Grave Story: Bill Wambsganss (1894-1985)


Here lies Bill Wambsganss, a deadball era infielder who is best known for performing an unassisted triple play during the 1920 World Series – a feat that has never been duplicated in the postseason. Wambsganss played for the Cleveland Naps/Indians (1914-1923), Boston Red Sox (1924-25) and Philadelphia Athletics (1926).

Bill Wambsganss was born on March 19, 1894 in Cleveland (specifically Garfield Heights), but he grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind. His last name, German in origin, proved to be a difficult one for sportswriters to type and nearly impossible to squeeze into a box score. So, it was frequently shortened to “Wamby.” “Some people know me as Wamby, some people know me as Wambsganss, and some people don’t know me at all,” he later cracked. The name, he explained, was apparently a corruption of two German words that mean “over coat.”

Wambsganss (I can relate to difficult-to-spell surnames, so I’ll use the full spelling) was the son of a Lutheran minister, the Rev. Philipp Wambsganss Jr., as well as the grandson of the Rev. Johannes Philipp Wambsganss, who was born in Germany. His brother, the Rev. Frederick Wambsganss, also entered the ministry. Bill attended seminary schools in Fort Wayne, Ind. and St. Louis, though the thought of preaching terrified the shy youngster. He also played on the Concordia Seminary school’s baseball team, as early as 1911, and that’s where he found his true calling. He also played in Hillsboro, Ill., under the name “Bill Higgins,” making $5 per game playing on a Sunday. By the following year, he was noted in local newspapers as being one of the fastest semipro shortstops in the state. He decided to pursue his baseball passion professionally, with the blessing of his father, who happened to be a big Cleveland fan.

Wambsganss signed with the Cedar Rapids Rabbits of the Central Association in 1913. He batted .244 then, but he improved to .317 in 1914, with 17 stolen bases as well. The young shortstop was acquired by the Cleveland Naps on July 31, 1914, and was inserted into the lineup a few days later. His first MLB hits came off Philadelphia Athletics’ ace Eddie Plank on August 9, 1914. Base hits, though, were few and far between. It took an end-of-season hot streak to get his 1914 batting average up over .200 – he finished at .217 – and he hit just .195 the following season. He showed no power, and even his fielding was well under league average.

Source: Library of Congress.

Gradually, the situation in Cleveland changed. Under manager Lee Fohl, the team slowly climbed up the standings. Napoleon Lajoie departed, so the team’s name was changed from the Naps to the Indians – a dubious change, but still a change. Wambsganss’ game also began to improve. Though a couple of poor seasons earned him the wrath of the Cleveland press, Fohl stuck with his young infielder. “I’m going to keep Wambsganss if all the world is against me,” the manager said. “He’s going to develop into a great ball player.”

Wambsganss was given a chance to start regularly when shortstop Ray Chapman was injured, and he did well enough at shortstop that Fohl moved him to second base when Chapman returned to the lineup. He slashed .246/.313/.293 in 1916 for an OPS of .605. It’s not much, but it was the best of his career to that point. He also had 30 sacrifice bunts, which was 5th in the AL.

And he kept getting better. The batting average ticked upward to .255 in 1917 and peaked at .295 in 1918. His OPS+ that season was 103, making him just a shade better than average, but it was still over 100 for the only time in his career as a full-time player. He also had 40 RBIs in just 87 games. The U.S. Army sent him in mid-season to Camp Zachary Taylor for military service, and he missed the rest of the year.

Wambsganss by then also had gained quite a reputation for his fielding ability, which wasn’t an easy thing considering the glove technology that was around in the teens and twenties. Even with a glove, fielders pretty much had to snag ground balls with two hands, and backhanding a grounder was almost unheard-of. However, he may have given himself a little advantage by tinkering with his glove. He learned some tricks from Terry Turner a veteran Cleveland shortstop who was winding down his career when Wambsganss was breaking into the majors.

“He told me to get a glove with lining on the inside and a leather thong at the base,” Wambsganss explained shortly before he died. “You unlace it, open it up and take out a little bit of the felt. You make a little pocket about the size of a dollar. Then you fill it up with Vaseline and pound it with your fist. That makes a little hole where the ball fits in. That way you could hold onto a ball without trying to grab it. It would stick naturally. I could play a ball backhanded and one-handed.”

Wambsganss returned to his regular second base position in 1919 and turned in another solid season, hitting .278 and hitting the first two home runs of his major-league career. They were both inside-the-park varieties. The first, on May 19, was hit off George Mogridge of the Yankees with two men on base, turning a Yankees lead into an eventual 4-3 loss. Wambsganss also drove in Cleveland’s other run with a squeeze bunt with Tris Speaker on third base.

How many ballplayers can lay claim to a suicide squeeze and an inside-the-park homer in the same game?

Cleveland experienced dramatic highs and lows in the 1920 season. There was of course the tragic death of shortstop and team captain Ray Chapman, who died after being struck in the head by a pitched ball. He was Wambsganss’ double-play partner, and the two were good friends. Chapman said he would never play shortstop next to anybody else. He was right.

“That was a terrible thing to happen. Chappie was probably the most popular man on the team,” Wambsganss told Lawrence Ritter in The Glory of Their Times. “His wife was pregnant at the time, and his father-in-law, a millionaire, was going to set him up in business. It was an awful tragedy. Such a sweet guy.”

