When the subject of records that will never be broken arises, Tommy Leach, whose major league career ran from 1898 to 1915 plus 1918, is probably not the first name that would come to mind. But he holds a couple that are likely to stand the test of time.
First, he holds the record for triples in a World Series. Leach, playing for the Pirates, had four in the very first World Series in 1903. Befitting a player with the nickname “Wee Tommy” (he stood just 5-foot-6 and weighed only 135 pounds when he made his major league debut at age 20 in 1898), Leach was fleet of foot. By way of comparison, he was as tall as Jose Altuve, but even after “bulking up” to 150 pounds, he was still 15 pounds lighter than Altuve.
Leach’s speed also figures in his second record. He is the only player to lead his league in home runs without hitting a ball out of the park. He did so with six inside-the-park home runs in 1902. (He also led the National League in triples with 22, so he was pickin’ ‘em up and layin’ ‘em down a lot that season.) That sounds like a classic “only in deadball” achievement, but don’t be too sure. In 1979, the Royals Willie Wilson hit five ITPHRs out of his grand total of six.
Well, after six ITPHRS (the lowest league-leading total in the 20th century), what could Tommy Leach do for an encore? Well, the very next season, all seven of his round-trippers were ITPHRs, but that was not a league-leading total (Jimmy Sheckard of Brooklyn finished on top with nine). Of of Leach’s 63 career home runs (compiled in 19 seasons, 13 with the Pirates) 48 were insiders. In other words, he went yard (in the traditional sense), on average, less than once per season. Thomas William Leach could almost be the poster boy for the deadball era.
For the record, Leach compiled 2,143 hits and hit .269 over his career. Six times he finished in the top 10 in triples, homers and total bases. As was the case with many major league veterans in his day, Leach returned to the minors for seven more seasons, finally retiring at age 44.
Leach places fourth on the all-time list for inside-the-parkers and sits at the top of the National League in that category. The all-major league career leader was Jesse Burkett, who hit 55 (75 home run total) from 1890-1905 in the National and American Leagues. Next on the list is Sam Crawford, who hit 51 (of 97 total) in both leagues from 1899-1917, followed by Ty Cobb (the all-time American League leader) with 46 (out of 117), tied with Honus Wagner (46 out of 101).
Rounding out the top 10 are Jake Beckley and Tris Speaker with 38, Rogers Hornsby with 33, Edd Roush with 31, and Jake Daubert and Willie Keeler tied with 30. Of all the names in the top 10, only Leach and Daubert are not enshrined in Cooperstown.
It is also worth noting that there is some doubt as to the official numbers. The above are from the Baseball Almanac web site. The SABR Baseball List and Record Book, published in 2007, has slightly different totals for some of those players. It is hardly surprising that attempting to figure out which home runs left the park and which ones didn’t in games played more than a century ago is a research challenge. In going with Baseball Almanac, I’m assuming its stats reflect the most up-to-date totals.
As unusual as Leach’s six inside the park homers may seem, the total was far from a deadball record-breaker. Six players have hit eight ISPHRs in one season, and five players have hit nine. The record belongs to Sam Crawford, who did the 360-foot sprint 12 times with the Reds in 1901. Ty Cobb holds the AL record with nine in 1909. Considering that Crawford and Cobb were Tigers teammates from 1905-1917, season ticket holders in Detroit had a pretty decent chance of witnessing an ITPHR during that span. A related statistic is that Crawford (309) and Cobb (295) are the all-time major league triples leaders.
It’s no surprise that in those 13 seasons Cobb and Crawford played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull they had spacious outfields tailored to help their ITPHR totals. In both Bennett Park (torn down after the 1911 season) or Navin Field (the core of what became Tiger Stadium), spacious outfields were built into the design. It might have been fields like this that engendered the slang term “suburbanites” for outfielders. The dense “urban” infield has remained the same through baseball history, aside from the gradual addition of more umpires, but the suburbanites had more real estate to patrol in the deadball era than their peers today.
Calling an inside the park home run a long ball or big fly might sound inappropriate, but it ain’t necessarily so, thanks to those spacious outfields. In Bill Jenkinson’s book Baseball’s Ultimate Power, he has compiled a list of the longest ITPHRs in history. His top 10 list ranges from two blows of 455 feet (both solo shots at the Polo Grounds), one by Gil Hodges off the Cubs’ Dick Ellsworth on May 16, 1962, the other by Bill Terry off the Braves’ Walter “Huck” Betts on Sept. 20, 1932, to 478 feet, a two-run shot by Lou Gehrig at Cleveland’s League Park (then known as Dunn Field), off Garland Buckeye on May 19, 1927.
