waning days of the season, and not even one travel day is needed to go from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh, unless you’re traveling by boat.

Both teams were scheduled to finish their seasons on Sunday, Oct. 3, in other cities. The Pirates were to play the Cubs in Chicago, and the Reds had to head home to face the Cardinals. That left only Saturday, Oct. 2, for the three games left between the Reds and the Pirates. It’s conceivable that they could have played two and made a return trip to Pittsburgh on Monday, Oct. 4, even though the World Series was scheduled to start the next day.

Perhaps it was decided that playing a triple-header, onerous as that prospect was, was less daunting than playing two, going to another city for one, and then returning to Pittsburgh for one. In those days, of course, there was no players’ union to weigh in on the decision.

Another option, of course, would have been to play two games on Saturday, one on Sunday, and scrub the 154th game. The pennant race was over, so why worry about a game between a couple of also-rans?

Well, in horse racing, if you’re betting on a horse only to win, you don’t really care where the others finish. But if you’re betting on a specific horse to place or show, or if you’re doing an exacta, trifecta or superfecta, or if you’ve concocted some more exotic wager (a box or a wheel), then you care very much about the also-rans. Money makes the difference.

And money was at stake in 1920 for those “also ran” baseball teams—at least those in the first division—who received a portion of the players’ pool derived from World Series ticket sales. The World Series winner got 42 percent, the loser 28 percent; second-place teams in each league got 7.5 percent, third place was good for five percent, and fourth-place teams received 2.5 percent.

In an era when salaries were much less, it was not a bad year-end bonus, certainly enough of an incentive for a good team to make a late-year push to finish as high as possible, even if the pennant was out of reach.

In 1920, the Cincinnati Reds were the defending champions, having defeated the Chicago White Sox in the infamous 1919 World Series. Finishing third was not much of an encore, but it was the best they could hope for. On the morning of Oct. 2, Brooklyn (known in those days as the Bridegrooms) had already nailed down the top spot, and the New York Giants were ensconced in second place with a record of 86-66-1.

The Reds were third at 80-69-1, and the Pirates right behind them at 77-73-1. The Reds had not clinched third place, but they were in the driver’s seat. They needed just one more win to clinch third. On the other hand, if the Pirates got hot and swept the Reds, they would be 80-73-1 and the Reds 80-72-1, and the final game of the season the next day would be of some importance.

I suspect the players weren’t looking that far ahead, as playing three games in one day was daunting enough. Even Ernie Banks would not have mustered the enthusiasm to exclaim, “Let’s play three!” Of course, every game presents the possibility of extra innings, and when you play three games in one day, that triples the chances of an extra-inning game. Best not to think about that.

The three games scheduled for Oct. 2 were obviously much more meaningful to the players than to the fans. The average fan really doesn’t care whether his team finishes third or fourth. Have you ever seen a fan hold up triple-digit foam fingers and chant, “We’re number three!”? I didn’t think so.

It would be interesting to know how many fans showed up for the triple-header (and how many stuck around for all three contests), but we have no attendance figures for the day. The sheer novelty—not to mention the value—of three games for the price of one surely attracted some curious and/or thrifty souls, even at that point in the season.

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I don’t know what time the first game began, but given the fact that they had to fit in three games and darkness was more plentiful than sunshine in this post-equinox environment, I’m guessing noon was the latest they would have started. Also, daylight saving time had been rescinded after World War I, so getting an early start was mandatory.

Whatever drama the day might have held was dispelled quickly. The first game was almost all Cincinnati, a 13-4 drubbing. A six-run third inning gave the Reds an insurmountable lead, but they added four more in the ninth just to remove all doubt.

Heinie Groh and Larry Kopf had three RBIs apiece. Shortstop Kopf had two triples to go with two errors, the second muff giving him 47 for the season. That was worse than his total of 41 during the Reds’ championship year of 1919, but nowhere near his league-leading total of 68 in 1917. Given his shortcomings in the field and his .249 lifetime batting average, it is hard to fathom how Kopf managed to stick around the big leagues for 10 seasons.

Pittsburgh had gone with its best starter, Wilbur Cooper, but he just didn’t have it that day, giving up seven earned runs in 2.1 innings. It was a disappointing finish to an otherwise outstanding season for Cooper, who finished behind only Pete Alexander in wins (25 vs. 27) and complete games (28 vs. 33). For Cooper, it was the first of three straight 20-win seasons and the midpoint of an eight-year stretch (1917-1924) in which he never won fewer than 17 games.

This Reds’ victory in game one rendered the remaining two games meaningless, so far as the standings go, but the show must go on, and there were still two acts left in the play.

In game two, the matchup featured two obscure pitchers, Lynn Brenton for the Reds and Jimmy Zinn for the Pirates. Both went the distance in a 7-3 Reds victory. For Brenton, his nine innings pitched was one half his total for the Reds that season. Zinn was a bit more visible, as he had logged 22 innings before this game.

But there was no rest for the weary, as Zinn was called into duty in the third game—not as a pitcher but as a right fielder. That would hardly seem to be a fit reward for someone who had just pitched a complete game, but it was the end of the season, the game meant nothing, and somebody had to be out there in right field.

Given the inconsequential nature of the game, and that it was the next-to-last game of the season, Bucs manager George Gibson was likely open to anything. I don’t know if pitchers shagged flies during BP as they do today, but if they did, perhaps Zinn had discharged his duties impeccably and Gibson thought he deserved a start in the outfield.

Actually, Zinn was a sturdy sort, though that was not so evident at this point in his career. His time in the majors was short and nondescript, but his minor league career lasted till 1939, when he was 44 years old. His complete minor league record was 279-185. He was a 20-game winner five times, thrice with the Kansas City Blues of the American Association, and twice with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. He was also an outstanding hitter, retiring with a .297 lifetime minor league batting average based on a 659-for-2218 showing.

