Thursday, November 4, 2010


As the baseball World Series has dragged on into November, baseball fans are preparing for the off season with discussions about arcane facts of this wonderful sport. For example, in this year's World Series, the Giants' Freddy Sanchez set a record. Get this! He smacked a double in each of his first three World Series at-bats. It's never happened before. Most likely, aside from Mr. Sanchez and his team, nobody cared either. Actually, in his fourth trip to the plate, Mr. Sanchez apparently hit another double, but the official scorer ruled that he went to second base on an error by the right fielder.

One record most fans consider untouchable was set by the Chicago Cubs' Hack Wilson when he batted in 191 runs in the 1930 season. Back in the 1930's, a couple players came close--the great Lou Gehrig drove in 186 for the NY Yankees and Hal Trosky of Cleveland drove in 184. They played 154 games a season then. Now they play 162, but nobody has come within 30 runs of the record in recent years. Even with the steroid fueled home run derby a few years back, Barry Bonds hit 73 homers and Mark McGwire hit 70, but they never approached Wilson's RBI record.

My vote for the most untouchable record, however was set by another Wilson--Owen "Chief" Wilson who hit 36 triples for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1912, breaking the old record of 31 set in the 1890's when the outfields didn't even have fences. Even the minor league record for triples is only 32, set by Jack Cross in 1925.

Mr. Wilson, who is not believed to be related to movie actor Owen Wilson, grew up on a ranch in Texas in the late 19th Century. He had a strong throwing arm and began his professional career as a right handed pitcher in the Texas League in 1905. Like Babe Ruth, when his manager found Wilson could hit well, he converted him into an outfielder. His manager Fred Clarke gave him the nickname "Chief" because Clarke said he looked like a "Chief of the Texas Rangers." Wilson was not a Native American.

In 1908, he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates as their regular right fielder. In his rookie season, he was one of the weakest hitters in the league and the fans booed him regularly. The Pirates contended for the pennant, and Wilson's strong defensive play kept him in the lineup. By 1911, Wilson improved his hitting enough that he hit 34 doubles, 12 triples and 12 homers (a team record in that dead ball era), and led the National League in RBI's with 107. On July 24th of that year, Wilson hit 3 triples in one game at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field.

But that was nothing compared to his 1912 season. Although a big strapping man, Wilson was not considered especially fast, but he apparently hustled enough to convert many of his doubles into triples. He hit only 19 doubles and 11 homers (of which 2 were inside-the-park homers). By the end of May, he had 11 triples. In June he hit a total of 6 triples in 5 consecutive games, a record. By August 27, he had hit 33 triples and still had 34 games to go. His fans were rooting for him to hit as many as possible, and on September 14th, the Pittsburgh Post commented, "Wilson attempted to triple, but tapped the pellet a trifle too hard and it floated over the right field wall." Dang! That knucklehead hit a homer, we wanted a triple!

In the last game of the season, with the bases loaded in the 9th inning, Wilson hit a long drive, clearing the bases, but he was thrown out at home plate trying to stretch a triple into an inside-the-park grand slam homer. He had to settle for his 36th triple.

Wilson's record was possible because in those days, the ball fields were much larger than today. In Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, for example, where Wilson hit 24 of his 36 triples, the center field fence was 462 feet from home plate, and the right and left field power alleys were over 400 feet. A left handed hitter, Wilson hit the ball solidly to all fields. Although the ball was thought to be less lively than it is today, there is some controversy about that. At that time, a whole game would be played with just a few baseballs which became scuffed up and discolored. Prior to 1920, when foreign substances were outlawed, pitcher would often spit on the ball or apply other substances like Vaseline to make the ball break sharply. It was difficult for batters to hit the ball solidly. Unlike hitters of today, most hitters did not swing for the fences, but attempted to hit line drives for singles or doubles. Outfielders played shallow, and if a hitter could hit one over or between the outfielders, a triple was very likely. Even inside-the-park homers were common. Wilson hit most of his triples over the heads of outfielders in cavernous Forbes Field.

In modern baseball, the fences have been brought in closer to encourage more homers. Outfielders play deeper. Balls hit over outfielders' heads are usually retrieved quickly, and batters are held to doubles. Nowadays, triples are quite rare and usually occur when a ball takes a bad bounce or an outfielder falls down or is slow to recover the ball for any other reasons. When a batter hits one, it is usually an exciting play because he is racing around the bases while the throw is coming in for a close play at third base.

Since World War II, only 7 players have hit as many as 20 triples in a season. Most notable were the 4 players since that time who hit more than 20 doubles, triples and home runs in the same season. Hall of Famer Willie Mays hit 26, 20 and 35 in the 1957 season. Hall of Famer George Brett hit 42, 20 and 23 in 1979. More recently, Curtis Granderson of Detroit and Jimmy Rollins of Philadelphia both accomplished the feat in 2007. Granderson had 38, 23 and 23, while Rollins had 38, 20 and 30.

While we're doing triples, I should mention that the forgettable Earl Webb of the Boston Red Sox hit 67 doubles in 1931, and nobody has approached that record either in over 70 years. The closest was Todd Helton of Colorado who hit 59 in 2000. Don't get me started on that!