Les Nunamaker in a 1915 public domain photo, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Take a moment to think of the greatest defensive catchers in the history of baseball. There is certainly a considerable amount of them since the position is primarily regarded as one focused on defense. Terrific-hitting catchers like Yogi Berra and Mike Piazza are highly unusual. Thus, it has always been considered a valuable asset for a team when its catcher possesses a potent arm capable of throwing out baserunners. 98 years ago today, a Yankee catcher named Les Nunamaker set a Major League Baseball record for this skill that has never been equaled. Not even elite defenders with rifles behind the plate like Johnny Bench or Ivan Rodriguez were ever able to accomplish what the 25-year-old Nebraskan did that day for the Yankees against the Detroit Tigers. For on this day, Nunamaker caught all three Tiger baserunners on the basepaths in the seventh inning.
Although Nunamaker was regarded a good defensive catcher, he did not appear to be the a real record-setting player. He won two World Series rings in his career with the 1912 Red Sox and the 1920 Cleveland Indians, but he made just two plate appearances combined in the Fall Classic (both in '20). Nunamaker never played more than 107 games per season in a 12-year career, and in '14, he split time at catcher with Jeff Sweeney after the former was bought from the Boston Red Sox on May 23rd. Nunamaker's amazing feat was not even well-documented in the papers the next day. Perhaps this is unsurprising since the lowly Yankees, who were on their way to a third consecutive losing season, lost the game 4-1. Tigers ace Harry Coveleski threw a five-hitter, "his twirling proving too much for the visitors." With a seventh inning lead though, the Tigers tried to get too aggressive on the basepaths against Nunamaker, who threw out 43% of all baserunners who tried to steal against him in his career.
Len "King" Cole was on the mound for the Yankees. He was one of seven pitchers to make at least 14 starts for the struggling Yankees in '14, who finished second-to-last and 30 games behind the AL champion Philadelphia Athletics. These Yankees were far from the juggernaut that they are known as today, still without a World Series appearance in their 12th season in New York. From 1907-18, they finished above fourth place just once, and only finished the season above .500 twice in this span. Their starter, Cole finished the year with a 3.30 ERA in 141.2 innings, a mark that would be good by today's standards, but in the "Dead Ball Era," it equated to an unimpressive ERA+ of 88.
The Tigers jumped out to a 4-0 lead through six innings against Cole, and he walked centerfielder Hugh High to begin the seventh inning. High was playing for the injured Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, and with right fielder Sam Crawford at the plate, he decided to steal second base like the speedy Cobb might have done (Cobb stole 897 bases in his career). Nunamaker had none of this though, and he caught High with a great throw to second baseman Luke Boone (no relation to Aaron). Cole then walked Crawford, a Hall of Famer and the all-time leader in triples. Nunamaker grew up in Malcolm, which was not actually very far from where Crawford lived--he was nicknamed "Wahoo Sam" for his Nebraska hometown. On the first pitch of the next at bat against left fielder Bobby Veach, Crawford took off for second in an attempt to add to his career total of over 300 stolen bases, and his fellow Cornhusker was unable to throw him out. Shortly afterward though, Crawford, perhaps preparing for another steal, built a lead that was far too large for Nunamaker to ignore, and the catcher picked him off at second base.
There were two outs now, but Cole walked Veach, the starter's straight free pass. Nunamaker notched the first two outs himself, and once Veach inexplicably decided to try his luck against Nunamaker, he was gunned down at second base as well. The catcher's three assists in the inning set an AL record and tied a major league record set by John Milligan of the 1887 Philadelphia Athletics, who played in the American Assocation (the National League's first big rival). No NL catcher has ever tied Nunamaker's mark in the 136-year history of the league. The side was retired without a single ball put into play, a bizarre feat also unmatched in baseball history. Oddly, the Yankees' one run in the 4-1 loss was scored when Nunamaker stole home on the back end of a double steal. Maybe he was just mocking the Tigers at that point.
Nunamaker's achievement is a record of opportunity, as it requires another team to make multiple attempts to steal in an inning for a catcher to act upon. Nonetheless, it is an accomplishment that Nunamaker has all to himself in the modern era of baseball. It is why he is remembered, and to be remembered at all is a pretty special feat in it of itself.