For the record, Zinn went 1-for-3 in game three of the triple-header. With one putout and no errors in the field, he didn’t embarrass himself. It was the first time he had played anywhere other than pitcher for the Bucs. During the 1921 season, he would play one more game in the Pirates’ outfield. The experience must have been valuable, as he sometimes played right field in the minors when he was in his 40s.

Speaking of game three, that contest went to the Bucs, 6-0. Johnny Morrison pitched a four-hit shutout for his only decision of the season. Reds’ starter Buddy Napier didn’t pitch badly, giving up just two earned runs, but he was victimized by a costly error by center fielder Rube Bressler. The contest lasted only six innings, perhaps because of darkness, perhaps because the two teams had trains to catch, and there wasn’t much point in prolonging the day’s events at Pittsburgh.

Given the fact that three games were played, there was plenty of playing time to go around. Surprisingly, on each side, there were two players who appeared in all three games: Morrie Rath and Pat Duncan for the Reds, and Cotton Tierney and Clyde Barnhart for the Pirates.

Hall of Fame members who participated in one or two games included Edd Roush, Pie Traynor, Max Carey and Greasy Neale. Don’t bother looking for Neale among the plaques at Cooperstown, however. You will find him in the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall, however. His fame rests on his college coaching career and his tenure as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

It would be interesting to know what the participants thought of the day’s events. Potentially, any regularly scheduled game could go into any number of extra innings, but to wake up in the morning knowing you have 27 innings staring you in the face … well, I’m guessing they felt lucky to get by with 24 innings.

Today, if you were embarking on 24 innings of baseball, you probably would be looking at least an eight-hour day, not counting warm-up time before the first game and time between games. But back then, the two-hour dictum of Albert Spalding was still honored. The first game—even with all those Cincinnati base runners—lasted two hours and three minutes. The second game clocked in at 1:56, and the truncated third game managed to squeeze six innings into a mere 1:01.

Now, it is highly likely that the players were trying to get games two and three over as quickly as possible. I’m guessing the pitchers didn’t try to be too fine, and the batters were not interested in running deep counts. Unless a player had some personal goals or was on a salary drive, there was nothing left to play for.

Today, a triple-header would empty out the bullpen, but the Reds got complete games from all three starters while the Bucs received complete games in the second and third games. Pittsburgh employed just two relievers, Whitey Glazner and Jack Wisner, who appeared in the first game.

Perhaps the real troopers in the whole affair were the umpires. Unlike the players, the umps had no subs on the bench, and in those days, only two umps officiated at major league games. Hank O’Day patrolled the bases while Pete Harrison was behind the plate for all three games. My guess is Harrison had a generous strike zone that day—at least in games two and three.

As meaningless as those last two games of the triple-header seemed at the time, in retrospect, they were significant because they comprised two-thirds of the one and only triple-header of the 20th century, and the last in major league baseball. I was going to say the last to date, but that might imply another one could happen, and I seriously doubt that. If the participants were exhausted at the end of the day, at least they would have one of those, “Did I ever tell you about the time…” experiences to spin a yarn around in later years.

For the record, the only other triple-headers were Brooklyn vs. Pittsburgh on Sept. 1, 1890, and Baltimore vs. Louisville on Sept. 7, 1896. Both Brooklyn and Baltimore came away with sweeps. Coming late in the season, I’m guessing that, once again, bad weather was the reason, and the triple-header was the best of a number of bad options.

But the end of the triple-header was not the end of the season. Remember, the two teams still had one game left to play on Sunday, Oct. 3. The Pirates lost to the Cubs, 4-3, while the Reds lost to the Cardinals, 6-3. The latter contest took 12 innings to complete.

If you remember what it felt like when you were a school kid anticipating the beginning of summer vacation, you can appreciate how the Reds must have felt on the final day of the 1920 season.

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Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 47 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Nice article.  Per the Sporting News of October 7, 1920 said the triple header started at noon and the third game was called on account of darkness. 
Interesting, they didn’t give any attendance figures for any games reported in that edition.  Maybe no one cared about attendance back then.

Shane Tourtellotte
Shane Tourtellotte
For the record, the Brooklyn team in 1920 was known not as the Bridegrooms, but as the Robins, after manager Wilbert Robinson.  It was the tail end of the trend of nicknaming teams after specific individuals (the Cleveland Naps for Napoleon Lajoie in the 1900’s were the most famous example), but Uncle Robbie was just that popular. Then again, nicknames were sometimes still a trifle unofficial at that time.  It’s possible some people called them the Bridegrooms, sort of the way we occasionally call the Pirates the Bucs or the Yankees the Bombers. Good article, Frank.  I hope in a… Read more »
Dan Evensen
Dan Evensen
Just pulled up the October 3, 1920 edition of the Chicago Tribune.  I prefer the Tribune’s baseball coverage to the New York Times for deadball era seasons. This writeup appeared on the second sports page: “TRIPLE HEADER! REDS WIN TWICE TO FINISH THIRD” “Teams Start Play at Noon—Scores 13-4, 7-3, 6-0” “Pittsburgh, Pa., Oct. 2—Cincinnati clinched third place in the National league race today by winning the first game of a triple header from Pittsburgh, 13 to 4.  The visitors also won the second game, 7 to 3, while the Pirates defeated the Reds in the third contest, 6 to… Read more »
Dan Evensen
Dan Evensen

The New York Times has full boxscores of all three games.  The game summary is exactly the same as the one printed in the Chicago Tribune.  The New York Times boxscores list the first game at 2:03, the second at 1:56 and the third at 1:01.  Again, there are no attendance figures.