By Andrew Sharp
Triple plays are unusual, but not rare. Most seasons have more than one. The Rangers, for example, turned a triple play on April 20 this year. What is rare — and probably the most unusual fielding play of all — is the unassisted triple play.
Decades can pass without one. Yet they happen in a flash. Too bad if you were at the concession stand.
The last unassisted triple play, just the 15th ever, was turned by Eric Bruntlett of the Phillies on August 20, 2009, a hundred years after the first one. The situation was the same as it has been for the other 14 unassisted triple plays in the major-league history*: Runners on first and second are moving on the pitch. The batter hits a line drive to an infielder -- in all but two cases, the shortstop (eight times) or second baseman (five). Two first basemen have made unassisted triple plays, both times their momentum and speed getting them to second base for the third out before the returning base runner.
The unassisted triple play on May 31, 1927 by first baseman Johnny Neun snuffed out Cleveland’s rally and ended the game, securing Detroit’s 1-0 win. That was the last time a first baseman made one, the last triple play for 41 seasons.
Amazingly, thanks to Neun, baseball had unassisted triple plays on consecutive days. Jimmy Cooney of the Cubs had turned one on May 30 against the Pirates.
After Neun in 1927, it would be July 30, 1968, in Cleveland before another unassisted triple play was made. Senators’ shortstop Ron Hansen turned the trick against the Indians on a first-inning line drive by Joe Azcue. Hansen’s play didn’t help. Cleveland beat Washington 10-1. He was charged with an error later in the game.
Bruntlett’s was the second unassisted triple play to end a game. The Mets had the tying runs on base (both had reached on errors) when Jeff Francoeur lined to second baseman Bruntlett. He stepped on second and tagged the approaching runner. The Phils won, 9-7. That was the same score two years earlier when Troy Tulowitzki turned an unassisted triple play in Colorado’s win over Atlanta.
Three players have made unassisted triple plays in games their teams won by a single run. Clearly, those rally killers were meaningful.
The 2000s had five unassisted triple plays, but we’re now in the 13th season since the last one. There were six unassisted triple plays in the 1920s, one of them coming in the 1920 World Series.
After Hansen’s in 1968, another 24 years passed until the next unassisted triple play. That came on September 20, 1992 by Mickey Morandini of the Phillies against the Pirates. So for more than 60 years, only one player recorded three outs single-handedly on one batted ball.
Teams whose players have turned unassisted triple plays have won seven times and lost eight, but most of the games were close. The 1968 loss by the Senators and the 1920 World Series loss by the Brooklyn Robins, 8-1 to Cleveland, were the only games that were not.
From May 1927 to September 1992 – nearly 66 seasons -- just one unassisted triple play was turned. Don’t place any bets about when the next one will happen.
* The only credited “unassisted” triple play prior to 1900 required a throw for the third out. Research on such plays in Negro league games is ongoing.
Andrew Sharp is a retired journalist and a SABR member who blogs about D.C. baseball at washingtonbaseballhistory.com