Most baseball players who make it to the big leagues would be happy to lead either the American or National League in any major batting category, home runs, RBIs, or average, even one of them once. Detroit Tiger Miguel Cabrera led the AL in all three this year, putting together a stupendous batting year to help his team avoid the embarrassing loss of a division title it should have easily won.
Cabrera, who became a third baseman in order to give Prince Fielder a place to play when acquired as a free agent first baseman, had an easier time capturing the three major hitting elements of the sport than the Tigers did in claiming the AL Central Division. Cabrera concluded his season Wednesday with 44 home runs, 139 runs batted in and a .330 average. The guy was great, especially down the stretch as the Tigers hunted down the Chicago White Sox for their playoff spot.
This is the first time in 45 years, since 1967, when the Boston Red Sox’s Carl Yastrzemski did it, that any player has won the Triple Crown. Rare enough in its own way, horses have won the thoroughbred Triple Crown of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, more recently.
Winning the Triple Crown is pretty much the holy grail of hitting. It’s tough enough for a player to lead a league in any of the three key batting categories at all, never mind all at once. Pulling off the feat is rarer than pitching a perfect game. It is about as rare as pulling off an unassisted triple play. There have been 15 unassisted triple plays and now 16 Triple Crowns by 14 different players dating back to 1878. Winning the Triple Crown is much harder given that it measures a season’s worth of achievement and that an unassisted triple play is the product of carefully arranged circumstances on the diamond and that a bit of luck is involved.
It has been quite the drought for Triple Crowns, but only a year before Yaz won his, the American League had a different Triple Crown winner in Baltimore Orioles slugger Frank Robinson. Between Robinson’s performance and the previous Triple Crown a decade passed. Mickey Mantle’s 1956 showing was the best season of his career.
Ted Williams won the second of two Triple Crowns in 1947 for the Red Sox (his first was in 1942) and Joe “Ducky” Medwick won one for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1937. The New York Yankees‘ “Iron Horse” first baseman Lou Gehrig really rang up the numbers in his 1934 Triple Crown year, with a .363 average, 49 homers (Gehrig never hit 50) and 165 RBIs. Gehrig’s triumph was another case of two in a row. The Philadelphia A’s’ Jimmie Foxx won the Triple Crown in the American League, as well, in 1933. Remarkably the Philadelphia Phillies‘ Chuck Klein also won the National League Triple Crown the same year.
Rogers Hornsby, the fabulous St. Louis Cardinals’ second baseman who three times hit over .400, but wasn’t regarded as a power hitter, nonetheless won the Triple Crown twice, in 1922 and 1925. In 1909, when home runs were more difficult to accumulate than booze during Prohibition, the Detroit Tigers‘ Ty Cobb actually won the Triple Crown with his home-run total a mere 9. In 1901, the terrific Napoleon Lajoie earned the Triple Crown with a .426 average, 14 homers and 125 RBIs when he was playing for the Philadelphia Athletics.
There were also two 19th century Triple Crown winners. In 1878 a fellow named Paul Hines, then of the Providence Grays, led the National League in the big three categories, though his homer total was 4 and his RBI total was 50. Hines is definitely the most obscure Triple Crown winner. Some arcane information surrounds Hines’ achievement. He was retroactively declared the first Triple Crown winner because RBIs were not an official statistic until later. Also, it has been suggested, but disputed, that Hines, during that same 1878 season, accomplished the first unassisted triple play. He made a daredevil catch in center field with two runners aboard who were going on the pitch and then ran the ball back into the infield, stepping on third after both had passed it. They were both called out, but Hines also threw to second to make sure the trailing runner really was out and that move threw the unassisted part of the equation into question.
Even the other 19th century winner, Tip O’Neill, was far better known. He also boasted far superior numbers in 1887 for the St. Louis Browns of the American Association, batting .435 with 14 home runs and 123 runs driven in. O’Neill also led the league in doubles, triples, hits, runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging percentage that year. Whale of a year.
Except for Cabrera, who is still active, and the two 19th century stars, a common thread among the other Triple Crown winners is that they all were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. As far as Cabrera goes, this makes two straight batting titles, two home run crowns and two RBI titles. And he is not yet 30.