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The facts behind the feats – ‘The Immaculate Inning’

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Of all our major sports, baseball is the one with the longest history. All that history means that on a singular level, there’s room for a lot of interesting things to happen. It’s like the adage about infinite monkeys and infinite typewriters eventually producing “Hamlet” – do something long enough and you’ll eventually get some singular results.

Joe Cox’s latest book “The Immaculate Inning: Unassisted Triple Plays, 40/40 Seasons, and the Stories Behind Baseball’s Rarest Feats” (Lyons Press, $27.95) recounts some of those singular moments. Some are just one game (or even one play) while others consist of longer stretches and even full seasons, but they all share at least one commonality: you don’t see them every day.

Here, we get a closer look at 30 of baseball’s rare accomplishments. Fifteen of these feats took place in just one game; the others are longer, with five involving multi-game streaks and the rest reflecting full seasons.

The shorter happenings are indicative of brief flashes of brilliance, with a planetary alignment of talent, situation and luck. Stuff like the unassisted triple play of the subtitle – something that has happened just 15 (or 16 – you’ll see) times in the game’s history; a lot of factors need to fall into place for one of those to happen. Feats such as four strikeouts in an inning or the titular immaculate inning – striking out the side on nine pitches – happen more frequently but are no less impressive.

Some of the single-game accomplishments are fairly well-known – four homers in a game is an established milestone for a hitter, as is 20 strikeouts in a game for a pitcher. Among the less prominent offensive marks, six is a popular number – six hits in a game, six walks in a game and six steals in a game are all rarities.

But those aren’t the only game rarities. Want to know how many players homered on the very first pitch they saw in the big leagues? Cox has you covered (it’s 30, by the way). What about a Super Slam, that magical moment played out in every kid’s sandlot fantasy? Two outs, bottom of the ninth, down three runs, bases loaded … and it’s a grand slam! That’s the Super Slam, something that has happened even less frequently than the first-pitch homer.

Then there are the streaks – getting hits in 12 straight at-bats or getting on base in 17 straight plate appearances; eight-game home run streaks and 40-plus game hitting streaks and 50-plus inning scoreless streaks. All fascinating. As for full-year feats, you can check out 40/40 seasons and Triple Crowns both batting and pitching. Years with 50-plus home runs or a .400 batting average or stealing 100 bases or striking out 300 batters.

All of it laid out through Cox’s research. Not only does he provide the specific number of players who have accomplished a given feat, but he also offers up some historical context. We get the first player to do it and the latest player to do it, as well as Cox’s thoughts with regards to those who were likeliest to achieve a certain feat, those whose presence on the list is a surprise and the potential for someone else to reach said milestone going forward. All that and some engaging stories about some of those who managed to etch their names on the game’s history via these remarkable on-field exploits.

It’s an interesting collection. Cox has included a couple of sections that don’t quite jibe with the rest - “Position Players Pitching” and “Surviving Shenanigans to Win a League Batting Title” are the main culprits – but they’re plenty interesting, offering a quirkier take and an opportunity for something a little bit different. Still, the main body of the work is all about these statistical anomalies that offer snapshots of greatness; some are larger than others, but every one of them is an indicator of something amazing and precious taking place on a baseball field.

And Cox captures that sense of wonder and excitement. He’s clearly someone who adores hardball rarity – his previous book “Almost Perfect” shares that same sort of interest in the unlikely – and has a great passion for the game. When that passion is compounded with his in-depth research – as well as his breezy style and conversational tone – you wind up with a fine read.

“The Immaculate Inning” is an ideal book for any baseball fan with an appreciation for the game’s vast and varied history. Joe Cox has brought together some of baseball history’s most impressive feats under a single banner; why not take a swing?

Last modified on Tuesday, 06 February 2018 17:11

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