As ever when anyone bats close to .400 after the All-Star break, baseball analysts have been dwelling on John Olerud's flirtation with Ted Williams in '41. Well, they've been missing the story. O.K., as of Sunday the Toronto Blue Jay was hitting .402. But what's amazing is that he is flirting with Webb in 31.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta there is a man who, if he ever becomes a regular as well as a superstar (who else but Neon Deion Sanders?), stands the best chance in this century of surpassing an even more astonishing single-season performance: Wilson's in '12.
What are we talking about here? Two major statistical categories about which too little has been said—until now. Categories into which fall many if not most of baseball's sweetest drives, headiest cornerings and rousingest clouds of dust. We are talking about doubles and triples.
And who is this Webb? And this Wilson, who? Obscure men who hold obscure records that have outlasted several Hall of Famer-held standards in more glamorous categories, such as strikeouts and home runs.
In 1931 Earl Webb of the Boston Red Sox hit 67 doubles. No one else in major league history has ever hit more than 64. In this century only five players besides Webb, all of them dead, have hit as many as 60 doubles. Only four players in the last 30 years have hit as many as 50. The closest anyone has come to threatening Webb's record since 1950 was when Hal McRae (now the manager of the Kansas City Royals) hit 54 doubles with the Royals in 1977. As of Sunday, Olerud had 42 and was still on a pace to catch Webb.
In 1912 Owen (Chief) Wilson of the Pittsburgh Pirates hit 36 triples. With regard to this record Bill James, the eminent Sabermetrician (from SABR, the acronym for Society of American Baseball Research), has made the following judicious statement: "That's just impossible." The next-highest single-season total is 26 triples, and the closest to that since 1949 has been Willie Wilson's 21 with the Royals in 1985. Last year, however, Sanders led the big leagues with 14 triples in only 303 at bats, which projects to 28 over a full season. And he's still learning the game.
It is startling how little media pressure the Webb chase and the potential Wilson chase have put on Olerud and Sanders. Asked in July to comment upon his pursuit of Webb's mark, the 25-year-old Olerud said he had never heard of Earl Webb or his mark. Sanders, as usual, was out of sorts—not because of any barrage of triples-related questions, but because he kept being left out of the Braves' starting lineup. Asked whether he realized what a potentially historic pace he had laid down last season, the 26-year-old Sanders said, "I don't care about junk like that." Asked whether he had heard of Chief Wilson, he responded, "Who?"
A good question. One of several that we will attempt to answer by means of a system of research called, let's see: BATSABListics, for Baseball Answers Through Stats, Annals and Biographical License, plus-istics for good measure.
One day this spring David Lowman, proprietor of the Southfield Store in Southfield, Mass., asked me to explain for him a small historical item in a recent edition of The New York Times: Exactly 40 years earlier, the paper noted, Paul Richards, then managing the Chicago White Sox, had sent in a pitcher, Tommy Byrne, to pinch-hit for Vern Stephens, a good hitter, with the bases loaded in the ninth and the game on the line. Byrne hit a grand slam. Why had Richards made such a move?
Simply by employing phase one of BATSABListics—consulting Stats (in this case, in Macmillan's Baseball Encyclopedia)—I was able to answer the question in such detail and at such length (it finally boiled down to Byrne's being lefthanded and a good hitter, while Stephens was righthanded and in a slump) that Lowman said to me, "Enough already." Had he wanted more, and had anyone been paying me, I could have moved on to Annals (loosely, anything like history books and old newspaper accounts) and Biographical License.
Biographical License alone, in fact, enabled me to answer another question I was asked in a later baseball conversation: In 1908, when George (Hooks) Wiltse was one strike away from a perfect game (with two outs in the ninth and a count of 0 and 2 on the opposing pitcher), why did Wiltse hit that batter with a pitch?
According to BL, this is what went through Wiltse's mind: "Hmmm. I think I'll plunk this turkey in the slats. That way, from now on, when anybody is tempted to dig in against me, this is what will go through his mind: Nooo, better not. Wiltse is crazy as an outhouse rat."
So much for matters of procedure. Now it's Webb, it's Wilson, it's doubles and triples.
