Saturday, October 10, 2020

"The Most Amazing Baseball Game Ever Played"

Daily News - October 11, 1920

"A million games and more have been played in baseball history; thousands have been thrillers.  But never, never since baseballing began have so many sensational incidents - so many bewildering plays - such colossal achievements been tossed into a combat as in the one of this afternoon."

Frank Menke - San Francisco Examiner- October 11, 1920

 "It was in many ways . . . the most remarkable [game] in the history of the sport since they played baseball in long pants and short whiskers."

Tom Rice - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 11, 1920

"The Indians established records that probably never will be exceeded even though the world's series go on to the end of time."

Henry Edwards - Plain Dealer- October 11, 1920

"The most amazing baseball game ever played.  Two world's records and an important section of Brooklyn's spinal cord were broken."

Grantland Rice - New York Tribune - October 11, 1920

Not long after the Indians tied the 1920 World Series at two games apiece, Harry McHugh walked towards Cleveland's League Park.  McHugh was not there to celebrate the Indians' victory, but to be first on line for Sunday's fifth game, almost 24 hours and a chilly night ahead.  Over the course of the evening about 100 fellow fans joined McHugh and when the gates opened at 9:30 Sunday morning, the street reportedly resembled a city dump.  By 11:00, the bleachers were full, leaving anyone still outside with little alternative, but to go to the offices of Plain Dealer to follow the game on a large tally board while listening to "the big voice" describe the action.   An estimated 7,000 people took advantage of this option, filling the street with what was reportedly a good-natured crowd.  The city's love for their local heroes even spilled over into church services where sermons were reportedly interrupted by shouts of "Hurray for Tris [Speaker]."  Anticipation was at a fever pitch, but no one in their wildest dreams could have predicted what would happen on that beautiful fall afternoon. To commemorate the centennial of that remarkable game, this post, in the spirit of G. H. Fleming's The Unforgettable Season, features the words of those who witnessed those historic events exactly one hundred years ago today.

Billy Wambsganss

No matter how chilly it may have been the night before, by game time Damon Runyan reported it was "another gorgeous day." It was so warm men removed their suit jackets and watched in shirt sleeves as Ivy Olson led off the game for Brooklyn.  After apparently endangering a few sports writers with foul balls, the Dodgers shortstop singled, but Indian starter Jim Bagby escaped the inning without any damage.  On the mound for the Dodgers was their ace Burleigh Grimes who had shut out the Indians in the second game.  Leading off for Cleveland was Charlie Jamieson (of Paterson, New Jersey) who hit a ball that reportedly bounced off Grimes and then past Dodgers first baseman, Ed Konetchy.  Jamieson was one of five .300 or higher hitters in a powerful Cleveland lineup that hit over .300 as a team in 1920.  Not among the heavy hitters, however, was the second batter, Billy Wambsganss so it's probably no surprise he was ordered to bunt.  After however, in the words of William McGeehan of the New York Tribune, "tapping more fouls than he has consonants in his name," Wamby, as he was popularly known, singled between third and short.   

Elmer Smith

At this point, however, Cleveland strategy took an interesting twist.  The Indians' .303 team batting average was just one sign of how baseball was transitioning from a low scoring game dominated by pitching to one where the home run was king.  Babe Ruth's almost unimaginable 54 home runs was another example.  Next up for Cleveland was player-manager, Hall of Fame bound, Tris Speaker who hit .388 in the regular season, the highest figure of his long career.  Perhaps not yet free of the Dead Ball Era mindset and mindful of the Indians lack of prior success against Grimes, Speaker elected to bunt the runners over.  This apparently came as no surprise to Brooklyn since all four infielders, along with catcher Otto Miller huddled with Grimes beforehand to discuss how to handle the situation.  Even sound strategy decisions, however, require execution and although Grimes was in perfect position to field the bunt, he fell down leaving "the bases drunk" with no one out.   Never one to miss the opportunity for an irreverent, and in this case unkind, comment, Ring Lardner claimed the Dodgers strategy conference "decided that when Speaker bunted, Grimes was to sit down on the grass and get a good rest."


