Paul Hines and the Unassisted Triple Play

Paul Hines, ca. 1887.

Paul Hines, ca. 1887.

In the last edition of Total Baseball (2004), Lyle Spatz persuaded me to add this note to a segment on unassisted triple plays in the larger essay titled “Streaks and Feats,” which had run in each edition of the encyclopedia since its launch in 1989. “Total Baseball has eliminated the unassisted triple play purportedly made by Providence’s Paul Hines and carried in some earlier editions. In the eighth inning of that May 8, 1878 game, Boston had Ezra Sutton at second and Jack Manning at third, when Jack Burdock hit a looping fly ball to short left‑center field. Both runners took off, but Hines, the center fielder, caught the ball and stepped on third, retiring Manning and, presumably, Sutton. However, further research has indicated that Sutton, the runner from second, may not have passed third base when Hines made the catch. If Sutton had done so, stepping on that base would have put him out. However, it is known that Hines threw the ball to Providence second baseman Charlie Sweasy, who stepped on that base either to record the third out or to make ‘double certain’ of the out. Either way, Hines’ exploit is too ambiguous to be resolved with satisfaction.” Supporting the view that Hines pulled off merely an unassisted double play, in the May 4‚ 1901 issue of The Sporting News four of the game’s participants all agreed that Hines threw to second base to complete the triple play. Two of the letter writers were Sweasy‚ the second baseman‚ and E. B. Sutton‚ the runner at second base.

I agreed with Lyle that the complexities of the play and its varying accounts made it prudent to remove Hines from the honor roll. But I never quite let go of my conviction expressed in earlier editions, and now I have reason to regain my hold on the belief that Paul Hines did indeed make history that day:

In the early years of baseball, outfielder Paul Hines of the Providence Grays, had been credited with making an unassisted triple play. Later-day research indicated Hines had made an unassisted double play but had thrown to a base for the third out. But according to the rules of 1878, Hines did indeed register an unassisted triple play.

In 1928, Providence sportswriter W.D. “Bill” Perrin–who at that time had covered the Providence Grays for nearly half a century–described Hines’ actions in the game played on May 8, 1878, in Providence. “The circumstances of this play have afforded more arguments than any other known play. That the play was made is not disputed, but whether Hines made the play unassisted or whether [second baseman Charles] Sweasy completed it by retiring the third man. . . . Here is what happened: [Jim] O’Rourke drew a base on balls and scored when Sweasy threw [Jack] Manning’s drive over [Providence first baseman Tim] Murnane’s head, Manning going to third on the error. Murnane muffed [Ezra] Sutton’s fly, Manning holding third [as Sutton took second]. [Jack] Burdock was next up and dropped the ball just over [shortstop Tom] Carey’s head for what looked like a safe hit. . . .

Ezra Sutton, ca. 1887

Ezra Sutton, ca. 1887

“The story in the Providence Journal of the next day thus describes the play: ‘Manning and Sutton proceeded to the home plate,’ meaning that both rounded third. ‘Hines ran in and  caught the ball, and kept going to tag third.’ The rule then as now requires that when a baserunner is forced to retrace his steps he must retouch the bases passed in reverse order. As Hines touched third with the ball in his hand, after making the catch, before either Manning or Sutton could get back, both were out automatically. It is true that Hines then on a signal from Sweasy threw the ball to second, but this was unnecessary as both runners were out at third.”

To confirm Perrin’s view, let’s look at the playing rules for 1878, the year in which Hines made his celebrated play. Rule V, Section 1 reads:

“Players running the bases must touch each base in regular order, viz., first, second, third, and home bases; and when obliged to return to bases they have occupied they must retouch them in reverse order. . . .” And Rule V, Section 15 reads: “Any base-runner failing to touch the base he runs for shall be declared out if the ball be held by a fielder, while touching said base, before the base-runner returns and touches it.” Henry Chadwick’s gloss on the latter rule stated: “. . . it is only necessary for a fielder to hold the ball on the base, which should have been touched, in order to put the runner out.”

Eureka! The controversy of over a century is thus resolved, and in favor of Paul Hines and his unassisted triple play. Rewrite the record books!

