The Late, Great Triple
Former Los Angeles Dodgers Executive Fresco Thompson is credited with saying that Willie Mays’ glove was where “triples go to die.”Â Variations of the same quote have been attributed to other sources, talking about other players including Joe Jackson and Tris Speaker.Â Mays hasn’t played since 1973.Â Speaker last played in 1928 and Jackson’s last major league game was 1920.Â Triples have also largely been relegated to history.Â Triples still die but now they mostly die in foul territory or as home runs.
Major league baseball’s career leader in triples is Sam Crawford with 309.Â Mr. Crawford played for the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers and called it a career after the 1917 season.Â Ty Cobb is second on the triples list with 295.Â The “Georgia Peach” retired in 1928.Â Honus Wagner is third on the career triples list, with 252 three-baggers and he hasn’t played since 1917.
Of baseball’s all-time top ten leaders in triples none played later than 1928.Â Of the top 50 triples hitters none played later than 1972.Â The only top-50 triples-hitter to be in the big leagues that year was Roberto Clemente, and he’s one of only three in the top 50 to have played after 1940, joining Stan Musial, who retired in 1963 and Paul Waner, who last played in 1945.Â Clemente, tied for 27th, had 166 career triples at the time of his death in a plane crash after the 1972 season.Â Clemente was 38 when he died and likely had a few good seasons left in him but it’s doubtful he would have moved up the triples list significantly.
To find a player as recent as the 1990â€™s, you have to go down to 56th on the list to Willie Wilson, the Kansas City Royals All-Star, who hit 147 triples in a career that ended in 1994.Â Wilsonâ€™s teammate, George Brett, is the next player to have played as recently as the 1990â€™s, as he retired in 1993 with 137 triples, leaving him in 70th place.
Among active major league baseball players, only one ranks in the top 150 for career triples and thatâ€™s Carl Crawford who hit 13 this year, tops in the American League and second most in baseball to Coloradoâ€™s Dexter Fowler who wears the â€œtriple crownâ€ with 14.Â Crawfordâ€™s 13 three-baggers this season have him at 105 for his career, which ties him for 140th all-time.Â Among other active big leaguers, 36-year-old Johnny Damon sits tied for 158th place all-time with 100 triples and then thereâ€™s 31-year-old Jimmy Rollins who has rounded second and dove for third, safely, 98 times in his career.Â After Crawford, Damon and Rollins no other current baseball player is in the all-time top 200.
Damon hit five triples in 2010 and Rollins hit three, his lowest total ever for a complete season.Â Neither, it seems, has many double-digit triple seasons left in him.Â The speedy, 29-year-old Crawford has averaged about 12 triples per full season during his nine big league campaigns.Â If he maintains that pace for the next decade he’ll crack the all-time top ten.Â But how likely is that?
Of the top 100 men on the career triples list, 55 are in the Hall of Fame, including all of the top 14 and 38 of the top 50.Â Among those not in the Hall is Shoeless Joe Jackson who was banned from the game and subsequent Hall of Fame eligibility at age 32 because of his role in throwing the 1919 World Series.Â Jackson, like Speaker and Cobb, both stole triples in the field as well as hit them at the plate, slugging 168 career triples, good for 26th on the list, two ahead of Clemente.
Chief Wilson holds the major league record for triples in a season, legging out 36 of them for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1912.Â Of the ten most prolific seasons for a triples-hitter none has happened since 1925.Â Curtis Grandersonâ€™s 23 triples for the Detroit Tigers in 2007 tie him for 22nd in a single season and might be baseballâ€™s most remarkable offensive achievement in recent memory as no one had hit that many in a single year since Dale Mitchell of the Cleveland Indians in 1949.
Major Leaguers still hit a lot of doubles.Â Tris Speaker still holds the career record of 792, a mark that heâ€™s held for 82 years now.Â In second place is Pete Rose who hit the last of his 746 doubles in 1986.Â Fifth place on the doubles list though is Craig Biggio who hit 668 of them before he retired in 2007.Â George Brett is next on the list with 665 and the top 25 all-time is littered with recent players including Paul Molitor, Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez, Robin Yount, Jeff Kent, Ivan Rodriguez and Tony Gwynn.