What would baseball be without two-base and three-base hits? Batting would be just plink-BOOM, plink-BOOM, instead of plink-rumba-barumba-BOOM. Singles don't test the game's outer perimeter, and after the thrill of a home run, there's an almost empty feeling—the offense has to start over. Whereas doubles and triples stir things up and keep them in suspension, clearing the bases in most cases and still leaving a man in scoring position.
A Punch and Judy hitter gets singles, and Dave Kingman hit home runs. Most doubles and triples spring from the contact, pop and hustle of solid line-drive hitters who can run some. There is nothing quite like the resonance of a ringing double, and people say that the triple is the game's most exciting play: long ball sets off a loping scramble into the gap or to the wall, a throw to the cutoff man, a throw to third (the ball alive longer than in any play except an inside-the-park homer or perhaps some kind of fielding debacle), trying to beat a 90-yard sprint around two corners (sprinter looking now at the ball, now at the vigilant third base coach), generally ending in a hard slide and prolonged self-dusting.
"I don't know why people like the home run so much," said George Foster (who in 1977 hit 52 of them). "A triple is like meeting a woman who excites you, spending the evening talking and getting more excited, then taking her home. It drags on and on. You're never sure how it's going to turn out." (In 18 years Foster hit 47 triples.)
However, there aren't many other quotes about triples. Former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger executive Fresco Thompson once said Willie Mays's glove was "where triples go to die." And once, after pulling into third with a triple, Shoeless Joe Jackson looked over at a heckler who had been asking him if he could spell illiterate and supposedly yelled, "Hey, Bigmouth, how do you spell triple?" That's about it.
Pressed for a statement, Sanders says, "I don't really think about the triple thing. I just keep running, go as far as I can, moving as fast as I can. I try to pick up the ball quickly, to get a feel for how far I can go. There is really not a whole lot to it: Just run, and I can do that."
Nobody ever said, "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords, and of course doubles and triples hitters drive, oh, Mercurys, Buicks."
In fact, diligent Annals work leads to the conclusion that nobody has ever said anything memorable about the double, except once, derogatorily. Johnny Hodapp, who had one great season of doubles, 51 for the Cleveland Indians in 1930, said, "I remember Tony Lazzeri looking at me after I slid into second base, 'I hope to god you rot here,' he said. 'I'm tired of seeing you down here.' "
Indeed, great doubles hitters tend to be just a bit defensive. The Royals' George Brett ranks sixth alltime in career doubles. "But I'd still have my 20 home runs a year, which was good for our park," says Brett. "No one ever accused me of having warning-track power."
"Players used to tease me about turning triples into doubles," says McRae. "But I had so many triples they couldn't rib me too much."
Yet most of the game's greatest hitters—Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron. Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski—have perennially been among the leaders in doubles. The juiciest hitter I ever watched, Tony Oliva, was the American League doubles champion in four of the seven years that his bad knees allowed him as many as 500 at bats.
(Willie Mays never led the league in doubles, though he did top the charts three times in triples. Frequently when he hit a ball in the gap and saw he couldn't get all the way to third, he would retreat to first, because Willie McCovey was coming to bat next. If Mays were on second, McCovey would have been walked intentionally. But with Mays on first, McCovey had a chance to hit a run-scoring double or a home run, and the opposing first baseman, by holding Mays on, would leave a big gap in the right side of the infield, reducing the likelihood of a double-play grounder and giving McCovey a hole through which to hit a single that would send Mays to third. If McCovey struck or flied out, Mays could steal second.)
Active doubles hitters of note include Brett, Robin Yount (who ranks 12th alltime in career doubles). Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly. Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Andre Dawson, Paul Molitor, Cal Ripken Jr., Ryne Sandberg, Joe Carter, Ken Griffey Jr., Kirby Puckett and Frank Thomas. Doubles hitters tend to be gamers' gamers: Rose, McRae, Brett, Frank Robinson, Lenny Dykstra, Lou Piniella, Alan Trammell, Dale Murphy.
Yet, with the exception of the double by Cookie Lavagetto that broke up Bill Bevens's no-hitter in the 1947 World Series, how many famous doubles or triples are there?
