This annotated week in baseball history: August 1-August 8, 1914

August 3 has seen several events in baseball’s past which are unlikely to be repeated any time soon. Richard looks back at the unusual history which accompanies this day.

Like a lot of Yankee fans—maybe even baseball fans in general—I was extra interested in the Yankees’ at-bats in the top of the ninth of their 11-4 victory over the Indians on July 29. It wasn’t because Alex Rodriguez was trying (again) for his 600th home run, but rather because of who was on the mound. The pitcher was Andy Marte, a third baseman by trade. In the bottom of the inning, the Yankees, perhaps attempting to even things up, stuck Marcus Thames at third base for his first career game there.

Marte pitched a scoreless inning—and even struck out Nick Swisher—while Thames made a nice diving stop, only to airmail the throw for an error. While these are relatively rare events in baseball, they are not unprecedented, and indeed will likely happen again (if not with the exact same players) before the season is out. The events that have taken place on August 3 across the years, however, are far rarer. Some will likely never be repeated, while others can go decades without taking place.

August 3, 1914: CS times three

If you watch even a handful of games, you will see an inning when the pitcher strikes out the side. Watch a little more, and you will see an inning when the ball is hit to the same fielder for all three outs. (I once saw Chien-Ming Wang record all three outs of an inning, consecutively, 1-3 which was pretty strange.)

But one would have to watch an awful lot of games to see the event that took place during this Yankees-Tigers game. Catcher Les Nunamaker—there’s a Charles Dickens name for you—recorded all three outs of the inning on a caught stealing.

While catchers had recorded a caught stealing three times in a game previously, probably many times given the ubiquity of the running game in that period, it was the first time in the 20th century a catcher would manage all three outs that way. Already likely to be a rare occurrence, as the stolen base gave ground to the home run for the main drive of offense, it became even more so.

In fact, no catcher would throw out three runners in an inning for the rest of the century. For 100 years of baseball, Nunamaker was the only man to do it. True, it isn’t Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, but it is a place in baseball history.

August 3, 1918: Better to be lucky than good

We are all familiar with the hard luck loser. Just scanning the last week or so of box scores, he is not hard to find. On Sunday Tommy Hanson went seven-and-a-third innings, allowed one earned run, and lost 2-1 to the Reds. On July 27 Justin Verlander went eight innings, allowed three runs, struck out six and lost 3-2 to the Rays. Such is life.

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Scott Feldman, the latter-day Gene Packard, in action(Icon/SMI)

But games like that are the reason Gene Packard probably did not feel too badly about his performance on this date. Pitching for the Cardinals in Philadelphia, Packard turned in a fairly miserable performance, allowing 12 runs. But luckily for him, his teammates were feeling especially strong with the sticks that day, and they scored 16 to carry a fairly dreadful (51-78, eighth place in the National League) Redbird team to victory, thus saving Packard the defeat.

Remarkably, the Rangers’ Scott Feldman recently matched Packard’s bit of luck in 2008. Starting for the Rangers at Fenway Park, he allowed 12 runs—albeit with only six earned—in less than three innings. But the Rangers battered Charlie Zink and took a 16-15 lead into the eighth inning before Frank Francisco blew the save.

August 3, 1939: Who thought this was a good idea?

I don’t even really know what to say about this one, so I’ll just report the facts. Hoping—God only knows why—to break a record for catching a baseball dropped from the highest distance, Joe Sprinz of the San Francisco Seals attempted to catch a ball dropped from a blimp 800 feet up.

It went about as well as you’re imagining, with Sprinz not only missing the ball, but instead taking it off his face, breaking his jaw and losing several teeth in the process. Part of me does feel badly for him, but another, larger, part of me cannot begin to fathom what he was hoping to prove by catching a ball dropped from a sixth of a mile in the air.

August 3, 1998: Ouch, times three

We have all had, I suspect, a bad day at the office. It just happens that our bad days at the office—at least mine, anyway—don’t involve plunking some poor person trying to do his or her job in the ribs with a baseball. C.J. Nitkowski was not so lucky. Entering a game with his Astros trailing the Marlins by three, Nitkowski retired the first three batters he faced with ease, sandwiching a pair of strikeouts around a groundout.

In the next inning, the wheels came off. After giving up a lead-off single, Nitkowski hit the next batter he faced. First and second. Then he hit the next guy. Bases loaded. Then he hit the next guy. One run in, bases still loaded. At this point manager Larry Dierker mercifully made a change—which probably pleased no one more than Gregg Zaun, who was on deck.

Nitkowski was just the third pitcher (Dock Ellis and Wilbur Wood are the others) to hit three consecutive batters. As I said, ouch.

Baseball dropping from blimps, pitchers giving up huge numbers of runs, yet ducking the loss, and the like happen rarely. But August 3 does seem to have a special knack for having such weirdness take place. It might be too late, alas, to see a game on that date in 2010, but “there’s always next year” as the saying goes; buy your tickets now.

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Comments

  1. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    Nitkowski’s dubious achievement is a bit worse than Ellis and Wood’s. Ellis hit all three on purpose, and then tried to hit the next batter too, and Wood was a knuckleballer. What’s C.J.‘s excuse?

  2. gdc said...

    Please correct me if I am mistaken, but I thought Sprinz got under it and caught it, but the impact of his own glove knocked him down like a Joe Louis Everlast glove.  And of course there was money involved, probably a laughably small sum by today’s standards, but probably more than Jesse Owens was getting for running around the bases against racehorses in that era.

  3. Phil Coffin said...

    Similar stunts were tried for years. In 1908 Gabby Street, a Senators catcher, caught a ball (after 14 misses) dropped from the Washington Monument, which is 555 feet tall. Two years later, a White Sox catcher, Billy Sullivan, also caught a ball dropped from the Washington Monument.

    In 1938, two Indians catchers, Frank Pytlak and Henry Helf, caught balls dropped (by Ken Keltner) from the 708-foot Terminal Tower in Cleveland.

    It’s a good thing these guys could catch, because other than Pytlak (.282), none of ‘em could hit: Street batted .208, Sullivan .213, Helf .184 and Sprinz .170.

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