It was quite a moment of hilarity and schadenfreude when back on July 22nd, the Red Sox allowed a inside-the-park grand slam as part of a 28-5 loss to the Blue Jays. If you somehow haven’t seen the play, it was a fairly ridiculous sequence that involved a pretty bad defensive mix up.
As funny as it was, the play didn’t end up being that consequential. It took the score from 6-0 to 10-0 in a game where the final score ended up in weird football game territory. Sure, that loss helped put some nails in the coffin of the Red Sox contending chances, but it didn’t exactly swing that particular game.
I say all of that not only because it’s a funny moment to think about, but also so we can dig into the history books and look at an inside-the-park home run from Yankees’ history that ended up being very consequential.
In mid-August 1920, the Yankees were locked in a battle, trying to win their first ever AL pennant. Before the season, they had added Babe Ruth into the fold. While they had been a solid team the year before, the addition of Ruth turned them into a genuine contender.
An August 15th win over the Senators took the Yankees to 72-43, just half a game back of Cleveland and the White Sox, who were tied for first. As it happened, they were due to open up a series against Cleveland the very next day. The series opener didn’t go great as they took a 4-3 loss on the 16th, unable to complete a rally after scoring three runs in the ninth.
However, that particular day is known for something more than just a 4-3 game. In the fifth inning of that game, Cleveland’s Ray Chapman was struck in the head by a Carl Mays pitch. After falling unconscious on the field and being taken to the hospital, he died early the next morning. That, understandably cast a pall over proceedings, and the game on the 17th was rescheduled.
When the two teams finally resumed on the 18th, the Yankees took a first inning lead on a Duffy Lewis single, but Cleveland would take the lead after scoring a run each in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings. While Wally Pipp got one run back on a seventh inning RBI single, the Yankees were still trailing when they came to the plate in the ninth.
Unfortunately, Ruth was not due up in the inning as he had made the last out of the eighth, but the Yankees still had some chance as 4-5-6 in the lineup were due up. While the #4 hitter Del Pratt grounded out, Lewis recorded his third hit of the day to give the Yankees a shot.
That brought Pipp to the plate. With pinch-runner Chick Fewster in for Lewis, Cleveland pitcher Jim Bagby took to the rubber. In the at-bat, Pipp took a Bagby pitch to deep right-center field, evading the Cleveland outfielders. Fewster raced all the way around, as did Pipp. The Yankees first baseman managed to cross the plate in time, giving the Yankees a 4-3 walk-off win on an inside-the-park home run.
Now, most inside-the-park home runs require some amount of mistakes from the defense, because it typically takes quite a lot for a ball to remain in play long enough for someone to make it all the way around the bases. In the case of Pipp’s, it doesn’t seem like there was. This game was played in the Polo Grounds, the dimensions of which were notably insane for modern baseball sensibilities. The New York Times account of the game also mentions the grass being slippery near the fence. It seems those factors allowed Pipp to race all the way around without much danger, as he reportedly crossed home plate just as the ball was reached second base on the relay home.
The win took the Yankees back within a half a game of first, but they failed to take advantage of it. They lost to Cleveland the next day, in the game rescheduled after Chapman’s death. The Yankees went 22-15 after the walk-off win, but it wasn’t enough as they finished two games back of the White Sox and three back of the AL champions Cleveland. In the end, Cleveland won the World Series and dedicated it to Chapman, which is fair enough.
The dimensions of Yankee Stadium make it a bit hard for any inside-the-park home run, but I wouldn’t turn down some sort of crazy, walk-off one.
New York Times, August 19, 1920