They say lightning never strikes the same place twice. There’s also a first time for everything. But how often does a first time for something happen at the same place, at the same time, three times?
In Game Five of the 1920 World Series, that’s exactly what occurred.
The Cleveland Indians and Brooklyn Robins (aka Dodgers) were locked in what was sure to go down as a phenomenal best-of-nine, if the first four tightly contested games were any indication. With the Series tied at two games apiece, Cleveland sent Jim Bagby to the mound against Brooklyn spitballer Burleigh Grimes, who blanked the Indians 3-0 in Game Two.
An overflow crowd filled League Park in Cleveland for the contest, with temporary bleachers added to right and center fields, increasing the capacity for the game but also shortening the distance to those fences. After completing his warmup, Bagby sat in the Cleveland dugout, when player-manager and future hall of famer Tris Speaker began going over the lineup with his pitcher. After a few minutes sitting in silence and seemingly staring off to nowhere, Bagby spoke up.
“I think I’ll bust one out to those wooden seats. They seem just about right for me to hit.”
Speaker ambled away.
Bagby got through the top of the first inning with a harmless single being the only damage. It was then that the Indians jumped right on Grimes, a stark turnaround from his untouchable performance just a few days prior. Three straight singles by Charlie Jamieson, Bill “Wamby” Wambsgannss and the great Tris Speaker loaded the bases for Elmer Smith with nobody out. On a 1-2 count, Smith drilled a Grimes junkball deep over the right field fence for a grand slam, the first in Series history.
It was the kickstart to one of the most sensational World Series games of all time.
In the bottom of the fourth, still leading 4-0 and with two men on, Bagby stepped to the plate. It was time to deliver on his pregame prophecy to Speaker. Deliver he did, as he crushed a hung pitch from Grimes into the temporary bleachers in right-center, giving the Indians a 7-0 lead and chasing Grimes from the game. It was the first ever home run by a pitcher in World Series play.
Those two accolades apparently were not enough on this day, however, as the most spectacular would happen half an inning later.
Brooklyn would start the top of the fifth with two straight singles by Pete Kilduff and Otto Miller. This brought up Clarence Mitchell, a solid-hitting pitcher who replaced Grimes the inning before. Cleveland second baseman Bill Wambsganns played deep against Mitchell, a left-handed hitter with a tendency to pull the ball. On a 1-1 count, Mitchell lined the ball up the middle toward second base. Wamby, in decent position, made a break for the ball but it seemed to be a sure single. Kilduff and Miller raced out immediately, thinking the ball would get through, but Wamby was able to snowcone the ball on the fly for the first out. With his momentum carrying him right toward the bag, he stepped on second base for out number two, doubling up Kilduff who was unable to tag. Turning to his left, Wamby saw Miller stop short of second base, dead in the water. He and everyone but Wamby was astonished that the ball had even been caught. With shouts of “tag him!” from shortstop Joe Sewell, a rookie and future hall of famer called up to replace the tragically deceased Ray Chapman, Wamby calmly applied the tag to a stunned Miller and began jogging back to the dugout. The crowd sat in stunned silence for several moments. As he got closer to the dugout, the standing-room-only throng began to cheer loudly as they realized what just happened: The first unassisted triple play in World Series history.
To this day, it’s still the only unassisted triple play in a World Series game.
Legendary writer Ring Lardner would note, with distinction, that “it was the first time in world series history that a man named Wambsganns had ever made a triple play assisted by consonants only.”
The Indians would go on to finish off the Dodgers 8-1 on this day, and then cap it off with 1-0 and 3-0 shutouts in Games Six and Seven to win the Series, five games to two.
It’s one thing to play, and win, a pivotal game in any series. But to have three specific firsts in the history of the game, one of which is the only first to date, all in the same game, is something not short of marvelous.
The Pitch That Killed: The Story of Carl Mays, Ray Chapman, and the Pennant Race of 1920. Mike Sowell, New York: Macmillan, 1989.