In today’s “late-breaking development,” I spotted the following story while digging through old numbers of Baseball Magazine.  In the October 1913 issue, Smith D. Fry penned the following, with the testimony of men who were on the field that day–including Paul Hines.  I offer it not in hope of settling the controversy, but rather to keep the hot stove simmering.

Baseball Magazine, October 1913

Baseball Magazine, October 1913

The Most Sensational Play In Baseball

How Neal Ball Became Famous in a Day—
A Greater Feat by an Old-Time Star—
Paul Hines and His Wonderful Triple Play of 1878

Batting will always take precedence in the public eye over fielding. A long hit with men on bases is the dream of every professional player. There is no man in baseball who would not rather hit for .300 than to field brilliantly, and the crowd shares this sentiment. But there is one fielding stunt that is the most brilliant and spectacular play in baseball. It happens but once a generation, but when it does happen it is written bodily into baseball history. This is the triple play unassisted. Neal Ball vaulted all at once into the limelight by performing this rarest of all plays. But an even more remarkable feat was the triple play of Paul Hines many years ago.

INSIDE of three seconds Gandil and McBride pulled off a very brilliant triple play in Washington, June 16 last, and since then there have been paragraphs galore concerning triple plays.

It is needless to detract from the good work done by one man, while giving credit to another for good work done. It was all right for Jake Stahl to give credit to Neal Ball for the splendid brilliant triple play unassisted which was made by Neal Ball at Cleveland on July 19, 1909; a play of which Stahl was one of the victims.

But it was not wise nor was it necessary for Stahl to add: “They say that Paul Hines made a similar play, back in 1878, in a game in Providence, but most baseball authorities deny it. I don’t believe it.”

In the first place it is incorrect to state that “most baseball authorities deny it.”

“Uncle Nick Young” is pretty good “baseball authority,” and he speaks of the splendid triple unassisted by Paul Hines as “a play concerning which I never before heard any doubt expressed.”

“Doug” Allison, one of the best catchers that ever played the game, still lives and was a witness of the great play made by Paul Hines, and vouches for it enthusiastically. It was not in any sense similar to that made by Neal Ball, but vastly more difficult.

Ball took a ball on the fly, twenty feet rear and right off second base, thus putting out the batter. He hastily touched second base, thus putting out the runner trying to come back from third. He then dived into Jake Stahl, as he came running from first.

It was all done quickly, splendidly, and must always stand out in history as a record play. Nobody should ever try to detract from it. But let us see what Paul Hines did.

Excepting only the prodigy from Georgia, the incomparable Tyrus Raymond Cobb, there has never been a center fielder to compare with Paul Hines. He was fleet, excelling Billy Sunday, as was well known at the time. He was perfect as a fielder of fly balls. Nothing but an uneven field would enable any ground ball to get past him. He was in the forefront at the plate, a batter feared by all pitchers. It is useless to minimize the pitchers of those days. When Hines was batting against Bond, Manning, Radbourne and the peerless Clarkson, he was facing as puzzling and baffling pitching as the game produces today; and he batted all of them.

“Home Run Baker,” one of the greatest of them all, was never more in the limelight, nor half so long.

Nick Young.

Senator Nelson W. Aldrich is one of the well-known men of to-day who saw Paul Hines make his great triple unassisted, and there are many persons yet living in Providence who remember having seen the play. But writing in Washington City makes it impossible for the narrator to seek them all. First, let us hear from Mr. N. E. Young (“Uncle Nick”) , for many years President of the National League, the “Grand Old Man” of baseball. He was seen in his office and said:

“Everybody in the baseball world knew that Paul Hines made that triple play unassisted. No baseball authority ever denied it. Paul Hines was one of the most modest, unassuming and gentlemanly men the game has ever known. He was the most graceful athlete that ever stepped to the plate. His batting record is phenomenal. Two of the best catchers ever known reside in Washington, Charley Snyder and ‘Doug’ Allison. They both saw the play. Go and see them, and you can set history straight for all time.”

Charley Snyder, well and prosperous, was seen in his place of business, asked about the play, and he promptly said:

“I certainly saw Paul Hines make his great triple play, unassisted. I was catching for Boston. We had men on first and second, with no one out. Burdock, one of our best batters, came to the plate. Burdock slammed the ball out into left field, and it looked good enough for three bases. Burdock was chasing himself, though, for a home run, and he might have made it. But—the unexpected happened.


