The Batter Who Ran To Third

This morning I got a fun tweet from a reader:

Reading @KeithOlbermann’s BBNerd Blog, remembered a dream I had where I was @ a ball game and the batter broke and ran 4 3rd.

That was no dream! It was a past life experience!

Jim St. Vrain

Baseball historians have never been entirely comfortable with saying with absolute certainty that this happened, but the anecdotal and circumstantial evidence suggests that on April 27, 1902, Chicago pitcher Jimmy St. Vrain – the youngest player in the majors – grounded to Pirates’ immortal shortstop Honus Wagner and as the astonished Wagner threw to first, St. Vrain ran to third.

Davy Jones of the 1902 Cubs told the late historian (and top economist) Larry Ritter the story and Ritter put it in his seminal book The Glory Of Their Times (which you must buy now if you have not already done so):

He was a left-handed pitcher and a right-handed batter. But an absolutely terrible hitter — never even got a loud foul off anybody.

Well, one day we were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates and Jimmy was pitching for us. The first two times he went up to bat that day he looked simply awful. So when he came back after striking out the second time Frank Selee, our manager, said, “Jimmy, you’re a left-handed pitcher, why don’t you turn around and bat from the left side, too? Why not try it?”

Actually, Frank was half-kidding, but Jimmy took him seriously. So the next time he went up he batted left-handed. Turned around and stood on the opposite side of the plate from where he was used to, you know. And darned if he didn’t actually hit the ball. He tapped a slow roller down to Honus Wagner at shortstop and took off as fast as he could go … but instead of running to first base, he headed for third!

Oh, my God! What bedlam! Everybody yelling and screaming at poor Jimmy as he raced to third base, head down, spikes flying, determined to get there ahead of the throw. Later on, Honus told us that as a matter of fact, he almost did throw the ball to third.

“I’m standing there with the ball in my hand,” Honus said, looking at this guy running from home to third, and for an instant there I swear I didn’t know where to throw the damn ball. And when I finally did throw to first, I wasn’t at all sure it was the right thing to do!”

The story sounds great, it has a quote from Wagner, and Jones’s eyewitness account. The only problem is, as noted here, while Jimmy St. Vrain pitched against the Pirates on April 27, but witness Jones didn’t join Chicago until May 13. St. Vrain was only in the bigs for 12 games, so there isn’t a lot of wiggle room. He did start again against the Pirates in Pittsburgh on May 30 before returning to the bushes, but as most historians note, you would think something as bizarre as a batter trying to run the wrong way around the diamond would’ve been mentioned in the usually labyrinthine newspaper articles of the time – but the Jones story is the only contemporary account.


  1. Clarke Barry

    As someone who, for reasons unknown, always threw left and batted right and could not reverse either and enjoy any success whatsoever I can sympathize.

  2. Sam

    Didn’t Gary Cooper run to third base when he was playing the left-handed Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees”? As for real baseball (and not the movies) I will sometimes see the reflection of my TV in the mirror while a game is on and it looks like the runner is running to third. Posada was the worst baserunner I’ve ever seen and even he didn’t do that.

  3. Juan

    My dad mentioned an anecdote on a couple of occasions, that when Frank Howard was with the Dodgers back in the early 60’s, one time he made contact and headed for third.

    Until today I took it for granted that it actually happened, but just this minute it’s starting to look like the sort of story prankster Robin Ventura would make up, like he did with Rickey Henderson and John Olerud.

    Waddaya say, Keith? Frank Howard: fact or fiction? Maybe you could ask Vin Scully next time your paths cross, he would know!

    • Juan

      Dad had a wonderful Manny Mota story. We live in Mexico, but dad was in LA, waiting for a friend in a bar, when Mr Mota came in and sat nearby. So dad says in Spanish “Howdy Manuel”. Manny replied “Howdy”. Dad asked “Are we gonna win this year?”, and Manny answered “God willing”.

      My personal Dodgers story was at the 1981 Dodgers-Expos playoffs, Game Two at Dodger Stadium. Pre-game, Valenzuela in the bullpen, a bunch of us were on top of the Dodger bullpen watching Fernando warm up. Everyone shouted “El toro!”, or “Olé!”, stuff like that, Fernando ignored them all. Then there was me, a thirteen year old blond Mexican kid, waiting for the right moment to shout “ETCHOHUAQUILA!”, and I did, and I swear to God, Fernando was NOT expecting to hear the name of his hometown.

      Anyway, Fernie gave up three runs (maybe I jinxed it), but Burris pitched a shutout (so it didn’t make any difference).

  4. Kim Sherwood

    Last season, for fun, my son’s little league coach had the boys practice playing “backwards”. They all had to hit from the opposite side and run the bases from third around to home. God as my witness, one of the boys actually ran to third in the next game. These weren’t T-ballers. It was a group of kids that have all been playing for years.

  5. Stu Cole

    I used to umpire little league baseball. One night, I was working a girls tee ball game in which one of the teams was known for their aggressive base running. One of their rules was that anytime their only base runner was on first, that girl was supposed to run to second base on contact, and without slowing down or looking at the third base coach, continue onto third.
    It was early in the season, and one of the girls batting at the bottom of the order led off with her first little league single. She was excited and nervous at the same time. Positioning myself between first and second, I could hear the first base coach having a hard time getting her to understand the rule. He was really emphasizing she needed to end up on third.
    The next batter ripped a single to right…and to everyone’s amazement…this girl made a beeline from first to third! The pitcher had to jump out of the way because of the determination this girl had to get to third.
    I felt like an ogre when I had to call her out and she was practically in tears because she felt she did exactly what the coach wanted!
    As an umpire, I worked games of kids aged 6 to 17. I would venture to guess that MLB umps more consistently make the right calls. But, you’ll never convince me they know the rule book any better than the guy or gal who umps six and seven year olds. Once a month, I would encounter situations that to this day I’ve never seen happen in a major league game.

  6. Patricia Ellyn Powell

    I love it! There should be a baseball card of St. Vrain with a ONE WAY sign over his shoulder…if this is true. If it is not, it damn sure should be! Reminds me of the time I put the cereal in the freezer and the ice cream on top of the fridge. Easy to get mixed up, especially when excited. What larks!

  7. ShoeBeDoBeDo

    It must be one of those “leftie” things. I have two southpaw siblings. My sister bats and bowls with her left hand, but uses scissors and can even manage a passable signature with her right hand (she has a disc problem in her cervical spine which has decreased functioning of her left arm over the years). My brother, on the other hand, shows no ambidexterity. Sounds like leftie St. Vrain swung the bat and his body naturally wanted to go in the direction his front was facing. If it really happened, I’m sure he never lived it down!

    • Patricia Ellyn Powell

      Sounds true. I noticed last night on The Grammys that Sir Paul McCartney was playing left while Springsteen and all the others were playing right. Surely he has always been a leftie, but it really showed with all the other axes pointed the other way. heehee

  8. Tim Renshaw

    Great post as usual Mr Olbermann! Your acumen as a political reporter is only exceeded by your depth of baseball trivia knowledge. I am eternally in you intellectual debt!

  9. David

    I’m a big topps unissued card collector. Love to see you do another story on unissued stuff. You never got to finish the articles for Sports Collectors Digest on unissued cards. I have some cool stuff but missed a bunch a long the way! Take care! Melz

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