Bill Wambsganss, March 19, 1894 – December 8, 1985

Bill Wambsganss is a name that every baseball fan should know.

If you haven’t heard of him before, you will remember him from this anniversary of this birthdate forward.

Bill Wambsganss was primarily a second sacker who spent most of his 13-year career (1914-26) with the Cleveland Indians. He played in 1,491 regular major league games with a .259 batting average, with seven homers and 520 RBI.

He played in one World Series, a seven-gamer in which his Indians beat the Borooklyns in seven games. Wambsganss hit .154.

But it was Wambsganss fielding that makes him unforgettable. And, it was not his .958 fielding percentage playing all four infield positions, with 1205 at second base.

It was his fielding in the 1920 World Series that makes him a great footnote in baseball history. Again, it was not his 1.000 World Series fielding percentage that is significant.

In fact, six of the games of the World Series are meaningless in this story, the only game that matters is Game 5 on October 20, 1920 at League (Dunn) Field in Cleveland, won by the Indians, 8-1.

Now, it might be significant that in this game, in the 1st inning, after a single, Wambsganss was one of the three runners who scored ahead right fielder Elmer Smith‘s homer; the first grand slam in World Series history.

But that wasn’t the story of the day. That would come later.

No, I’m not referring to the three-run homer hit by Jim Bagby in the 4th inning, the first home run hit by a pitcher in a World Series. BTW: Bagby had gone 31-12 in 48 regular season starts in 1920.

But that wasn’t the story of the day. That would come later.

It was in the top of the 5th inning when the Dodgers’ Pete Kilduff led off with a single. Then, Otto Miller singled, putting runners on first and second and no one out. Up to the plate came Clarence Mitchell, the spitballing reliever who had taken over for Brooklyn starter/spitballer Burleigh Grimes in the 4th. Mitchell would occasionally play the field and in his 18 years in the majors was a lifetime .252 hitter with seven homers and 133 RBI.

With the count 1-1, Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson (truth be told the team that season was known as the Robins), put on a hit-and-run play. Kilduff took off for third, Wambsganss went to cover the second base bag as Miller headed his way. Mitchell slammed the pitch on a line toward centerfield and Wambsganss grabbed it with his outstretched glove and his momentum carried him to second to double off Kilduff.

At this point, as Miller, approaching second stopped in mid-track just five feet away from the bag, rookie shortstop Joe Sewall shouted to Wambsganss, “Tag him! Tag him!” “He stopped running and stood there, so I just tagged him. That was all there was to it,” Wambsganss explained to The Sporting News. “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.'”

There was silence in the ballpark before the crowd of 26,884 put together in their minds what had just happened and then cheers erupted in honor of the first, and still only, World Series unassisted triple play.

The great sportswriter Ring Lardner wrote, ”It was the first time in world serious history that a man named Wambsganss had ever made a triple play assisted by consonants only.”

Years later when interviewed by Lawrence Ritter for The Glory of Their Times, Wambsganss recalled: “Funny thing, I played in the big leagues for 13 years, 1914 through 1926, and the only thing that anybody seems to remember is that once I made an unassisted triple play in a World Series. Many don’t even remember the team I was on, or the position I played, or anything. Just Wambsganss-unassisted triple play! You’d think I was born on the day before and died on the day after.”

If you want to read more about Wambsganss who also managed for four seasons in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) for the Fort Wayne Daisies (1945—1946) and the Muskegon Lassies (1947—1948), check out the outstanding SABR bio written by the great Bill Nowlin.

Wambsganss

Wambsganss and his triple play victims