Following a successful career as a journalist, graphic designer, and marketer, Gary Kauffman is now a freelance writer.
I’ve attended a lot of Major League games over the past 40 years. I don’t have an accurate count, but I've attended at least 50 and perhaps as many as 75 games. I have fond memories of dozens of home runs I saw during that time, some hit by Hall of Famers. But in all that time, I only remember seeing three triples. I’m sure I saw more than that, but only three are memorable.
One was hit by Derrel Thomas of the Dodgers in old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. I remember it only because when he came to the plate, I predicted to my friend that he would hit a triple into the right field corner and he did.
Another was by Graig Nettles of the Yankees, a left-handed, dead-pull hitter. He swung late, tipped one off the end of his bat, and it rolled along the left field line. With all the outfielders playing him to pull, he was able to reach third before the left fielder could retrieve the ball.
The third one I remember was by Chris Chambliss in old Comiskey Park, a line drive single that Chet Lemon played into a triple. For unknown reasons, Lemon played excessively deep in a stadium that measured 440 to center. Had he played at regular depth, he’d have held Chambliss to a single or possibly even caught the ball. As it was, he ran in and dove for it, missed, and it skipped past him to the wall.
Few Players Reach Double Digits in Triples
I bring all of this up because triples are rare and are getting rarer. They often come as the result of a fluke hit or misplay unless a batter has great speed.
In 2019, at about the mid-point of the season, only seven players have hit as many as five triples. Aldaberto Mondesi of Kansas City leads with eight and teammate Whit Merrifield has seven. Charlie Blackmon leads the National League with seven. Eduardo Escobar, Kevin Kiermaier, Jorge Polanco, and Raimel Tapia each have five.
Last year, Ketel Marte of Arizona led the Majors with 12 triples. The year before that, it was Charlie Blackmon with 14. No American League player has hit more than 10 since Eddie Rosario had 15 in 2015.
In the five years before this season, only 21 players reached double digits in triples and only two—Rosario and Blackmon—topped 12.
1912 Was a Great Year for Triples Hitters
The single-season record for triples is 36 in 1912 by Chief Wilson, a lanky outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His total was quite an anomaly for him – his previous high in triples had been 13 and he never had more than 14 after that. Yet he is the only player to ever hit more than 30 in a season; in fact, the only one to hit more than 26 in a season.
Yet his total wasn’t a tremendous outlier in 1912. Seven other players hit at least 18, six of them at least 20, and Shoeless Joe Jackson had 26. Seven players had hit at least 18 the year before, and four more did so in 1913.
Triples Leaders in 1912
Home Run Baker
Triples Among Individuals Decline
Since 1901, there have been 132 seasons where a player hit 18 or more triples. From 1901 to 1935, there were 106 seasons of 18 or more triples. Every year except 1918 and 1919 had at least one player reach 18, and most years there were multiple players attaining that number.
But since 1980 the have only been 10 seasons of 18-plus and none since 2008. Not only is no one threatening Chief Wilson’s record, no one is even threatening to get halfway there.
Triples Leaders Since 1990
Total Team Triples Also in Decline
And, as fewer individuals hit triples, the team totals diminish as well. From 1901-1949 a whopping 641 teams hit at least 50 triples; 37 teams topped 100 and 59 more had at least 90.
But from 1950 to 1989, there was a precipitous drop. No team reached even 80 triples in a season. The highs were 79 by Kansas City in 1979 and 77 by KC in ’77. The 1970 Pirates and 1950 Yankees were the only other teams to reach 70 triples. In all, only 145 teams had 50 or more triples, and only 33 had 60-plus in those 40 years.
But even that looks like a huge number compared to the totals since then. From 1990 to 2018, only 26 teams reached 50 triples in a season, and only two got to 60 – 61 by Colorado and 60 by Detroit, both in 2001. Since 2010 only Colorado and San Francisco in 2012, San Fran and Arizona in 2016 and Arizona last year have reached 50 triples. The last AL team to 50 triples was Kansas City in 2009.
In fact, since 1990, 617 teams have not hit as many triples as Chief Wilson hit by himself in 1912, the nadir belonging to Toronto with a measly five – yes, five – triples in 2017.
Since 1990 the high in triples for the Yankees is 36, in 1999. Baltimore’s high is also 36, reached in 1992.
Team Triples Leaders by Era
Top Teams 1901-1949
New York AL
Top Teams 1950-1989
New York AL
Top Teams 1990-2018
Los Angeles NL
Factors for Fewer Triples
The most obvious reason for the change is smaller ballparks. Looking at the people near the top in triples throughout the years are players who played in cavernous ballparks, like Yankee Stadium, Comiskey Park in Chicago, Briggs Field in Detroit, Municipal Stadium in Cleveland and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. A ball hit in the gap there could mean a long run for the outfielders.
Yankee Stadium, for example, was 480 to center before they moved it in to 457 (461 in left center), where it stayed until the mid-‘70s. Lou Gehrig had nine seasons of double-digit triples, including 18 or more twice, and Joe DiMaggio topped double digits eight times. Earle Combs, the Yankees’ centerfielder before DiMaggio, had three seasons of 21 or more triples.
Some of the change also has to do with changes in hitting styles. Even with more players swinging for the fences in the 1930s, the prevailing hitting approach was still a slashing, line-drive style aiming for the lines and the outfield gaps. After that, home run swings became more popular.
Another factor, although probably minor, is an improvement in gloves for outfielders. The difference in a glove from 2019 and 1945 is quite significant, at least several inches more of webbing. While it may not have made a huge difference, snagging a ball in the webbing may have reduced someone’s totals from 18 triples to 16.
Wilson's Record is Safe
Unlike the growing home run and strikeout totals and the decreasing number of complete games and stolen bases, no one seems to be lamenting the disappearance of the triple. I’m not sure anyone is even noticing. Rarely does someone talk about a triple they saw at a game or even have a memory of one, unless it’s an odd one, like the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
I think it’s safe to say that Chief Wilson’s record is safe for a long time, perhaps forever. It may even be quite a while before we see someone reach halfway there again. Chicks may dig the long ball, but it seems no one even notices the three-base hit.
Larry Slawson from North Carolina on July 01, 2019:
Never really thought about this, but definitely true! Thank you for sharing.