Three for the price of one is always a bargain, whether we’re talking oranges or outs. It’s particularly sweet when a fielder retires the opposing side all by himself—a feat that is one of the rarest sights on a baseball diamond.
In the modern era of big-league ball, there have been just 15 unassisted triple plays, including one in the World Series. A triple play is inherently dramatic; after all, there must be at least two runners on base with none out for one to even have the potential of happening. But one of the very few times it actually saved a game occurred on the afternoon of May 31, 1927, when Detroit’s Johnny Neun single-handedly snuffed a Cleveland rally at Navin Field.
Neun, a 26-year-old first baseman, was enjoying what was shaping up to be the finest of his six major-league seasons, the first four spent at The Corner. The switch-hitter would bat .324 and steal 22 bases in 1927, including one outing where he went 5-for-5 and stole five bases. But his most important asset was his glovework.
The Tigers were leading Cleveland, 1-0, this Tuesday afternoon, when the Indians came to bat in the top of the ninth against southpaw Earl Whitehill. The first two batters, slow-footed catcher Glen Myatt and outfielder Charlie Jamieson, got on base. This brought up Homer Summa, the Indians’ line-drive-hitting rightfielder. Swinging from the left side of the plate, Summa yanked a Whitehill delivery down the first-base line. Neun was in perfect position, Tigers pitcher Eddie Wells told me many years later.
“It went right into his glove,” Wells said. “All he had to do was touch Jamieson. Two out. Then the man who was on second—Myatt—was rounding third. Neun trots down to second and touches the base. You could hear him all over the park: ‘Triple play unassisted! Triple play unassisted!’”
Neun’s game-closing gem preserved the Tigers’ narrow victory. It took several seconds for the fans to realize what had happened. Then the cheering started.
Neun knew perfectly well what he had accomplished. In fact, he had been thinking about the possibility all day. Amazingly, the previous day Chicago Cubs shortstop Johnny Cooney had pulled off an unassisted triple play against Pittsburgh. Neun had read newspaper accounts of Cooney’s feat before taking the field against Cleveland and was aware of its rarity. Neun could have tossed the ball to shortstop Jackie Tavener, who was standing on second base and shouting for the ball, for the third out. Instead, Neun waved off Tavener and outraced the lumbering Myatt to the bag to complete the triple play.
Wells insisted that Neun yelled, “I’m running into the Hall of Fame!” while he was completing his trifecta. This seems a bit far-fetched, considering that there wouldn’t even be a Hall of Fame for another nine years. In any event, neither Neun nor the ball ever made it to Cooperstown. But it was a heck of a try.