None. That I can think of. Why? Because dramatic game-ending hits are always home runs or singles (nobody runs out the potential double or triple).
So let's run as far as we can with Earl Webb and Chief Wilson. Neither had much of a career except for the one extraordinary single-season stat. And so we ask, What factors produced these anomalous achievements? The BATSABListic answer: parks, tools, limitations, the state of the ball itself, and feelings toward an adjacent outfielder.
William Earl Webb was born in 1898 in Bon Air, Tenn., in the mountains about halfway between Nashville and Knoxville. Bon Air was maybe 50 miles from where Sergeant Alvin York, the reluctant World War I folk hero, was born in 1887 and grew up shooting squirrels and trying to mind his own business until he finally agreed to stop being a conscientious objector and went off to the Argonne Forest of France, where in one day le almost single-handedly killed 25 Germans, captured 132 and took a whole hill. Webb once ascribed the keenness of his batting eye to experience shooting game back home with various firearms and a bow and arrow, but there is no evidence that York inspired him to set a record.
Before, during and after the First War, Webb was involved in an essential industry: helping to hollow out hills. At the age of 11 he had quit school and followed his father into the coal mines, and by the time he was 17 he was laboring with pick and shovel six days a week. On Sundays, as he later recalled, he would "walk seven miles over rough mountain trails, pitch a doubleheader just for the fun of it" for a town team "and walk back. That was my idea of a holiday."
When a baseball scout tried to sign him to a minor league contract, Webb, like York, was reluctant to leave home; but his father talked him into it, and at the age of 22, Earl made his professional debut as a pitcher for the Clarksdale (Miss.) Cubs.
(That same year, 1921, McKinley Morganfield was six years old and living in the Clarksdale area. Conceivably the lad who later became famous as Muddy Waters sneaked into a Cub game and began following Webb's career. Waters never wrote a song specifically about the feelings of a man who gets too little credit for hitting a lot of doubles, but he did write a blues number called Two Steps Forward. This is about as speculative as BATSABListics gets.)
Webb bounced around from Memphis to Pittsfield to Rocky Mount to Austin to Toledo to the New York Giants to Louisville to the Chicago Cubs to the minor league Los Angeles Angels and finally, in 1930, to the Red Sox. Along the way he became an outfielder. He hit .301 (with 18 doubles) in 102 games for the Cubs in 1927, but in the outfield, he admitted later, "I became the all-American stumbler. I have seen some mighty bad outfielders, but none of them had anything on me."
He had a good arm, though, and with the Red Sox he had a revelation in the field. "Seems queer," he was quoted as saying in 1932, "that none of the managers had ever been able to make me a better outfielder. Queer, too, that I had been unable to help myself until 1930. It came to me all at once. I had tried and tried to discover why it was that fly balls were just falling a yard or so out of my reach, and I finally tumbled to the fact that I was not getting the jump on the ball. I was waiting until the ball practically passed the infield before I made my break for it. I finally educated myself to start with the crack of the bat, and they do say that now I no longer can boast of being baseball's worst outfielder."
Webb still managed to lead the American League's outfielders in errors in 1931. But during the 1930 and '31 seasons he was Boston's regular rightfielder and best hitter. In 1930 he led the Sox in batting (.323), home runs (16) and RBIs (66) and hit 30 doubles—not bad for only 449 at bats. The Sox, however, finished dead last, 50 games behind the Philadelphia Athletics.
"Earl Webb was the only hitter we had on the Boston ball club," one of Webb's teammates, pitcher Milt Gaston, told Peter Golenbock, author of Fenway: The Unexpurgated History of the Boston Red Sox. "In those days some watch company...used to give a watch for every home run you hit. Webby was the only guy on our club who hit home runs. Webby got one [watch] for himself and one for his wife, and when he went to bat, we'd say, 'Don't forget me, Webby.' "
But he hit only 14 homers in '31, when Gehrig and Babe Ruth were hitting 46 apiece. It's the 67 doubles we have to account for. When I first dug into this story, I figured the explanation was simple: Webb, a lefthanded hitter with moderate power, must have developed a patented swing, as they say, whereby he bounced a lot of ordinary fly balls off the Green Monster, Fenway's legendary leftfield wall, which stands 37 feet high and slightly more than 300 feet down the line from home plate. Many lefthanded-hitting Red Sox—Yaz, Fred Lynn and Boggs spring to mind—have fattened their averages and their doubles totals by whapping the ball over to the opposite field.
