Review by C.J. Bunce
Joe Cox’s new book, The Immaculate Inning: Unassisted Triple Plays, 40/40 Seasons, and the Stories Behind Baseball’s Rarest Feats, is a fun new sampling of the biggest, rare feats in baseball, as well as some of the strangest and more obscure baseball stats. If there was ever a game full of trivia, it’s baseball. After 150 year of organized gameplay, it’s no wonder. As referenced in The Immaculate Inning, in 2003, USA Today ran a study of what was the hardest thing to do in sports. The answer–hitting a baseball. So for those pros who have done it in astronomical numbers (and sometimes unusual ways), you’re really talking about 150 years of the best athletes around. Two grand slams in a single game? It’s a big deal–it’s happened 13 times, but how about two grand slams in a single inning? That was the case with Cardinals third basement Fernando Tatis in a 1999 game against the Dodgers. Cox’s book, available in a hardcover now here at Amazon, is being released in paperback next month in time for the new season (opening day is March 28!) available for pre-order now here.
A pitcher striking out 20 batters in a single game (done only six times), completing an unassisted triple play, two baseball versions of the horse racing Triple Crown–one at bat, one on the mound, and records for hitting streaks, RBIs, hitting a homer in your first major league at-bat, stealing 100 bases in a season, hitting .400, striking out 300 batters in a season, pitching 50 consecutive scoreless innings–these are the Guinness Book-level feats of baseball that many a player has dreamed about that fill the pages of The Immaculate Inning (the title is the name for a trio of consecutive strikeouts in a single inning with no balls or balls otherwise getting into play).
Other inclusions are more bizarre and the beasts of rules that don’t follow logic more than anything else. Like the four-strike inning, which has happened 87 times, most notably by Cubs pitcher Orval Overall in the 1908 World Series (Angels pitcher Chuck Finlay did it three times before anyone else had done it once). All of the stats in this book, in fact, are exactly the kinds of “freaky things” Finlay predicted one day to “end up in one of those trivia machines in some bar somewhere.” Or in Joe Cox’s book.
As with the excitement of the game itself, most interesting are tales of records within a single game, rather than records for seasons or over multiple games. Cox’s best writing is when he lays it all out there, as in the chapter on “Surviving Shenanigans to Win a League Batting Title.” The fact is, as much as the game might seem to have changed over the years it really hasn’t changed at all, reflecting the country at large. Records–and the very fun of the sport–will always be bogged down by rule violations (performance-enhancing drugs, gambling, discrimination, etc.) and the impact of politics and unfairness of every variety. More records would be on the books if not for rampant racism throughout most of baseball’s history, and Cox notes many examples.
Another fascinating component is the pervasiveness of the 1890s in baseball records with longevity (not to mention the impact of a good or bad fish dinner). The stories are brief, with summaries at the beginning of the discussion of each feat, although the “surprises” and “likelihood of additional occurrences” are purely subjective. Stories on the best known players probably have too much space, and Cox spends too much time on personal life issues often well beyond the baseball careers of the subjects. But these are easy things for the reader to skip past.
It’s a fun read, ideal for kids or novices to baseball (although they may need to look up some terms used), and a good revisit of some of baseball’s greats for longtime fans of the game. The Immaculate Inning includes 50 black and white photographs of select players discussed in the book. It’s available now in a hardcover edition here at Amazon, or pre-order the paperback edition here, coming next month from publisher Lyons Press.
Note: The book does not include stats after the 2017 season.