Charles “Pop” Snyder.

“Paul Hines swept like a whirlwind from deep center into short left field, and he caught that ball. I should say about knee high or lower. The ball was going like a rifle shot, but Paul gripped it, held it as only one man out of a thousand could have done, and ran on to third base. Both of our runners had gone past third base and were already congratulating themselves on having made runs. It was a triple play, unassisted, and was so declared by the umpire. The side was out. No player, Billy Sunday nor any other, ever rivaled the speed made by Paul Hines on that run. It was almost impossible for any man to have reached that ball; and then to have held it, as Hines did, was another almost impossibility. But, with it all, the cool baseball brains of the man was shown by his continuing on to make the triple play by running to the base without once slackening his speed. I’ve seen some base ball, but that was the feat of feats; Pat [sic] Hines’ triple unassisted.”

Soon after leaving Charley Snyder, the writer was in the Post-office Department, and there found the other great catcher, “Doug” Allison. He is hard of hearing nowadays, and with difficulty heard the question; but when he comprehended it his face wreathed in smiles as he said:

“Yes, I was catcher for the Providence Grays that year. I was behind the bat when Burdock came to the plate. Boston’s second baseman, Sutton, made a single to begin the inning. Then Manning, who was Boston’s pitcher and also center fielder, was the next batter, and he also made a single. That put Sutton on second and Manning on first. Burdock was a dangerous batter. When he came up I signaled Paul to get out into deep field for him, and he did so. But I noticed that Paul was shifting toward left, guessing the batter well. Well, Burdock hit the second ball that was pitched, and he smashed it out into left field. It looked to me like a sure enough home run, clearing the bases. But as I saw Burdock rushing around the paths I also saw Paul Hines come tearing in from deep center to short left. His speed was terrific. He came like a streak of lightning. He gauged that ball right, too. He speared it about knee high in short left, back of third. He stumbled and almost fell, but kept on running and veering around, he kept on until he reached third base. There he halted and held up the ball. We only had one umpire in those days, and Charley Daniels, one of the best, was umpiring that day. He saw what Paul was up to, ran out toward him, and was not more than ten feet away when Paul perched on third base with the ball aloft in his hand. Daniels called out his decision: ‘Three out. Side out.’ And that crowd went wild.

“Then, as I remember it, Carey, our shortstop, took the ball and threw it to Sweeney, our second baseman, and he touched second base as they both shouted to the crowd: ‘Just for good measure.’ ”

Hands of Douglas Allison, showing results of baseball playing,  Feb. 12, 1889.

Hands of Douglas Allison, showing results of baseball playing, Feb. 12, 1889.

Ten years ago, or maybe twelve, Secretary Wilson made Paul Hines Postmaster of the Department of Agriculture; and in that office the narrator found Paul Hines. The great, big, broad-shouldered, gentle and kindly disposed old boy smiled, and said:

“If you’ve seen Charley Snyder and ‘Doug’ Allison, they know all about it, and I don’t need to say anything; except to say that the players of to-day can’t make any of us oldtimers take off our hats to them. Billy Sunday was as good as Ty Cobb. Radbourne and Rusie were some pitchers, and so was Clarkson a wizard. We played ball in those days, and we didn’t wear armor plate either.”

After showing his gnarled fingers and listening to urgent appeals from an old friend, Paul said:

“Well, my side of the story of course is different from the side of the folks who saw the play. It was at Providence, Rhode Island, May 15, 1878 [Hines’ recall was one week late; the game was indeed played on May 8–ED.]. It happened that I played what they call nowadays ‘inside baseball.’ I knew that Burdock was a dangerous batter. I knew also that he was inclined to pull ’em out into left field.