But then I read this in The Ballplayers: Baseball's Ultimate Biographical Reference: "In 1931 the lefthanded-hitting Earl Webb hit a major league record 67 doubles. He never hit half as many in a season again and was a slow runner, but the record was not necessarily attributable to the dimensions of his home park: the Green Monster, Fenway Park's notorious leftfield wall, was not erected until 1934."
To say that I was thunderstruck would be an understatement. If the Monster wasn't responsible in '31, what in the world was? Bit of a BATSABListic crisis.
So what kind of a park was Webb's Fenway? Everybody agrees that Fenway was built in 1912, that the leftfield barrier was roughly 320 feet from home plate and that it was reconstructed in 1934 into the Monster (which until 1947 wasn't green but was covered with advertising; will it be again?). One book devoted to the park features a photograph from 1912 showing a leftfield wall every bit as tall as the Monster is today—if not in fact taller. Judging by the size of a workman in the leftfield corner, I'd say the original wall was 40 feet high. So when Earl Webb hit 67 doubles, there was a high, eminently double-off-able wall in leftfield, roughly as close to home plate as it is today.
On Sept. 17, 1931, when Webb tied George Burns's then alltime single-season record of 64 doubles in the first game of a doubleheader and broke it in the second, both doubles were off the leftfield wall.
(Note: This was not the comedian George Burns, though if you look up the ballplayer George Burns, who played for several teams from 1914 to '29, you may entertain the notion that the two were the same person, except that the ball-playing one is dead. Another note: The 1931 doubleheader in question lasted two hours and 57 minutes, about the length of one game today.)
In fact (in your face, Ultimate Biographical Reference), leftfield in Fenway was more doubleable in 1931 than it is now—for several reasons that, I can say with some confidence, will not bore you if you have come this far.
Not only was the wall a handy target, but also in front of it was an extraordinary hazard. The last 20 feet or so to the base of the wall was an embankment that sloped up about 10 feet and came to be known as Duffy's Cliff, because Sox leftfielder Duffy Lewis became so adept at playing it. "The secret was," in the recollection of Joe Cashman, who covered the Sox back then for Boston's Daily Record, "when the ball got out there, you had to be able to judge if it was catchable if you went up the cliff. If you got to the top and didn't catch it, the ball would hit the wall and bounce past you, and now you would have to run down and chase it halfway to the infield." Smead Jolley, who played left for the Sox in '32 and '33, was known to fall and roll back down the hill. In any event, Duffy's Cliff (which was leveled off and replaced by a warning track in '34) must have helped make Fenway a fruitful field for doubles.
Especially when overflow crowds were sitting on the cliff and any ball hit into the spectators was a ground-rule double. We don't know whether Webb got any doubles in this way, but we do know that in St. Louis some Cardinals did. On July 12, 1931, according to the 1982 Baseball Research Journal, there were so many fans on the field during a Sunday doubleheader in Sportsman's Park "that many pop flies that any good infielder normally catches fell for ground-rule two-base hits among the surging customers, many of whom actually pushed aside the fielders in scrambling for souvenirs. It was estimated that of the 32 doubles registered by the two teams that afternoon, only about five or six would have been anything but easy outs under other circumstances."
Other factors conspired to make 1931 a vintage year for two-baggers. There had been such an explosion of offense in 1930 (the Cubs' Hack Wilson hit 56 homers and drove in 190 runs that season) that the ball was altered slightly in '31 to favor the pitchers; so it may well be that a number of balls Webb hit that would have been homers in '30 were doubles in '31. Also, 1931 was the first season in which balls that bounced over a fence were ruled doubles and not home runs.
