Considered one of the rarest of feats, an unassisted triple play occurs so infrequently that only 12 have been turned in modern Major League Baseball history. It’s even more astonishing when you consider that the triple play itself is an unusual event and that there have been more perfect games (17) than unassisted triple plays. Most often, unassisted triple plays require luck more than anything; often times, a ball must be caught on a line drive by a middle infielder with no outs and runners on the move from first and second, giving the defensive player time to tag the runner from first and step on the bag at second for the force out of the other runner.
In Red Sox history, Boston has been not only a victim (once) but the beneficiary (twice!). In 1909, shortstop Neal Ball of the Cleveland Indians became the first player in modern baseball history to turn the trick. In the top of the second at Cleveland on 19 July, with Red Sox shortstop Heinie Wagner on second base and first baseman Jake Stahl on first, Boston second baseman Amby McConnell struck a hard line drive right at Ball. In one quick motion, the infielder caught the ball, stepped on second to force Wagner, and then tagged out Stahl, who was just a couple strides away. Boston would end up on the losing end of a 6-1 Cleveland win but take revenge in the second game with an 8-2 victory.
14 years later, on 14 September 1923, Red Sox first baseman George Burns becomes the first Red Sox player and third ever Major League player to perform the rare feat, and one of only two infielders other than a shortstop or second baseman to do so. Facing the Indians at Fenway Park, Burns snares a line drive off the bat of Frank Brower and tags Rube Lutzke who had strayed too far from the bag at first. Burns then found himself in a foot race to second base with Riggs Stephenson, who had started running towards third as the pitch was delivered. With every ounce of effort he had, Burns managed to slide into the bag, the ball still in his glove, ahead of Stephenson to complete the trifecta.
More than seventy years would pass after Burns’ feat when shortstop John Valentin took the field on 08 July 1994 against the Mariners at Fenway Park. Trailing 2-0 at the time and with runners on first and second, Marc Newfield hits a line drive off Red Sox pitcher Chris Nabholz straight at Valentin, who goes down on one knee to snare the line drive with the runners going. Valentin then casually runs to second to double off Mike Blowers and nonchalantly tags Keith Mitchell, who had virtually come to a stop, realizing that his goose was cooked. It wasn’t until Valentin reached the dugout and teammates began to congratulate him that he realized what he had just accomplished; ironically, he had only tagged Mitchell in fun, thinking that there was already an out in the inning.
Oddly enough, of the twelve players that have turned an unassisted triple play, two of these players have also hit for the cycle, a feat rarer than a standard triple play: Valentin and Burns. Burns accomplished that feat as a member of the New York Giants in 1920; Valentin made his mark on 06 June 1996, the last of 18 Boston players who have hit for the cycle.