“It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!” — Ernie Banks
The days of the doubleheader in Major League Baseball are even more rare than a complete game. Years ago, teams would actually plan doubleheaders into the schedule. Others would result from rain-outs or schedule changes.
For youth baseball teams, especially travel teams, playing two, three or even four games in one day is nothing new. As a coach of a 12U JBO team, when faced with the prospect of having to play three games in one day if we lost the first one, I simply told my kids, “Let’s just not lose.”
Makeup games – potential doubleheaders – have been cancelled altogether if the outcome didn’t affect the playoff chances of one team or the other. But what about three games in one day?
It is currently banned in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, unless one of the games is the completion of a previously suspended game, followed by a natural doubleheader and no other makeup date is available.
But it has happened three times in MLB history. The first was on Sept. 1, 1890 with the Brooklyn Bridegrooms (Dodgers) taking all three from the Pittsburgh Innocents (Pirates). The second was on Sept. 7, 1896 between the Baltimore Orioles (of the NL, not the same Orioles) and the Louisville Colonels with Baltimore winning all three.
The third and probably the last tripleheader in Major League Baseball occurred 95 years ago. On October 2nd, 1920, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates played 24 innings at Forbes Field. The Reds took the first two games while the Pirates took the third in a shortened 6-inning game, called for darkness.
Heading into the final week of the 1920 season, the Reds were in third place in the National League, 3.5 games ahead of the 4th place Pirates. The Reds were well out of reach of the first place Brooklyn Robins and the New York Giants were comfortably in second.
What was at stake was a third place finish. Only the League champ went to the World Series in those days, but a 2nd or 3rd place finish meant a share of the World Series receipts. Fourth place got nothing.
Now-a-days, the playoff teams all receive a share, with the series champs getting the largest share. And teams that finish 2nd in their respective division but miss the playoffs, still get a 1% share. But in 1920, anything lower than 3rd in each league, received precisely squat.
So with four games to go, and the Reds leading the Pirates by 3.5 games, these final games meant everything to both clubs. Unfortunately, the first game of the series was rained out. And with a doubleheader already planned for the following day and no other makeup date available, it appeared the game would be lost.
Barney Dreyfuss, the owner of the Pirates, proposed the playing of a triple-header on Saturday to the Reds. An idea which was immediately and unsurprisingly rejected by the Reds manager Pat Moran. With only three games left, even if the Reds lost all three and the Pirates won all three – the last game for each team was against separate opponents – the Reds would keep third place and the Series share.
Dreyfuss, undeterred, contacted the National League president, John A. Heydler, who sided with Dreyfuss and informed the Reds that they were to play three games on Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Game one began at noon.
Despite the Pirates jumping out to a 3-2 lead after two innings, the Reds jumped on Pirates ace Wilbur Cooper for six runs in the third inning on their way to a 13-4 rout.
With the win, the Reds’ lead over the Pirates for 3rd place was up to 4.5 games with only three to play. So, for the second game, the Reds sat most of their regulars and started a lineup with four pitchers in it. Dutch Ruether (16-12, 2.47) started at first, Rube Bressler (2-0, 1.77) started in right, Fritz Coumbe (0-1, 4.91) started in center and Lynn (Buck) Brenton (2-1, 4.91) started on the mound.
Hod Eller – another Reds pitcher – came into the game to play second and first, going 3-for-4 with 2 RBI.
The Pirates held a 2-0 lead going into the 7th before the Reds blew up for seven runs in the 7th of Jimmy Zinn. The Reds went on to win 7-3.
Both games had been played in a total of just under four hours. Quite the accomplishment by today’s standards.
The third game got underway with the Pirates batting first. Despite the official box score showing the Pirates as the home team, the Reds were the official home team in the final game.
The Pirates jumped on Buddy Napier for three runs in the first before he settled in, striking out eight over six innings. The Pirates tacked on three more runs in the 6th.
On the other side, the Reds couldn’t quite figure out Johnny Morrison, who scattered four hits over six shutout innings.
At the conclusion of the 6th inning, the game was called due to darkness and the Pirates won 6-0. The time of play for the 24 innings was exactly five hours.
The Reds lost their season finale to the Cardinals while the Pirates won their final game against the Cubs, to finish 3.5 games back of the Reds – right where they started before the tripleheader. The Reds finished in 3rd place in the National League and collected $10,744.14 in World Series receipts, while the Pirates collected nothing.
While the days of the doubleheader may have gone the way of the stand-up triple, I can’t help but want to hear someone like Mike Trout address the media saying, It’s a great day for a ballgame. Let’s play three.”