Catchers and Triples
When Tim McCarver passed away recently, most of the articles recapping his career focused primarily on his lengthy broadcasting career. A few mentioned the oddity that he once led the league in triples, an exceedingly rare feat for a catcher. One even said he was the first catcher to do it.
Well, that last part isn’t quite right, but it still was very strange for a catcher to hit as many as 13 triples, as McCarver did in 1966, and even more strange for a catcher to lead the league.
The first catcher to lead the league in triples was Jack Rowe, who hit 11 triples for the Buffalo Bisons of the National League in 1881. That was a record for catchers at that time, but it didn’t last very long.
The record for most triples by a catcher in one season is 20 by Buck Ewing when he led the National League in 1884. That’s a record that’s often disregarded whenever people examine triples by catchers, for a couple of reasons. First, Ewing played all over the field, and while catcher was his primary position in 1884 and for his career, he also played hundreds of games in the outfield and at first base and third base.
The other reason is that triples weren’t a particularly rare event in 1884. Nowadays, you can lead the league if you hit 8 or 9 triples, and it’s been 16 years since anyone hit as many as 20. But in the 19th Century, it wasn’t that strange. The same year Ewing hit 20 triples in the National League, Harry Stovey blasted 23 in the American Association. After Ewing his 20, 13 of the next 16 league leaders in the NL hit at least that many. Ewing himself had double digits in triples 8 more times after 1884. The fences were deeper, and home runs were harder to hit, so long drives tended to stay in play and become triples. In only two season in the 19th Century did the NL home run leader had more homers than the triples leader had triples.
To illustrate that point, note that McCarver wasn’t the first 20th Century catcher to hit as many as 13 triples in a season either. Johnny Kling hit that many in 1903, but it was good for just a tie for 8th in the league because triples were so much more common then.
Several catchers in the Negro Leagues also led their respective leagues in triples, including:
Josh Gibson, 7 triples for the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1933.
Joe Greene, 7 triples for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1941.
Bill Cash, 6 triples for the Philadelphia Stars in 1948.
Then came McCarver’s 13 triples in 1966. He remains the only catcher to lead National League in triples in the live-ball era, and his 13 triples remains the most for any catcher in the last 101 years. It would be the live-ball record for catchers, too, but another Negro Leagues great, Biz Mackey, hit 17 triples in 1922.
McCarver is not the last catcher to lead the league in triples, however. An even unlikelier catcher, Carlton Fisk, hit 9 triples to tie Joe Rudi for the American League lead in 1972. I say that was more unlikely than McCarver’s accomplishment because Fisk never came close to that mark again. Fisk’s high in any other season was 5, and he never again finished in the top-10 in the league. At least McCarver had one more season in the top-10 of the league, when he hit 6 triples in 1968, and had hit 7 triples in 1963. Fisk’s league-leading total seemingly came from nowhere.
So the good folks at ESPN got it a bit wrong when they tried to give McCarver the credit for being the first catcher to turn the trick. But he was the first to do it in the National League since the turn of the century, and his mark hasn’t been surpassed in the last 100+ years, and that’s still a pretty cool thing to be remembered for.
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