Unassisted triple play

In baseball, an unassisted triple play occurs when a defensive player makes all three putouts by himself in one continuous play, without any teammates touching the ball (assist). In Major League Baseball, it is the rarest of individual feats, occurring less frequently than even a perfect game and hitting four home runs in one game (although these are equal if a disputed unassisted triple play is included). During a span of over 65 seasons (June 1927 to September 1992), there was only one unassisted triple play in the major leagues, made in July 1968. Even "ordinary" (assisted) triple plays are fairly rare, occurring a few times per year.

Specific conditions must be met for the play even to be possible, and these normally indicate impending trouble for the pitcher. There must be no outs in the inning and at least two runners on base (usually only two) who are running with the pitch, as in a hit and run. Finally, the batter must make excellent contact with the pitch, resulting in a line drive hit directly at an infielder, usually either the shortstop or second baseman.

All unassisted triple plays except one have taken this form: the infielder catches a line drive (one out), steps on a base to double off a runner (two outs), and tags another runner on the runner's way to the next base (three outs) (almost universally, the "next base" is the same base on which the infielder stepped to record the second out). Sometimes the order of the last two is switched. Because the fielder usually has to be between the two runners, most of these plays have been accomplished by middle infielders (second basemen and shortstops), but two were completed by first basemen who were able to reach second base before the returning baserunner. The only unassisted triple play that did not take this form occurred in the 19th century under rules that are no longer in play.

The feat has only occurred 14 times in modern major league history, plus once in the 19th century (that one being disputed). By comparison, there have been 17 perfect games since 1870, including two in the 19th century; on 15 occasions a player has hit four home runs in a game, including twice in the 19th century. Six of the unassisted triple plays occurred in the 1920s, the sixth coming a day after the fifth. Since 1991 there have been six.

The unassisted triple play, the perfect game, and hitting four homers in one game are thus comparable in terms of rarity, but the perfect game and the home run record require an extraordinary effort along with a fair amount of luck. By contrast, the unassisted triple play is essentially always a matter of luck: the right circumstances, combined with the relatively simple effort of catching the ball and running the right direction with it. Troy Tulowitzki said of his feat, "It fell right in my lap," and as WGN-TV sports anchor Dan Roan commented, "That's the way these plays always happen." Regardless, to baseball purists, there is a certain "neatness" to the fact that in the long history of the World Series, the only triple play was of the unassisted variety and the only no-hitter was Don Larsen's perfect game.

MLB unassisted triple plays

19th century (disputed)

  • Paul Hines, May 8, , Providence Grays (vs. Boston Red Caps)
    • With runners on second and third, center fielder Hines caught a line drive from Jack Burdock that the runners thought was uncatchable. When he caught it, both runners had already passed third. Hines stepped on third, which by the rules of the day meant both runners were out. To make sure, he threw the ball to Charlie Sweasy at second base. It is still debated whether this was truly an unassisted triple play. (Modern rules would indeed have required the ball either to be conveyed to second base to put out the runner who had been on that base and had not tagged up, or to tag that runner.) According to the Society for American Baseball Research, the runner coming from second, Ezra Sutton, had not yet touched third base, which would mean that even by 19th century rules the play was not complete until Hines threw to second, and thus the play was not unassisted. Ernest J. Lanigan's Baseball Cyclopedia, 1922, which covers professional baseball back to 1876, states on p.157 that Neal Ball in 1909 was "the first major leaguer to make an unassisted triple play." The Sporting News Baseball Record Book, which covers records back to 1876, likewise does not list Hines' play in the section on unassisted triple plays.

Modern era

Name Team Position Date Inning How
Neal Ball Cleveland Naps SS July 19, 2nd Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.
Bill Wambsganss Cleveland Indians 2B October 10, 5th Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner. Game 5 of the 1920 World Series.
George Burns Boston Red Sox 1B September 14, 2nd Caught line drive, tagged runner off 1st, touched 2nd.
Ernie Padgett Boston Braves SS October 6, 4th Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.
Glenn Wright Pittsburgh Pirates SS May 7, 9th Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.
Jimmy Cooney Chicago Cubs SS May 30, 4th Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.
Johnny Neun Detroit Tigers 1B May 31, 9th Caught line drive, tagged runner, touched 2nd.
Ron Hansen Washington Senators SS July 30, 1st Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.
Mickey Morandini Philadelphia Phillies 2B September 20, 6th Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.
John Valentin Boston Red Sox SS July 8, 6th Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.
Randy Velarde Oakland Athletics 2B May 29, 6th Caught line drive, tagged runner, touched 2nd.
Rafael Furcal Atlanta Braves SS August 10, 5th Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.
Troy Tulowitzki Colorado Rockies SS April 29, 7th Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.
Asdrúbal Cabrera Cleveland Indians 2B May 12, 5th Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.


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