1879 Providence Grays.

1879 Providence Grays.

“Believing that any long knock into left field would be gathered in by our left fielder, I figured that Burdock might knock one into the field too short for the left fielder and too far out for either the third baseman or the shortstop. While I was guessing the batter and moving toward left field (as ‘Doug’ Allison told you he saw me), Burdock got his hit. I was on the move in a dog trot while our pitcher, Corey, was winding up [pitcher on May 8 was “Tricky” Nichols; Fred Corey pitched on the 15th–ED.]. When ball and bat cracked I was under way instantly; and instantly I saw where that ball was going. I felt that nothing but lightning sprinting would get me there, and I cut loose with all my might. I never ran so fast before or since. I just flew. Well, it is a wonder that I lived to tell the story. I barely got there in time to grip the ball somewhere between my knee and ankle. It was so near my ankle that I almost fell and broke my neck. Although I came near falling, I managed to keep my balance by keeping up the momentum until I could swerve about toward third base. As soon as I stepped on the base I held up the ball. Umpire Charley Daniels was quite near. He looked excited, but I guess that was because I was excited. The umpire called so that he could be heard all over the field: ‘Three out. Side out.’ Then there was such a noise as I never heard. The whole crowd was crazy. It was in Providence, you know; and it was a Providence player that made the play.

“Somebody motioned for me to go to second base. You know, my hearing is deficient, and I depended largely on signs in those days. Well, I ran down and touched second. Then Carey, our shortstop, and Sweeney [Sweasy–ED.], our second baseman, took the ball and danced around with it, cutting up monkey shines.

“Of course I never started out to make a triple play. After I caught the ball, the triple play was right in front of me, and the remainder was easy. What I should have credit for principally are the long and speedy run; catching the ball so near the ground; holding it while it twisted in my hand; and keeping my feet without breaking my neck.”

Following the advice of “Uncle Nick” Young, we are making reliable history here. We have the story of two eyewitnesses, and they were probably the two best catchers in baseball at that time, Charley Snyder and “Doug” Allison. And added to the stories of those eyewitnesses we have the modestly told story of the great athlete himself, lovable and gentlemanly Paul Hines.

Umpire Charles Daniels, April 25, 1888.

Umpire Charles Daniels, April 25, 1888.

But the historian sought further evidence, and wrote to Charley Daniels at R. F. D., Colchester, Connecticut, and he replied thus:

“Well, well, well, so they are still trying to deny dear old Paul that famous triple play unassisted. I was the umpire on that occasion and was connected with the National League, and the American Association many years afterward, and in active association with the game between twenty-five and thirty years; most of the time I was umpiring.

“On the occasion of the famous play by Paul Hines, Ezra Sutton was on second base, and some one else was on first base. Burdock, at the bat, hit a fly which traveled rainbow fashion to left field. There was a light wind blowing, and carrying the ball a little toward second base, but back of it. When the second baseman saw Paul tearing in after the ball, he wisely got out of the way.

“Sutton made home, from second base, and the other man was near the home plate, when Hines caught the ball about a foot from the ground, almost turned a somersault, and rushed to third base, where he stood and held up the ball. Of course I did my duty then and made the decision: ‘Three out. Side out’ Hoping that this statement will help square the history for dear old Paul, I am, yours truly, C. F. Daniels, Umpire.”

These statements of fact, told without rhetorical effort or other display, but merely with historic intent, should settle for all time the right of Paul Hines to the fame of making the first and greatest triple play, unassisted, ever made in the national game. Every true sportsman likes to give “honor to whom honor is due.”


Here’s a relevant SABR-L post of mine from 2002:
Donald Parke and Wayne McElreavy discussed Paul Hines’s triple play of 1878, which some sources have credited as unassisted, others not. As Wayne described it, Hines raced in from center field to make a shoestring catch at deep shortstop, and continued running to third base, thereby retiring one or both of the runners (from second and third) who had passed that point. Hines then threw to second base, a throw that either completed the triple play, or was superfluous. Dispute about this play usually centers around what the rule was in 1878: whether touching third retired the runner from second, given that he had advanced past that point.
It may be surprising to many here that this play was under dispute even while Hines was still an active player. In The Sporting News, July 6, 1889, page 5 (in the “Caught on the Fly” items), was an article about whether or not the TP was unassisted. At that point there was no dispute about the rule, but about whether the trail runner had reached third base before Hines touched it. TSN gave one account (I think Hines’s) claiming the runner had reached third, another claiming he hadn’t, and seemed to lean toward the latter.

Thanks for this, Bill. I find umpire Charlie Daniels’ testimony least self-interested and most convincing.

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