Unassisted Triple Plays Almost Commonplace for Tribe

The unassisted triple play requires a confluence of circumstances and a well-hit ball, typically in the vicinity of a middle infielder.

It’s been called the rarest play in baseball – but for the Indians, it’s practically a signature play. The team’s been involved in six of the 15 unassisted triple plays in modern major league history – executing three of them, and being the victims of three others.

The most recent unassisted triple play by the Indians was Asdrubal Cabrera on May 12, 2008. Cabrera, playing in his first full season with the Indians since capturing fans’ imagination as a callup for the team that won the American League Central the year before, was playing shortstop in the second game of a doubleheader against the Blue Jays.

Cliff Lee was pitching, and he wasn’t quite in Cy Young Award form in the fifth inning, giving up back-to-back singles to Kevin Mench and Marco Scutaro. With the count 1-0, the runners took off, and Lyle Overbay broke his bat on Lee’s offering. The ball went right to Cabrera, who caught it, stepped on second for the second out, and then tagged a surprised Scutaro.

It remains the last unassisted triple play in the American League (Eric Bruntlett turned one a little more than a year later for the Phillies against the Mets), but the Indians were also responsible for the first in the major leagues. The Naps, as they were then called, were hosting the Boston Red Sox in a doubleheader at League Park on July 19, 1909. Neal Ball was playing shortstop, and Cy Young was pitching for the Naps, in his first year back in Cleveland in a decade – eight of which were spent with the Red Sox.

Heinie Wagner led off the second inning with a single, and Jake Stahl beat out a bunt. Amby McConnell came up to bat, and with a full count, the hit and run was on. “I was wishing McConnell would hit a fast one to me on the ground so that I might get a double play out of it,” Ball said after the game. Instead, McConnell hit one over Young’s head. Ball leapt and came down with the ball. He stepped on second (Ball said later that Wagner was already rounding third by then) and Stahl, with a full head of steam, ran into the tag.

Ball threw his glove down and started to trot into the dugout. “Where are you going?” Young said. “That’s three outs,” Ball replied. It took a minute for the pitcher – and the fans – to process, but when they did, League Park erupted. It took 20 minutes to clear the straw hats that had been thrown on the field in honor of Ball – who also doubled and hit his only home run of the season in that game. An ad in the next day’s Plain Dealer said that Ball got a free hat – for the home run.

The next unassisted triple play to occur – also at League Park – is probably the most famous, occurring in the top of the fifth inning of Game 5 of the 1920 World Series. Brooklyn pitcher Clarence Mitchell came up to bat with runners at first and second and the Indians infielders playing him deep (Mitchell was also used as a first baseman). Wilbert Robinson called for the hit-and-run, and Mitchell hit a line drive straight to Bill Wambsganss, who caught the ball and stepped on second. Otto Miller, who had taken off from first base, was literally standing next to Wamby when it happened, and rookie shortstop Joe Sewell had the presence of mind to yell “tag him!” Wamby did to end the inning.

One of Wamby’s teammates with the Indians that year was George Burns. Manager Tris Speaker wanted Stuffy McInnis, his former Red Sox teammate, in Cleveland, and parted with Burns to get him. Burns, who was a backup for first baseman Doc Johnston in Cleveland, flourished as the every day starter for the Red Sox.

Burns was playing first when the Indians came to Fenway Park on Sept. 14, 1923. Riggs Stephenson was on second, and Rube Lutzke was on first. Burns was drifting away from first base as Frank Brower hit a liner that looked like it would go through the gap. But Burns covered ground quickly, and speared the ball about 15 feet from first base. His momentum carried him toward second, where he tagged Lutzke, and stepped on the base to end the inning.

The next two triple plays the Indians were involved in were at their expense – including the only one to end a game, against the Tigers on May 31, 1927. The Tigers were clinging to a 1-0 lead, and Glenn Myatt, pinch-hitting for pitcher Garland Buckeye, got on first. Charlie Jamieson – who had been on the field for Wamby’s triple play and with the Indians’ for Burns’ – beat out a bunt, and up stepped Homer Summa.

Summa hit a screaming liner – right into the hand of Johnny Neun. He tagged Jamieson, ran for second, tagged the base and ran right into the dugout for the game’s end.

There were no triple plays in the major leagues for more than 40 years after that, until Ron Hansen pulled off the feat for the Washington Senators in the first inning of a game against the Indians at Municipal Stadium. The wound was compounded by Frank Howard hitting his 30th home run of the year to put the Senators ahead 1-0. But that’s all Sam McDowell would give up, and the Indians exploded for 10 runs for the win. It was the last triple play the Indians were involved in – until Cabrera’s 40 years later.

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