The song is largely the same for the singles list, with Rose leading the way this time with 3,215 followed by Cobb with 3,053. But cracking the top ten are Gwynn and Molitor, though among active players only 43-year-old Omar Vizquel reaches the top 30 with 2,200.Â Next among actives is Derek Jeter clocking in at a tie for 24th with 2,163 singles.
Baseballâ€™s career home run leader is Barry Bonds who hit 762 through 2007.Â Ken Griffey, Jr., who is walking off into the Seattle sunset, sits in fifth with place with 630 homers, just ahead of the still-going Alex Rodriguez with 613.Â Of the top 20 home run hitters in major league history only two, Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx, finished their careers before 1950.Â Six of the top ten all-time home run hitters played in the 2000â€˜s and nine of the top 20 did.
Are a lot of the recent home runs really would-be triples that just got lucky?
The National League averaged 0.93 home runs per game in 2010, the lowest average since 1997.Â Still, of the top ten homer-per-game seasons in the NL nine have happened since 1999, the one very notable exception being 1955.Â In 1878 almost no one hit homers in the NL, as only 0.06 were hit per game.Â Of the ten lowest home run per game seasons in the NL, all happened in 1909 or earlier.Â The American League again follows suit.Â Of the ALâ€™s top ten home runs per game seasons all have been since 1987, nine of them since 1994 and five of them in the 2000â€™s.Â Itâ€™s the 21st century and we love the longball, not the drama off the wall.
Triples hitters are rare but what about triples as a whole?Â Are the same number being hit but just spread out among more players?Â Nope.Â In 2010, the National League averaged 0.19 triples per game, tied for the second-lowest total of any year that statistics are available for since 1876, higher only than 2008 and 2009.Â Of the ten years with lowest triples per game in the National League all have occurred since 1996.Â One-hundred and sixteen years ago, in 1894, the NL was at its triple craziest with 0.81 per game.Â Of the top ten triple-heavy per game seasons in the National League nine occurred before 1900.Â The tenth was 1912.
The American League tells nearly the same story.Â Of the ten lowest triple-per-game years, all have occurred since 1972.Â The A.L. only hit 0.16 triples per game in 2010, its lowest ever, edging out 2009 and 2006.Â They used to leg â€˜em out a lot better in the early days of the AL.Â The junior circuitâ€™s first year, 1901, was its best for triples with 0.63 per game.Â The top ten best seasons for American League triples all occurred in 1930 or earlier.Â Eight of them were before 1920.
George Foster, who slugged 348 career home runs including 52 in his 1977 MVP season with the Cincinnati Reds, is credited with a poignant quote the following year about what he was best at:
I don’t know why people like the home run so much.Â A home run is over as soon as it starts…. The triple is the most exciting play of the game. A triple is like meeting a woman who excites you, spending the evening talking and getting more excited, then taking her home.Â It drags on and on.Â You’re never sure how it’s going to turn out.
Foster spoke amorously about triples but he was a prude when it came to hitting them as he banged out only 47 of his career.Â Ironically, perhaps, in his final season, 1986 with the White Sox, his triples, two, doubled his number of home runs, one.
Perhaps instead of triples dying in the gloves of speedy outfielders they are instead now home runs and foul balls.Â In the 1910â€™s and 20â€™s the average major league ballpark was 345 feet down the left field line, 318 feet down the right field line and 453 feet to dead center field.Â Today, ballparks average about 331 feet down the left foul line, 329 feet to right and just under 405 feet to straightaway center.Â Many of those heart-pounding triples of yesteryear are no longer bouncing off the wall but sailing over it.Â And those line-drives into the gap in the olden times are now falling in as singles or doubles or into the bigger glove of bigger, faster outfielders.Â Look at photographs of baseball players in the 1910â€™s, 20â€™s or 30â€™s.Â Their gloves are tiny things that barely cover their hands.Â In the early 20th century baseball gloves were about 10 ounces.Â Now, they average about 24 ounces.Â Thatâ€™s more glove to end that triples love.
Do we need bigger ballparks, smaller gloves and less-skilled pitchers?Â I donâ€™t know.Â But the game does need more triples.Â Imagine football without kick returns and basketball without the slam-dunk.Â We need triples.Â We need that guy pushing off second and going for broke.Â We need that pregnant moment when he dives for third as the ball screams in and we donâ€™t know if heâ€™s going to be safe or foolish.Â We need ball players not to die at third, but to be gunned down trying to get there.Â Thatâ€™s livinâ€™.