In today’s stadiums, it would be impossible to hit baseballs that far and have them remain in the park. The recesses of the power alleys and center field at the Polo Grounds were legendary (think of the famous 1954 Willie Mays catch robbing Vic Wertz), and the left side of the League Park outfield (376 feet to the left field foul pole when Gehrig struck his blow) meant that some sluggers, slow of foot or otherwise, couldn’t relax after going deep.
Jenkinson’s book, by the way, is not limited to home runs. Not only does he include the longest doubles and triples in baseball history, he even includes the longest fly outs!
Over the years, as outfield real estate has shrunk, so have ITPHR totals. Consequently, the number of players hitting two such round-trippers in one game has become increasingly rare. It happened 17 times in the AL, and 34 times in the NL. The NL totals include late 19th century ITPHRs, far more plentiful in those days because some parks had no fences.
Among the two-timing ITPHR sluggers is our old friend Tommy Leach, who did so on May 21, 1903. Accomplishing the feat twice were Dan Brouthers, Jesse Burkett and Ed Delahanty of the NL and Roger Bresnahan once in each league. Special kudos to Tom McCreery of the Louisville Colonels (of the American Association), who hit three on July 12, 1897. He took that record to his grave in 1941. Even without a zombie apocalypse, McCreery is more likely to rise from the grave than is his record.
The last two-ITPHR game was three decades ago when the Twins’ Greg Gagne did so on Oct. 4, 1986, in the next-to-last game of the season. He hit both off Floyd Bannister at the Metrodome. The first was a solo shot in the second inning, and the second, a three-run job, occurred two innings later.
You have to go back to a Giants-Dodgers matchup at the Polo Grounds on Aug. 16, 1950 for the last two-ITHPR game in the NL. In the bottom of the first inning, Hank Thompson hit a three-run shot off Carl Erskine. He followed it up with a solo shot off Dan Bankhead in the seventh.
As rare as two-ITHPR games are, even rarer are games with back-to-back such homers. This has happened only twice, once in each league. The most recent was on Aug. 27, 1977 when the Rangers accomplished the feat at Yankee Stadium. In fact, they did so on back-to-back pitches. In the top of the seventh inning, Lou Piniella crashed into the right-field wall in an attempt to catch a shot by Toby Harrah. The slow-footed Piniella (32 steals in 18 seasons) could not recover before Harrah had circled the bases. Then Bump Wills hit a ball to center that glanced off Mickey Rivers’ glove and scooted far enough away to enable the speedy Wills to complete the circuit. Pitcher Ken Clay probably failed to appreciate the history he was witnessing.
More than three decades earlier, the Cubs went back-to-back against the Giants at the Polo Grounds. The date was June 23, 1946, and the victim was Nate Andrews, who gave up solo shots to Marv Rickert and Eddie Waitkus to lead off the fourth inning. That was enough to knock Andrews out of the game, but in the bottom of the inning the Giants scored nine runs to take him off the hook for the loss.
Today, if you witness just one ITPHR in your lifetime, it is tantamount to catching a glimpse of a unicorn. The “outta here” home run is the staple of highlights on ESPN and the home run derby is arguably more entertaining than the All-Star game itself. Even so, contemporary fans might be missing out on something. For the last word on the subject, let us turn to Tommy Leach himself, as quoted in The Glory of Their Times, the Lawrence Ritter classic:
Today they seem to think that the most exciting play in baseball is the home run. But in my book the most exciting play in baseball is a three-bagger, or an inside-the-park home run. You used to see a fair number of them in the old days, but now they’re the rarest plays in baseball. For sheer excitement, I don’t think anything can beat when you see that guy go tearing around the bases and come sliding into third or into the plate, with the ball coming in on a line from the outfield at the same time. Now that’s something to write home about.
So home run trot or home run gallop? Literally, a change of pace! To encourage more galloping, I suggest new ballparks with deeper fences…or no fences at all.
I have no confidence that my suggestions will be implemented.
In researching this article, I noted that José Altuve was born on 5/6 (of 1990) and stands 5-foot-6, so if anyone with computer skills wants to crunch the data and come up with a list of players, born May 1-11 or June 1-11 whose stature matches their birth dates… well, have at it. I can state that of all major league players born on the above dates, the greatest gap between height and birth date belongs to Eddie Gaedel. He would have to be 3-foot-1 taller to match his June 8 birthday… if only he’d been three months premature (March 7 to match his 3-foot-7 frame).