This annotated week in baseball history: Aug. 23-Aug. 29, 2009

On Aug. 23, 2009, Eric Bruntlett turned just the 15th unassisted triple play in major league history. Richard was there to see it, and looks back at the history of of one of baseball’s rarest plays.

You might remember my griping from a couple of years ago when I missed—by a day in each case—both Alex Rodriguez and Jim Thome hitting their 500th home runs. A year before, I saw Daniel Cabrera pitch eight and a third hitless innings, before serving up a clean single.

The last man to turn an unassisted triple play

Which is to say that while I’ve seen a handful of relatively notable events (including Derek Jeter’s 2,000th hit) at the many major league games I’ve attended, I have never seen anything truly exceptional. Until this last Sunday, when I was on hand for the Mets game.

I assume everyone knows that Eric Bruntlett turned an unassisted triple play in the game, just the 15th in major league history, and the first to end a game in National League history. That naturally obscured all the other stories in that game, which included the return of Pedro Martinez to New York and Oliver Perez pitching so badly that he was pulled in the first inning after going 3-0 on Martinez.

On the offensive side, Angel Pagan hit two home runs, including an inside-the-park job that came in large part because Shane Victorino inexplicably attempted to sell the umpires on a ground rule double. On a better defensive play, Jeff Francoeur robbed Bruntlett of a triple with a diving catch initially ruled as a hit, until the umpires overturned it. I think Bruntlett got the last laugh, though.

And that’s because story was him, and rightly so. It was just the seventh play like that in National League history and the second to end a major league game. Unassisted triple plays are rarer than no-hitters, hitting for the cycle, six-hit games or perfect games. The only rarer occurrence in the modern era is hitting four home runs in a game.

(A side note on that picture of Bruntlett. I did not take it because I was sufficiently prescient to know he was about to turn one of the rarest plays in baseball. Instead, it was because I spent much of the game commenting that his photo appeared to be taken just after he was rescued from six weeks lost in the woods. Worked out nicely though.)

Before we get into the history of the unassisted triple play, it is true that they are largely a function of luck. While luck can sometimes be a factor in events like hitting for the cycle or pitching a perfect game, they also require a player to be at his best. The fluky nature of the unassisted triple play is perhaps best reflected in Bruntlett, who had made an error and kicked a ball that was ruled an infield hit, putting the runners he would later retire on base.

The first unassisted triple play of the modern era—and maybe the first ever, opinions differ on a play turned by Paul Hines in 1878—came in 1909 when Neal Ball (nice name, by the way), playing for the Cleveland “Naps,” performed the feat in the second inning of a game against the Red Sox.

This is one of three triple plays turned by the Cleveland Indians franchise, including the first two (more on the second in a moment) and Asdrubal Cabrera’s 2008 triple play, still the most recent American League triple play. So the Indians may not have won a World Series in 60 years, but at least Tribe fans can look back on their triple plays.

The second Indians’ triple play, and the second of all time, is the one turned by Bill Wambsganss in the World Series. I’ve discussed Wambsganss’ legacy as it relates to the triple play, but I was unaware that this was only the second triple play in baseball history.

Moreover, it remains the only triple play of any sort in World Series history. Triple plays are admittedly a rare occurrence but it still seems improbable that the only one in World Series history was unassisted.

The first triple play not turned by the Indians was instead turned at their expense, by George Burns of the Boston Red Sox in September of 1923, which was (again improbably) followed less than a month later by the first unassisted triple play by a National League team, when Ernie Padgett of the Boston Braves turned one.

This illustrates one of the stranger aspects of unassisted triple plays: They seem to come in bunches. From Wambsganss’ World Series play in October of 1920 through Johnny Neun’s in May of 1927—the only other unassisted triple play to end a game as Bruntlett’s did—there were six.

Neun’s was also the last play until 1968 when Ron Hansen of the Senators turned one, but Hansen failed to start a trend and the play would lie dormant until 1992. So after six in a period of less than eight years, there was just one play spanning more than five decades.

The 1992 play, turned by Philadelphia’s Mickey Morandini, was followed by another two years later. But the play has really picked up lately. Bruntlett’s was the fifth unassisted triple play recorded since May of 2000, and the third in three years.

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Neun’s triple play is perhaps the most notable, in that it not only took place a day after the previous play, but is one of only two triple plays recorded by a non-middle infielder. Stories, possibly apocryphal, state that Neun’s—he caught a line drive, stepped on first and then beat the runner returning to second—occurred because Neun, having seen the hoopla around the previous day’s triple play, refused to throw the ball to the shortstop.

(If that is true, it was a good call on Neun’s part, since his only other claim to fame is an undistinguished period at the head of the Cincinnati Reds and one of the shortest—just 14 games—pre-Steinbrenner Yankee managerial runs.)

Despite more luck than skill being involved in the unassisted triple play, it remains one of the rarest plays in baseball, and one I’m lucky—and happy—to say I’ve seen.

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“I was unaware that this was only the second triple play in baseball history.”

You probably got tired of typing “unassisted”

Kelly Gruber
Kelly Gruber

“Triple plays are admittedly a rare occurrence but it still seems improbable that the only one in World Series history was unassisted.”

Well, I did tag Deion Sanders in the 1992 Series, which would have been a triple play if the ump didn’t blow the call.

Yes, 17 years later and I’m still bitter. But at least my mullet still looks bitchin’

Chris J.
Chris J.

And just think RB – just the other day you complained that you only get angry widows responding to you when you mock their dead husbands.