And how about Fenway's centerfield and rightfield? Their history—a flux of bleachers, bullpens and possible mismeasurements—is even cloudier than that of Fenway's leftfield; but according to Green Cathedrals, a detailed history of major league and Negro leagues ballparks, Fenway in '31 was, for the largely nonpulling, lefthanded-hitting Webb, a cavernous place: 388 feet to left center, 468 feet to dead center, a hard-to-believe 593 feet to the deepest corner just right of dead center and 325 feet to right. So there was lots and lots of room for Webb's drives to bounce and roll while he chugged into second.
Even if he had been faster, Webb probably would not have been tempted to stretch doubles into triples. He was in the right place at the right time to make history out of what, in today's parks, would probably be warning-track power—though some observers at the time seemed unimpressed. "Webb has been shooting for the [doubles] record all season," reported The Boston Globe. When he set the new mark, it was rated the fifth-biggest baseball story of Sept. 17 by the Associated Press. One Boston writer commended Webb offhandedly for his "stunt."
But let's give the man credit: He hit .333 that year and drove in 103 runs for a team that finished 45 games out of first place. Of his 67 doubles, 39 were hit in Fenway, 28 in other parks. So Webb would have had a heck of a doubles season even if he had been on the road all season. His home park, however, helped make him colossal.
And yet, why have only three among all of the great Boston hitters (Speaker, Joe Cronin and Boggs) been able to hit as many as 50 doubles in a season?
And what drove a player as unspectacular as Webb to achieve such an individual record? Here we turn to the BL part of the process: Webb must have been defensive about his defense, about the fact that a good deal of his territory was covered by someone else. As Webb once conceded, "I'm no Tom Oliver." Oliver was Boston's centerfielder. As Cashman recalled in Golenbock's Fenway, "Tom Oliver was a great, great outfielder. When balls would be hit to the outfield, everyone would yell, 'Get on your horse, Tom!' "
Oliver, from Montgomery, Ala., was known as Rebel. No player ever had more lifetime at bats without hitting even one home run than Oliver, but Rebel was evidently some ball hawk. In his history of the Red Sox, Fred Lieb says of Oliver, "Even Tris Speaker never covered any greater acreage at Fenway Park."
Writers who covered the Red Sox in the early 1930s made much, and heavy-handedly, of Webb's "Tennessee mountain" background. Oliver was a dashing, rather patrician-featured Confederate cavalier; Webb was an uneducated, big-nosed hillbilly plodder. And don't you suppose the hitter's fielding inspired many a scribe to write, "Oh what a tangled Webb...."?
Indeed, the local press kept carping at Webb in '31 for being obsessed with the record—they called him the King of Dublin and accused him of turning triples into doubles. Clif Keane, the acknowledged dean of Boston baseball observers, recalled recently, "Outfielders would come tumbling down the cliff, and [Webb would] be jogging into second when he could've been on third. I'd say it happened at least 10 or 15 times." (Given that the most triples Speaker hit at Fenway in one season was 13—and Speaker was a hare compared with the slow-footed Webb—I'd say this is a crock.)
Trying to rebuild, Boston traded Webby to the Detroit Tigers during the '32 season (he had 28 doubles that year). The White Sox picked him up in '33 (only five doubles). Could be the pitchers figured out they could jam him inside. With a lifetime big league average of .306, Webb played four more years in the minors and then went back to Tennessee. Baseball wasn't paying enough, he recalled, "and I knew I could do better in the mines."
In '31, though, he carved himself into the big-time record books for at least the next 61 years. And this, BL tells us, is what went through his mind each time he poked another two-bagger:
"There's one, Rebel, for you and the horse you ride around on."
We might even call this behavior—this obsessive-creative-offensive use of the outfield as overcompensation for being shown up constantly while playing in it—the Webb Complex.
Think that's an off-the-wall (ha-ha!) assumption? Well, how do you explain the fact that it also applies to Chief Wilson and his 36 triples?
Wilson was a tall, rawboned, bats-left, throws-right native of Austin, Texas. As late as 1911 he gave his occupation as "farmer." Most ballplayers known as Chief were so called, insensitively, because they were partly Native American, but Wilson just had high cheekbones and was taciturn. As a youth, in fact, he pitched for a team mounted by what was known then as a deaf-and-dumb institution near his home.
