Tommy Leach and His Legacy

Tommy Leach hit the fourth-most inside-the-park home runs in MLB history. (via Public Domain)

Tommy Leach hit the fourth-most inside-the-park home runs in MLB history. (via Public Domain)

When the subject of records that will never be broken arises, Tommy Leach, whose major league career ran from 1898 to 1915 plus 1918, is probably not the first name that would come to mind. But he holds a couple that are likely to stand the test of time.

First, he holds the record for triples in a World Series. Leach, playing for the Pirates, had four in the very first World Series in 1903. Befitting a player with the nickname “Wee Tommy” (he stood just 5-foot-6 and weighed only 135 pounds when he made his major league debut at age 20 in 1898), Leach was fleet of foot. By way of comparison, he was as tall as Jose Altuve, but even after “bulking up” to 150 pounds, he was still 15 pounds lighter than Altuve.

Leach’s speed also figures in his second record. He is the only player to lead his league in home runs without hitting a ball out of the park. He did so with six inside-the-park home runs in 1902. (He also led the National League in triples with 22, so he was pickin’ ‘em up and layin’ ‘em down a lot that season.) That sounds like a classic “only in deadball” achievement, but don’t be too sure. In 1979, the Royals Willie Wilson hit five ITPHRs out of his grand total of six.

Well, after six ITPHRS (the lowest league-leading total in the 20th century), what could Tommy Leach do for an encore? Well, the very next season, all seven of his round-trippers were ITPHRs, but that was not a league-leading total (Jimmy Sheckard of Brooklyn finished on top with nine). Of of Leach’s 63 career home runs (compiled in 19 seasons, 13 with the Pirates) 48 were insiders. In other words, he went yard (in the traditional sense), on average, less than once per season. Thomas William Leach could almost be the poster boy for the deadball era.

For the record, Leach compiled 2,143 hits and hit .269 over his career. Six times he finished in the top 10 in triples, homers and total bases. As was the case with many major league veterans in his day, Leach returned to the minors for seven more seasons, finally retiring at age 44.

Leach places fourth on the all-time list for inside-the-parkers and sits at the top of the National League in that category. The all-major league career leader was Jesse Burkett, who hit 55 (75 home run total) from 1890-1905 in the National and American Leagues. Next on the list is Sam Crawford, who hit 51 (of 97 total) in both leagues from 1899-1917, followed by Ty Cobb (the all-time American League leader) with 46 (out of 117), tied with Honus Wagner (46 out of 101).

Rounding out the top 10 are Jake Beckley and Tris Speaker with 38, Rogers Hornsby with 33, Edd Roush with 31, and Jake Daubert and Willie Keeler tied with 30. Of all the names in the top 10, only Leach and Daubert are not enshrined in Cooperstown.

It is also worth noting that there is some doubt as to the official numbers. The above are from the Baseball Almanac web site. The SABR Baseball List and Record Book, published in 2007, has slightly different totals for some of those players. It is hardly surprising that attempting to figure out which home runs left the park and which ones didn’t in games played more than a century ago is a research challenge. In going with Baseball Almanac, I’m assuming its stats reflect the most up-to-date totals.

As unusual as Leach’s six inside the park homers may seem, the total was far from a deadball record-breaker. Six players have hit eight ISPHRs in one season, and five players have hit nine. The record belongs to Sam Crawford, who did the 360-foot sprint 12 times with the Reds in 1901. Ty Cobb holds the AL record with nine in 1909. Considering that Crawford and Cobb were Tigers teammates from 1905-1917, season ticket holders in Detroit had a pretty decent chance of witnessing an ITPHR during that span. A related statistic is that Crawford (309) and Cobb (295) are the all-time major league triples leaders.

It’s no surprise that in those 13 seasons Cobb and Crawford played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull they had spacious outfields tailored to help their ITPHR totals. In both Bennett Park (torn down after the 1911 season) or Navin Field (the core of what became Tiger Stadium), spacious outfields were built into the design. It might have been fields like this that engendered the slang term “suburbanites” for outfielders. The dense “urban” infield has remained the same through baseball history, aside from the gradual addition of more umpires, but the suburbanites had more real estate to patrol in the deadball era than their peers today.

Calling an inside the park home run a long ball or big fly might sound inappropriate, but it ain’t necessarily so, thanks to those spacious outfields. In Bill Jenkinson’s book Baseball’s Ultimate Power, he has compiled a list of the longest ITPHRs in history. His top 10 list ranges from two blows of 455 feet (both solo shots at the Polo Grounds), one by Gil Hodges off the Cubs’ Dick Ellsworth on May 16, 1962, the other by Bill Terry off the Braves’ Walter “Huck” Betts on Sept. 20, 1932, to 478 feet, a two-run shot by Lou Gehrig at Cleveland’s League Park (then known as Dunn Field), off Garland Buckeye on May 19, 1927.

In today’s stadiums, it would be impossible to hit baseballs that far and have them remain in the park. The recesses of the power alleys and center field at the Polo Grounds were legendary (think of the famous 1954 Willie Mays catch robbing Vic Wertz), and the left side of the League Park outfield (376 feet to the left field foul pole when Gehrig struck his blow) meant that some sluggers, slow of foot or otherwise, couldn’t relax after going deep.