 Plain Dealer - October 11, 1920

Batting cleanup for the Indians was right fielder Elmer Smith.  Although he was no Ruth, Smith led the team in home runs (12) while hitting .316 and the stage was set:

"He [Smith] appeared nervous and missed the first two balls by a foot.  Never did a pinch hitter look so helpless.  Grimes smiled and tried to fool him with a bad ball.  Smith refused to take the bait."

Robert Maxwell - Evening Ledger - October 11, 1920

The next pitch "went to Smith high and perfectly straight, when Grimes designed it to be lower and dip downward.  Such perfectly straight pitches are the constant menace to a spitballer and  experienced batters greet them with exceeding vim."

Tom Rice, Brooklyn Daily Eagle

"He [Smith] obtained the perfect toehold and swung with every ounce of strength, up and up went the ball, over the infield, over the right fielder Griffith, over wall and screen, over Lexington Avenue, finally falling on the opposite side of that thoroughfare.  The huge throng leaped to its feet and cheered him every step of the way."

Henry Edwards - Plain Dealer - October 11, 1920

Plain Dealer - October 11, 1920

"When [a player] hits a homer with the bases loaded [in the World Series] then is the time the dictionary seems to lack words with which to describe the thrills the feat has sent coursing through the veins of the spectators."

Henry Edwards - Plain Dealer - October 11, 1920

"The game was held up several minutes to clear the field of bleacherites who fell out of their seats.  They landed on their heads, ears, backs and everything else, but were supremely happy.  No could blame them for that."

Robert Maxwell - Evening Ledger - October 11, 1920

The roar of the crowd "was louder and more earnest than the cries of all the Chambers of Commerce in the country assembled."

William McGeehan - New York Tribune

Fans "perched perilously" on roof tops outside the park on Lexington Avenue, "with complete recklessness," rose and danced on the roofs, hugging one another and beating one another over the shoulders."

By the tally board on 6th Street, there was "a shout of joy which brought hundreds of late comers on the run down side streets." The street itself "seemed to surge and sway in the great wave of color and sound and excitement." 

Richard Harding - Plain Dealer

With one swing of the bat Smith not only gave his club a 4-0 lead, he became the first player to hit a grand slam home run in the Fall Classic.  World Series home runs were rare, only 29 had been hit in the previous16 series combined and just one in the prior two series. Grimes got out of the  inning without any further damage, but the four run lead put immense pressure on the Dodgers.  Brooklyn responded poorly as base running blunders in both the second and fourth innings wiped out opportunities to score.  Cleveland's fourth opened with "Doc" Johnston singling off Grimes shins and then moving to third with one out.  Next up was Indian catcher, Steve O'Neil with his .321 batting average, followed by pitcher Bagby.  Understandably, the Dodgers decided to walk O'Neil intentionally and take their chances with Bagby.  Understandable as it may have been, however, sound strategy once again blew up in the Dodgers faces when Bagby hit a home run into the temporary bleachers in right field.  Some writers claimed that without the temporary stands, the ball would have been an out, at most a sacrifice fly, but that did Brooklyn, now down 7-0, little good.  It was also another record as Bagby became the first pitcher to hit a home run in the World Series.

Daily News - October 12, 1920

Clearly it wasn't Grimes' day and after allowing a hit to Jamieson, he was replaced by  Clarence Mitchell, the "only left handed spit ball pitcher in captivity," who retired the side without any additional scoring.  The Dodgers did not give up, however, continuing to hit Bagby hard.  Pete Kilduff led off with a single to left and moved to second on a base hit by Brooklyn catcher Otto Miller, bringing up good hitting pitcher Mitchell.  With first and second and no outs, the stage was again set for an historic moment.

"Mitchell, a wicked batter, had drawn two balls and a called strike when he landed on a shoot from Bagby's right-handed delivery for what he declared later was one of the hardest swings he has made this season.  Kilduff and Miller had started with the crack of the bat, and justly so, for the blow had all the earmarks of a double or triple.