Hurt his arm, became an outfielder, bounced around in the minors, broke in with the Pirates in 1908. Couldn't cut it in centerfield, was moved to right, hit only .227 but developed into a good rightfielder with a great arm. (In 1978 The Sporting News quoted an old-timer as saying that one of the greatest throws he ever saw was made by Wilson, who caught a fly in the ninth with one out and the winning and tying runs on second and third, made an instant calculation and ended the game by throwing the trailing runner out at third before the lead runner could cross the plate.
The 1909 Pirates had two future Hall of Famers in shortstop Honus Wagner and player-manager Fred Clarke and another longtime stalwart in centerfielder Tommy Leach. They won the pennant. Wilson played every game and got his average up to .272. In the Series against the Tigers he hit only .154 but was in the thick of a famously tooth-and-claw seven-game struggle (Cobb going after Wagner spikes-high, Wagner tagging Cobb in the mouth, that sort of thing) in which the Pirates eventually prevailed. Wilson's role was most prominent in the sixth game, and here, at what one might think would be the most documented moment in Wilson's career, the murk of baseball Annals once again dismays the BATSABLister. Out of the several varying accounts (the Macmillan Encyclopedia, which I rank right up there with Carnegie Hall and the Louvre, gets this one wrong), here is an authoritative composite:
In the top of the ninth, with the Tigers ahead 5-3 and Pirates on first and second, Wilson bunted the ball in front of the plate. Tiger catcher Boss Schmidt threw to first baseman Tom Jones—but Wilson bowled Jones over while he was trying to catch the ball. Wilson ended up on second; Jones had to be carried off on a stretcher. A run was scored on the play. Sam Crawford (who is still the alltime career triples leader) moved from centerfield to take Jones's place at first. Pirate catcher George Gibson grounded to Crawford, who threw the other runner out at the plate. With Wilson still inexplicably on second and Gibson on first, a pinch hitter struck out, and on the third strike Wilson got thrown out trying to steal third. That ended the game. Wilson spiked the third baseman.
That is Chief Wilson's place in history. That, and his 36 triples three years later. In his eight other big league seasons Wilson never hit more than 14 triples. So what got into him in 1912?
Let us restate our first four factors: park, tools, limitations, the state of the ball itself.
From June 1909 through June 1970, the Pirates' home park was Forbes Field. Its outfield was huge. In 1912 it was 360 feet to left, 406 to left center, 462 to the deepest corner just left of straightaway center, 422 to dead center, 408 to right center, 376 to right. Forbes Field kept nearly every batted ball inside its fences before the advent of the lively ball around 1920, and it kept most of them inside even afterward. (In his first full season after the Pirates moved from Forbes to Three Rivers Stadium, Willie Stargell hit 15 more home runs than he had ever hit.) Between 1900 and 1979, according to the 'HO Baseball Research Journal, the Pirates led the league in triples 40 times and were second 23 times. Part of this dominance was due to the park and part to the Pirates' specialization in speedy line-drive hitters—Roberto Clemente and Dave Parker in his prime being recent examples.
(Here is an example of how BATSABListics sometimes works: I was riffling through the Encyclopedia on my way to Wilson when I came across Possum Whitted. Interesting name, I thought. Well, it turns out that when it comes to Forbes Field's ability to turn hitters into triplers, Possum Whitted is a perfect case in point. In 1919 he played 78 games for the Phillies and hit one triple and played 35 games for the Pirates and hit seven.)
Wilson was not slow (he stole some bases and handled a good many chances in the field); he was a line-drive hitter with some but not enormous power; and there was no jackrabbit in the ball throughout his career. So he was a solid candidate to hit quite a few triples.
But 36? No one else has ever approached 36 triples in a season, not even in the 19th century or in the minor leagues. The only explanation is the adjacent-outfielder factor.
Recall that Wilson started out as a centerfielder but failed. He was a much better fielder than Webb, but like Webb he was not even the best outfielder on his team, and surely he suffered over it. In 1911 the Pirates had handed over center to a great fielder, Max Carey.