Jenkinson’s book, by the way, is not limited to home runs. Not only does he include the longest doubles and triples in baseball history, he even includes the longest fly outs!

Over the years, as outfield real estate has shrunk, so have ITPHR totals. Consequently, the number of players hitting two such round-trippers in one game has become increasingly rare. It happened 17 times in the AL, and 34 times in the NL. The NL totals include late 19th century ITPHRs, far more plentiful in those days because some parks had no fences.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Among the two-timing ITPHR sluggers is our old friend Tommy Leach, who did so on May 21, 1903. Accomplishing the feat twice were Dan Brouthers, Jesse Burkett and Ed Delahanty of the NL and Roger Bresnahan once in each league. Special kudos to Tom McCreery of the Louisville Colonels (of the American Association), who hit three on July 12, 1897. He took that record to his grave in 1941. Even without a zombie apocalypse, McCreery is more likely to rise from the grave than is his record.

The last two-ITPHR game was three decades ago when the Twins’ Greg Gagne did so on Oct. 4, 1986, in the next-to-last game of the season. He hit both off Floyd Bannister at the Metrodome. The first was a solo shot in the second inning, and the second, a three-run job, occurred two innings later.

You have to go back to a Giants-Dodgers matchup at the Polo Grounds on Aug. 16, 1950 for the last two-ITHPR game in the NL. In the bottom of the first inning, Hank Thompson hit a three-run shot off Carl Erskine. He followed it up with a solo shot off Dan Bankhead in the seventh.

As rare as two-ITHPR games are, even rarer are games with back-to-back such homers. This has happened only twice, once in each league. The most recent was on Aug. 27, 1977 when the Rangers accomplished the feat at Yankee Stadium. In fact, they did so on back-to-back pitches. In the top of the seventh inning, Lou Piniella crashed into the right-field wall in an attempt to catch a shot by Toby Harrah. The slow-footed Piniella (32 steals in 18 seasons) could not recover before Harrah had circled the bases. Then Bump Wills hit a ball to center that glanced off Mickey Rivers’ glove and scooted far enough away to enable the speedy Wills to complete the circuit. Pitcher Ken Clay probably failed to appreciate the history he was witnessing.

More than three decades earlier, the Cubs went back-to-back against the Giants at the Polo Grounds. The date was June 23, 1946, and the victim was Nate Andrews, who gave up solo shots to Marv Rickert and Eddie Waitkus to lead off the fourth inning. That was enough to knock Andrews out of the game, but in the bottom of the inning the Giants scored nine runs to take him off the hook for the loss.

Today, if you witness just one ITPHR in your lifetime, it is tantamount to catching a glimpse of a unicorn. The “outta here” home run is the staple of highlights on ESPN and the home run derby is arguably more entertaining than the All-Star game itself. Even so, contemporary fans might be missing out on something. For the last word on the subject, let us turn to Tommy Leach himself, as quoted in The Glory of Their Times, the Lawrence Ritter classic:

Today they seem to think that the most exciting play in baseball is the home run. But in my book the most exciting play in baseball is a three-bagger, or an inside-the-park home run. You used to see a fair number of them in the old days, but now they’re the rarest plays in baseball. For sheer excitement, I don’t think anything can beat when you see that guy go tearing around the bases and come sliding into third or into the plate, with the ball coming in on a line from the outfield at the same time. Now that’s something to write home about.

So home run trot or home run gallop? Literally, a change of pace! To encourage more galloping, I suggest new ballparks with deeper fences…or no fences at all.

I have no confidence that my suggestions will be implemented.

Research Challenge
In researching this article, I noted that José Altuve was born on 5/6 (of 1990) and stands 5-foot-6, so if anyone with computer skills wants to crunch the data and come up with a list of players, born May 1-11 or June 1-11 whose stature matches their birth dates… well, have at it. I can state that of all major league players born on the above dates, the greatest gap between height and birth date belongs to Eddie Gaedel. He would have to be 3-foot-1 taller to match his June 8 birthday… if only he’d been three months premature (March 7 to match his 3-foot-7 frame).

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

Your comment about Pinella is telling as most ITPHR’s are due to some freak occurrence like an outfielder hitting the wall or an errant bounce or a misplaced hop. It is almost impossible to hit one of these in modern parks if the outfielders are doing their jobs and the infielders are in a position to effectively handle the relay. Another fact that is overlooked is that the rarity of the event probably causes many a third base coach to subconsciously hold a runner on third and settle for a triple. As each base is secured, the risk increases that it will be a wasted effort.

Joe Pancake
6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Another way ITPHRs occur is when an outfielder aggressively dives for a ball and misses it and gets past him. In this case, it’s not really a freak bounce or a case of defenders not going their jobs; the outfielder just came out on the wrong end of a high risk/high reward decision.