The ball shot like a bullet to the right of Wambsganss and about four feet over his head.  Wambsganss took the three steps toward second on the run, leaped as high as he could, and caught the ball squarely in this gloved hand."

Tom Rice - Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 11, 1920 

"Wamby seized up the situation in a glance.  He never worked faster, and with a keener knowledge of conditions in his life.  He was touching second with his foot in much less time than it takes to tell it and inside the next fraction of a second, he had targeted Miller who never had a chance to turn about and regain first base."

Henry Edwards - Plain Dealer- October 11, 1920

Daily News - October 12, 1920

"The triple play was forced upon him when, after catching the fly and touching second base, he found Otto Miller who had been on first, on the point of colliding with him.  Then he woke up.  He promptly planted the ball on Otto's belt and the great deed was done."

"Uncle Wilbert Robinson declared later that he had given no hit and run order, and Mitchell, Miller and Kilduff said that they had not staged one on their own account."

Tom Rice - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 11, 1920

"For a few seconds the crowd scarcely could realize what had happened.  Everybody got to his feet, drew a long breath and then figured the play out for himself before letting out a great yell.  As the Cleveland team walked off the field, the cheering rose steadily in volume until Wambsganss stepped down into the Cleveland dugout."

"There were many present who saw Neal Ball then playing shortstop for Cleveland make the first of such plays."

Richard Harding - Plain Dealer- October 11, 1920

"Men and women were hugging each other without waiting for an introduction."

Robert Maxwell - Evening Ledger

"It was the 1st time in world serious history a man named Wambsganss had ever made a triple play assisted by consonants only."

Ring Lardner - San Francisco Examiner - October 11, 1920

"The vital statistics show that triple plays unassisted are rarer in baseball than judgment in baseball magnates."

William McGeehan - New York Tribune- October 11, 1920

It is the Kohinoor of plays in the big leagues, rarest of the rare."

Damon Runyan - San Francisco Examiner - October 11, 1920

The Kohinoor is one of the largest cut diamonds in the world (105.6 carats) and is now part of the British crown so if Runyan was exaggerating for effect, he certainly picked a good metaphor.  It is more than a little ironic that at least some of the fans present had reportedly previously seen an unassisted triple play by Cleveland's Neil Ball's in 1909.  Nor did the irony end there, since four of those involved in the 1909 game were present - two on the field and two in the stands.  Watching, doubtless from good seats, were baseball legends Cy Young and Napoleon Lajoie, the pitcher and manager for Cleveland when Ball pulled off his historic play.  On the Boston side of that event were Larry Gardner and Tris Speaker, now experiencing being on the good side of the play and on a much larger stage.  All told there have been only 16 unassisted triple plays in major league history, all but one of which were made by infielders.  It is perhaps baseball's rarest play even more infrequent than perfect games (23).

At a time when most fans still got most of their game information from newspaper accounts, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle recognized that in this case mere words were insufficient.  

Needless to say there was no hope of a Brooklyn comeback and Cleveland prevailed 8-1.   At first glance Grantland Rice's claim the game was "the most amazing ever played," may seem a little extreme considering it was about as one sided as it could have been.  However, Tom Rice of the Eagle put things in perspective, noting that no batter can achieve more in one at bat than a grand slam home run and no player in the field can accomplish more than an unassisted triple play.  Cleveland had achieved both "the extreme of attack" and the "extreme of defensive" play not only in the same game, but in a World Series game at that.  The odds of both happening in one game have to be so remote as to be beyond calculation.  Most likely as they thought about if over the years, the players on both teams as well as the fans,  must have been grateful just to have been there.  That certainly had to be the case for the Dodgers Jack Sheehan, who filled in at third base for the injured Jimmy Johnston.  It was Sheehan's first major league game in a career that lasted all of eight games, three of which were in the 1920 World Series.  He and everyone else who were there doubtless thought William McGeehan of the New York Tribune put it mildly when he said "It was a crowded hour and three quarters."


  1. Would that have been Dale Mitcheii that hit into that triple play? Not him again!!!

  2. Not sure if the two Mitchells are related, but they certainly had the knack for being on the big stage at the wrong time.