People compared Carey to a gazelle. Not only was he vastly more graceful than the Chief, but also his background was more interesting. Carey had given up divinity school for baseball and continued to be a keen student of chess strategy and of ancient Greek and Latin texts. Back in Germany the family name had been Fleischmann, but generations back some classicist had Latinized it to Carnarius. Legend has it that the first time Max checked into a professional game, the umpire couldn't deal with the name Carnarius and changed it to Carey. Sportswriters began to call the centerfielder Scoops and (after the name of his former seminary) the Concordia Comet. Until Willie Mays came along, Carey was the most celebrated defensive centerfielder in National League history.
But in 1912, Wilson's annus mirabilis of triples, the Pirates did a strange thing. They moved Carey over to left and put Wilson in center. That year Carey led the league with 369 putouts. 45 more than Wilson could scrape together. It is almost unheard of for a leftfielder to outrange a centerfielder, but that is what Carey did to Wilson in 1912. Here are three possibilities as to what went through Wilson's mind in centerfield that year:
1) Wow! There sure is lots of room out here for a fellow to hit triples.
2) When I leave my glove out here at the end of the inning [as outfielders customarily did in those days], maybe if I place it strategically, opposing centerfielders will trip over it and I'll get a lot of triples.
3. That damned Teutonic/Roman/Irish springy-horned-animal former seminarian who translates dead languages is covering ground that I, a Texas farmer, am supposed to cover. By heaven, I will come up with something he can't beat with a bat.
Of these hypotheses, the first doesn't hold up because Wilson had been in centerfield before; the second seems unlikely (there are hardly any accounts of gloves in the field affecting play); the third must be correct. The thing Wilson came up with that Carey could not beat was triples. Thirty-six of them. The next year Wilson was moved back to right and hit only 14 triples, and the next year, 1914, he was traded to the Cardinals, for whom he played his last three seasons, hitting 12 triples, six triples, two triples. Wilson died in 1954 while working in a pasture of his ranch near Bertram, Texas.
The prolific Fred Lieb says in his history of the Pirates that their manager in 1914, Fred Clarke, justified trading Wilson away because "the Chief lacked fire and never could get himself sufficiently aroused at a ball game. 'Wilson can't get sore enough at rival players—or umpires,' said Fred."
Now, what chances, realistically, do Olerud and Sanders have of becoming the Webb and Wilson of our day? Olerud, a first baseman, has no grounds for defensive jealousy—except that people do say that first base is where slow outfielders go to die. In fact, when it comes to range, a first baseman might envy everybody else on the field. Olerud is playing on artificial turf, which speeds the ball into the gap, and he's a fine line-drive hitter with short-of-triple speed. Is he thinking double?
"I've stopped at second a few times when I considered going to third," he says, "but a lot of times the situation dictates staying at second—you don't want to make the first out of the inning at third, or the second out. I remember a game at home against the White Sox when I made a mistake—should have gone to third, the ball was off the top of the fence."
As for Sanders, he's playing in a home run park. The prime triples venue of recent years is Kansas City's stadium, whose outfield has bouncy turf and spacious alleys. Brett, Fred Patek and Willie Wilson all led the league in triples while playing there. But if Sanders got much help from a park, he might motor right on past third base, all the way to home. It is tempting to say that in a Forbes Field, Sanders would have hit 50 triples a year, except that the way he runs, those hits might all have been inside-the-park homers.
"The thing about Deion," says his manager, Bobby Cox, "is that all he has to do to get a triple is barely put the ball in the gap." He's not just fast, he's a football player, a great broken-field runner: 90 yards with two big cuts is right up his alley.
Sanders, with Otis Nixon vying for time in centerfield, certainly has had the other-outfielder-resentment factor to motivate him. And now that Deion has apparently stopped trying to play football during baseball season, he's bound to get in a full 600-at-bat season soon, and we'll see who will be the Chief.
BATSABListics suggests, indeed, that someday someone will happen to notice both Deion and the Chief in The Baseball Encyclopedia, and this is what will go through that reader's mind: Hmmm, they both had spotty careers. But each of them sure did that triple thing one time.