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Reliving the Tigers’ only unassisted triple play

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Part of what makes baseball so unique is the giant universe in which it resides. It has data that can be measured in seemingly countless ways. It has its own lexicon. And it has a deep history that helps tell an unending number of stories.

Whether it’s “throwing a no-no,” fielding a “can of corn” or going “oppo taco,” baseball has its own unique way of blending words, numbers and athletic feats into legends.

Last Friday marked a small piece of that lore. On May 31, 1927, Detroit Tigers first baseman Johnny Neun turned the franchise’s only unassisted triple play.

Baseball fans can break down the lingo, but for others, the term breaks down like this: Neun recorded all three of a half inning’s outs by himself on one play.

How rare is it? Since being founded in 1876, Major League Baseball has overseen more than 235,000 regular-season games, not to mention the playoffs. Despite all of those games, all of those at-bats, all of those opportunities, an unassisted triple play has only been turned 15 times in the league’s 148-year history.

Tiger Stadium, formerly Navin Field and Briggs Stadium, served as the backdrop for more than 80 years of Tigers history. (Getty Images)
Tiger Stadium, formerly Navin Field and Briggs Stadium, served as the backdrop for more than 80 years of Tigers history. (Getty Images)

NEUN’S PIECE OF HISTORY

Johnny Neun was a Baltimore native and a natural athlete. According to a profile by The Sporting News, Neun not only excelled in baseball, but as a student, he was also the captain of a local soccer team that won three championships and won the city’s doubles tennis title alongside a friend.

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Neun caught the attention of Tigers’ iconic player-manager Ty Cobb in 1924 when he hit .353 and stole 55 bases for a Double-A team. When the Tigers first baseman Lu Blue went down with an injury, Cobb recommended Neun to team owner Frank Navin as a replacement. Navin passed, but eventually obtained Neun the following year as a backup.

According to a Sports Illustrated story referenced by the Society for American Baseball Research, the story of Neun’s triple play started the day before.

On May 30, 1927, Chicago Cubs shortstop Jimmy Cooney turned an unassisted triple play. The next morning while eating breakfast, Tigers players read newspaper reports about Cooney’s rare feat and openly wondered how long it would be before it happened again.

Turns out, it would be a matter of hours.

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That afternoon, the Tigers hosted the Cleveland Indians at Navin Field. It was a tight, low-scoring game throughout. Detroit got on the board in the first inning when Heinie Manush singled to center field to plate Jack Warner. It proved to be the game’s only run.

Rip Collins had given up just three hits and a walk through the first eight innings. But Cleveland threatened to take it all back in the ninth.

Glenn Myatt walked to lead off the inning and advanced to second on Charlie Jamieson’s infield single. The Indians were set to score and put the Tigers on the ropes. Despite the deficit, with two runners on and no outs, the advanced statistics estimated Cleveland was 55% likely to win the game.

A clipping of the June 1, 1927 edition of the Grand Rapids Press reporting Johnny Neun's unassisted triple play. (NewsBank/The Grand Rapids Press)
A clipping of the June 1, 1927 edition of the Grand Rapids Press reporting Johnny Neun’s unassisted triple play. (NewsBank/The Grand Rapids Press)

Then, history happened. Playing first base, Neun caught a line drive from Cleveland’s Homer Summa, tagged Jamieson and stepped on second base before Myatt — who was running on the pitch — could get back to the bag.

It was the seventh unassisted triple play in Major League history and the second in two days.

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Of the 15 unassisted triple plays, all but two have been made by middle infielders. Boston’s George Burns, who turned one in 1923, is the only other player to do it while playing first base.

The MLB hasn’t seen one since 2009, when Phillies second baseman Eric Bruntlett turned the play, catching a line drive while heading to cover the bag on a steal attempt.

All 15 of the extremely rare plays have turned in almost the exact same fashion. Each one has started with a caught line drive, followed by tagging a runner and then touching second base, or touching second first, then tagging the runner.

Neun went on to play six seasons total in the big leagues, including four in Detroit. He eventually retired and went into coaching, going on to serve briefly as the manager of the New York Yankees and then two seasons for the Cincinnati Reds.

Neun was 89 years old when he died in 1990 from pancreatic cancer.

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