The shocking death of their teammate sent the Indians into a major slump. But the team recovered, led by their star player and manager Speaker, and they won 98 games to win the AL pennant. They defeated the Brooklyn Robins in the World Series, five games to two, and Wambsganss earned his bit of baseball immortality.

Game Five of the 1920 World Series, held on October 10, featured a few postseason accomplishments. In the first inning, Elmer Smith of the Indians hit the first grand slam home run in World Series history. The Indians had built a 7-0 lead by the fifth inning with a 3-run homer by pitcher Jim Bagby – the first home run by a pitcher in the Series. In the top of the fifth, Pete Kilduff and Otto Miller of the Robins singled. Clarence Mitchell, a good-hitting pitcher, stepped up to bat with two men on and nobody out. With a big lead and a lefty at bat, Wambsganss positioned himself fairly deep at second base.

Mitchell connected with a Bagby fastball and sent a low liner toward center field. Wambsganss raced to the center of the infield and made a leaping catch that nobody expected – least of all the Brooklyn baserunners. Wambsganss’ momentum took him to second base, and he stepped on the bag to double up Kilduff, who was almost to third base. Then he turned and saw Miller, standing close to second base with his mouth open in shock. Wambsganss tapped him on the shoulder for the third out and trotted back to the dugout.

The second baseman recalled the event in Ritter’s book. He knew what had happened immediately, but it took the fans in the stands a few moments to comprehend what had taken place, because it happened so quickly. “Then, as I approached the dugout, it began to dawn on them what they had just seen, and the cheering started and quickly got louder and louder and louder. By the time I got to the bench it was bedlam, straw hats flying onto the field, people yelling themselves hoarse, my teammates pounding me on the back.”

A look at how Bill Wambsganss accomplished his unassisted triple play. He snagged a line drive off the bat of Clarence Mitchell (1 out), ran to second base to double off runner Pete Kilduff (2 outs) and tagged baserunner Otto Miller (3 outs). Source: The Butte Miner, October 15, 1920.

The biggest play of Wambsganss’ career took place in an otherwise forgettable season. His batting average dipped to .244, though he did hit a career-high 11 triples. He had just 4 hits in 26 at-bats in the World Series, though his offensive struggles were largely forgotten thanks to the triple play. He rebounded to have three more nice seasons with Cleveland, though he missed time in 1921 and ’23 with injuries. He wasn’t a regular offensive league leader, but he did have the most sacrifice hits in all of baseball in 1921 (43) and 1922 (42). He even picked up votes for the AL MVP in 1922, even though he batted just .262 and was worth -0.3 Wins Above Replacement.

Wambsganss was rumored to be on the trading block for several seasons, and a good 1923 campaign, in which he had 100 hits in 101 games for a .290 average, couldn’t save him. In January 1924, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox, along with Dan Boone, Joe Connolly and Steve O’Neill for George Burns, Chick Fewster and Roxy Walters. He played in 156 games for Boston in 1924 and had 732 plate appearances, both of which were best in baseball. He slashed .274/.334/.354 and was third in the AL with 41 doubles.

A poor 1925 season, in which he hit .231 and slugged .294, ended his time in Boston. He was sold to the Philadelphia Athletics, and he actually turned in a very good 1926 season for Connie Mack, albeit in a reserve role. He hit .352 in 54 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter. He was released at the end of the season, ending his career as a major-league player.

In 13 seasons, Wambsganss slashed .259/.328/.327, with 1,359 hits that included 215 doubles, 59 triples and 7 home runs. He stole 140 bases, scored 710 runs and racked up 521 RBIs. His defense was mostly league average or lower, and he led the AL in errors committed by a second baseman four times. He had a career OPS+ of 78 and generated 3.7 Wins Above Replacement.

Wambsganss, manager of the Muskegon Lassies, works with starting pitcher Donna Cook. Source: The Miami News, August 31, 1947.

Wambsganss played in the minor leagues through 1932, when he was 38 years old. The last couple of seasons were spent as a player/manager, though he barely put himself in the lineup. He served as a manager in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, overseeing the Fort Wayne Daisies (1945-1946) and Muskegon Lassies (1947-48). He was also a talent scout who supervised tryouts around the country. He downplayed the AAGPBL in his story for Glory of Their Times, noting “managed a girls’ softball team for four years” in a recap of his post-baseball career.

Wambsganss became a sales representative for True-Fit Screw Products in Lakewood, Ohio. He also coached and instructed Cleveland area teams. He is one of the few non-Hall of Fame players who never really faded into history, thanks to his triple play. That incredible moment, plus his unusual last name, have remained a part of baseball lore, one hundred years after it happened.

Wambsganss remained active into his 90s, working as a volunteer almost right up to his death. He drove himself where he needed to go and occasionally went to Indians games at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. He was hospitalized in November 1985 for heart failure and related complications. He died in Lakewood Hospital on December 8, 1985. He was 91 years old and was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland. Wambsganss is buried alongside his wife, Effie, and her parents; the “Mulholland” on his gravestone is her maiden name. Fewer than 70 people attended his funeral, and nobody from the Indians organization attended. He will be forever remembered for his unassisted triple play, but his family wanted him to be known for something different.

“Dad was a fine ballplayer and a wonderful guy,” said his son, Bill Jr. “A lot of people just know him as the answer to one of baseball’s top trivia questions. But he was a warm, caring father to my two sisters and myself. That’s what we will remember.”

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