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1920 Dodgers: A World Series triple play

3 losses in 3 games, and 3 outs on one play for Brooklyn, 100 years ago last week

1920 World Series: Cleveland Indians v Brooklyn Robins Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

We left off last week with the 1920 Dodgers tied in the World Series 2-2 with the Indians, with three more games scheduled in Cleveland, and the possibility of coming back home to Ebbets Field.

Except only one team made the trip home to Brooklyn, after a week that will be remembered for one of the most famous plays in baseball history.

Game 5

This was a battle between each team’s two best pitchers. Burleigh Grimes pitched a shutout in Game 2 in Brooklyn, beating Indians 31-game winner Jim Bagby, but the result went the other way on Sunday in Cleveland.

Game 5 was one of firsts. After three singles off Grimes to open the game to load the bases with nobody out, right fielder Elmer Smith launched a home run to right field for an early 4-0 lead, the first grand slam in World Series history.

In the fourth inning, Grimes intentionally walked catcher Steve O’Neill with two outs and a runner on third, hoping to get out of the inning by facing the pitcher. Only Bagby didn’t comply, launching a home run of his own, giving the Indians an insurmountable 7-0 lead.

These were the first two (and only) home runs of the series, but were overshadowed by what happened next.

Second baseman Pete Kilduff opened the fifth with a single, and catcher Otto Miller followed with the same. Clarence Mitchell, who relieved a beleaguered Grimes on the mound, was thought well enough as a hitter that he started 13 games at first base and right field and pinch-hit 21 times during the season.

What came next was baseball history. From Wambsganss’ SABR bio, by Bill Nowlin:

Wambsganss deliberately played back on the outfield grass, as Mitch often hit to right and Wamby wanted to keep the ball from getting through and perhaps scoring a run. When the count reached 1-1, the hit-and-run play was put on, and it had everything to do with the execution of the play that followed. Mitchell hit the ball hard, and it was heading toward center field several feet to the right of second base. Wambsganss had broken toward the bag, or he wouldn’t have been able to make the play. Make it he barely did, catching the ball in mid-flight with his outstretched glove. Kilduff was almost to third base and Miller rapidly approaching second. Momentum carried Wamby in the direction he was going and two or three strides took him to second base. The minute his foot hit the bag, Kilduff was out. And Miller’s own momentum brought him right to Wamby. He pulled up short and didn’t have time to turn back and try to retreat. He was just five feet away. “He stopped running and stood there, so I just tagged him. That was all there was to it,” Wambsganss explained. “Just before I tagged him, he said, ‘Where’d you get that ball?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve got it and you’re out number three.’” It was all over in a flash. Three outs. There was dead silence in the park as everyone took in what they’d witnessed, and then an explosion of celebration. [The Wambsganss quotation comes from The Sporting News of January 22, 1966.]

To date, Wambsganss’ feat remains the only triple play in World Series history, and one of only 15 unassisted triple plays in MLB history.

Final score: Cleveland 8, Brooklyn 1

Game 6

Left-hander Duster Mails pitched 6⅔ innings of excellent relief for Cleveland in Game 3 to keep the game close, though that game was ultimately won by Brooklyn. The former Dodgers pitcher, who pitched 22⅓ innings in relief for Brooklyn at ages 20-21 in 1915 and 1916, had an excellent rookie campaign all within his September call up.

Mails was 7-0 in his first seven starts, including a season debut of only one-plus inning despite allowing four runs, before the five-inning requirement for starters was codified. But he was excellent for the Indians, posting a 2.13 ERA in nine regular season outings. He continued that with his scoreless relief effort in Game 3, and a shutout in Game 6.

Brooklyn only had three hits in the game, but down only a run, had a great chance at tying the game with a one-out double by Ivy Olson in the eighth inning. But an infield pop up and a ground out ended the threat.

Sherry Smith was excellent in defeat, allowing only one run in the sixth on a double by George Burns. Oh God, Brooklyn is one win away from getting eliminated.

Smith has a 0.53 ERA in 17 innings in the series, but is 1-1.

Final score: Cleveland 1, Brooklyn 0

Game 7

With ticket scalper Rube Marquard banished and Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson unwilling to use Leon Cadore against Cleveland’s lefties, the Dodgers turned to Grimes on one day of rest on Tuesday.

Grimes kept up for a while, allowing only a walk and an infield single through three innings of a scoreless game, but the Indians got to him in the fourth with two hits and a bad throw on a stolen base attempt. Tris Speaker tripled in the fifth, and doubles by Steve O’Neill and Charlie Jamieson in the seventh gave Cleveland a 3-0 advantage.

In the regular season and World Series combined, Grimes won 24 games and pitched 323 innings, both team highs, posting a 2.34 ERA.

Brooklyn’s bats were handled thoroughly by Stan Coveleski, who pitched a shutout to close out the Dodgers. The right-hander pitched three complete games in the series, allowing only two runs. Coveleski was the eighth pitcher to win three games in a single World Series, and his 0.67 ERA was better than all of that group except Christy Mathewson, who pitched three shutouts in 1905.

The Indians won the series, five games to two.

Final score: Cleveland 3, Brooklyn 0

Brooklyn only scored eight runs in the seven-game series. Outfielder Zack Wheat was 9-for-27 (.333) and second baseman Ivy Olson was 8-for-25 (.320). The rest of the team was 27-for-163 (.166).

Thanks for reading this look back at the Dodgers’ second pennant, 100 years ago. I hope it was as fun to read as it was to research and write.