John Fox
6 years ago

I don’t think we are going to see new parks with deeper fences. First of all, I can’t think of too many teams that need a new park at all, all too often taxpayers end up on the hook to subsidize them Second, although I like triples and inside the parkers, in general fans love to see the ball hit into the seats. third, deep outfields mean bleacher fans get a distant view. Imagine sitting deep in the bleachers at the Polo Grounds, (and I can imagine it, as a young child I saw the Mets take on Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers in 1962) you would nearly be a zip code away from the batters box. Just seems like a waste of valuable real estate to have enormous outfields.

It was another excellent article from Mr. Jackson, i always like his pieces.

6 years ago
Reply to  John Fox

I can’t think of too many teams that need a new park either… in fact, I think far too often professional sports have sought new facilities payed for with tax money when the old ones were adequate so they could charge fans more to watch the games. That being said, I can think of one team that really does seem to need a new field and that would be the Oakland A’s.

That being said, I agree with you that the days of Parks with huge outfields are probably gone for good in the modern era. Which is a shame, because while watching a ball sail out of the park is fun, it definitely has tilted the game towards power hitters. I personally thing it is huge fun to watch a player on second score from a single… or on first score from a double. The race of player and ball to the plate is one I never tire of.

6 years ago

Thanks Frank! Fantastic write up. I’ve got to agree with Mr. Leach, I too think the most exciting play is someone trying to leg out a triple or an ITPHR. I found it interesting that Rogers Hornsby is in the top 10. Once the Deadball era was over, he became an excellent power hitter, hitting 42 one season and 301 for a career. Prior to 1920, his best year was 9, then two years later, 42. Today we’d cry “steroids”, but it helps to show how much the game changed in a few short years.

Joe Pancake
6 years ago

“For sheer excitement, I don’t think anything can beat when you see that guy go tearing around…”

This made me think of the Alex Gordon hit-and-error that was the penultimate at bat of the 2014 World Series. Although I understand why he was held up at third, as a baseball fan, I *so* wish he would have been sent home. Either the World Series would have ended on a play at the plate or they Royals would have extended the series on a Little League ITPHR.

How great would that have been?

David Horwich
6 years ago

In the 3rd plate appearance of his 2-ITPHR game, Greg Gagne tripled. He sure got his running in that day…

Paul G.
6 years ago

QUIBBLE: The Louisville Colonels were in the National League in 1897 when Tom McCreery hit 3 ITPHRs. The American Association had disbanded after the 1891 season and Louisville was absorbed into the National League. A new minor league named the American Association would play starting in 1902.

Cliff Blau
6 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

Quibbly quibble- Louisville was actually in the National League AND American Association in 1897, since that was the official name of the league 1892-1900+.

Paul G.
6 years ago

I’ll also note that when Ed Delahanty hit 4 home runs in a game, it is not clear how many of them were ITPHRs. One definitely cleared the fence – it went over the scoreboard – and one is clearly an ITPHR. The other two are nebulous. The SABR article mentions that one ball went over an inner fence but the outfielder chased the ball under the bleachers, so that could be interpreted either way. Ditto for the last one which landed on the roofs of the center field clubhouses, which may or may not have been in play. For what it is worth there was no throw on that last one, which may indicate it was “gone” or it may have been a realization of the futility of the moment.

Mr Punch
6 years ago

Nice piece. The return of asymmetric ballparks may restore some ITPHRs – I’ve seen two grand slam ITPHRs in Fenway Park, to right and left, caused by that park’s oddities.

87 Cards
6 years ago

The ultimate inside-the-park home-run was by Roberto Clemente on July 25, 1956–a walk-off grand slammer against the Cubs in Pittsburgh. This link excerpts accounts from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Bruce Markusen’s Clemente biography:

6 years ago
Reply to  87 Cards

And, to come full circle, that article ends with a reference back here:

Chris Jaffee of The Hardball Times calls it “the coolest homer of them all,” /blockquote>Though it got the author’s name wrong (it’s Chris Jaffe), I believe it’s referring to this

John G.
6 years ago

Interesting, thanks. For a related deep-dive, there’s Mike Muldoon of Cleveland’s first National League team.

If Baseball-Reference reporting is accurate, Muldoon hit five ITPHRs in three days (8/17-18-19/1882), including consecutive games with two ITPHRs, all against (only) two pitchers in last-place Worcester.

Muldoon finished the 1882 season with 6 HRs, one off of the N.L. lead. The following season, for an encore, Muldoon had more PAs and ended up with exactly zero HRs of any kind.

Different era, indeed…

Rich Dunstan
6 years ago

Watching baseball (sporadically) since 1958, I’ve seen just two ITPHRs, both by my Giants: one in person (Ed Bressoud, 1960) and one on TV (Angel Pagan, 2013). Bressoud’s was a three-run job completing a six-run rally from a 5-0 deficit, and the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen in a baseball game.

Cliff Blau
6 years ago

Ty Cobb led the AL in HRs in 1909 and all were inside the park, per the SABR Home Run Log:

Dana Yost
6 years ago

Yes, I had wondered about Cobb in 1909, too. Thank you, Cliff Blau. I believe Cobb won the triple crown in 1909.