This post highlights our picks for the best baseball plays of all time. Any guesses on what #1 is?
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Top Plays in Baseball History - How We Picked ‘Em
Professional baseball began over 150 years ago. Since that time, tens of thousands of games have been played and an incalculable number of great plays have occurred.
In this post we scan the history of the national pastime and pick out the most monumental plays that have happened on a professional baseball field.
Of course, any post that claims "the best" of anything is subjective by its very nature. So we acknowledge that this list is 100% subjective.
It's our personal picks based on our own knowledge of baseball history and opinions about the most incredible plays that have occurred over time.
And just to be clear, we see a difference between baseball plays and baseball moments.
A play is an action that is taken by a player during the course of a live game.
A moment is more broad and is generally anything noteworthy that occurs on a baseball field. As an example, Lou Gehrig's "luckiest man" speech is a great baseball moment, but not a play.
Many of the top plays that we picked made our list not just because it was a moment of incredibly impressive defense, but because of the larger context that the play happened in.
Meaning, a great play made in a high-pressure situation when an important game is on the line stands out more to us than a great play made in a situation that wasn’t as high-pressure.
Best Baseball Plays All Time - Our Top 10 Picks
Now that we've set the stage for this post, let's get down to it.
Read on to see our picks for the top ten plays in baseball history.
10. Ozzie Smith’s Bare Hand Reaction
In April 1978, just ten games after his MLB debut, Ozzie Smith of the San Diego Padres made the greatest play of his career.
It was a home game against the Atlanta Braves and Jeff Burroughs was the batter.
Burroughs hit a hard grounder to Ozzie's left, and he dove for the ball. As he was diving, the ball hit a rock or something similar and changed directions.
With his momentum taking him the opposite direction, Ozzie instinctively reached back with his bare hand to make the catch. Then, he popped off the ground and fired the ball to first for the out.
Many fans and commentators call this play the best they have ever seen an infielder make, with some even referring to it as one of the greatest catches of all time.
9. Jim Edmonds’ Acrobatic Grab in 1997
During a July 1997 game in Kansas City, Center Fielder Jim Edmonds of the Anaheim Angels made an eye popping catch.
In the bottom of the fifth, David Howard of the Royals hit the ball towards deep center.
Edmonds immediately took off running.
At first he started running back and slightly towards the right, periodically glancing back at the ball. Then he realized he was directly underneath the ball.
With perfect timing, he laid out and caught the ball directly overhead while sliding face first into the warning track.
It was easily the most impressive play an outfielder had made in decades.
8. Bill Virdon’s Game Preserving Catch Against the Yankees
The 1960 World Series matched up the powerhouse New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Yankees were the favorites to win the Series that year.
By the fourth inning of game one the Pirates were leading by two runs. However, the Yankees were threatening.
With no outs and two men on, Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra stepped to the plate.
Yogi crushed a Vern Law pitch to deep right center. Pirates Center Fielder Bill Virdon and Right Fielder Roberto Clemente both ran for the ball.
Virdon and Clemente nearly collided with each other while racing to the ball. Virdon made the catch over his shoulder just a step before the wall, narrowly missing Clemente.
That catch saved at least two runs and preserved the Pirates' lead. Pittsburgh would go on to win the game and the Series in a thrilling seven games.
In 2017, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame unveiled a bronze sculpture of Virdon's famous catch. Pretty cool!
7. Al Gionfriddo, Brooklyn’s Unsung Hero in 1947
The 1947 World Series featured the newly integrated Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees. Game six was played at Yankee Stadium in front of nearly 75,000 screaming fans.
It was the sixth inning of the game and the Dodgers were leading 8 - 5. Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio came to bat with two on and two outs. Playing Left Field for the Dodgers was a relatively unknown reserve outfielder named Al Gionfriddo.
DiMaggio crushed the ball to left field. It looked like the ball was heading to Brooklyn’s bullpen for a game-tying home run when Gionfriddo made a one-handed catch far over his right shoulder before running into the wall.
Those in attendance at Yankee Stadium appreciated that impressive catch and applauded Gionfriddo as he trotted into the dugout.
The good news for Gionfriddo was that his catch saved the game for the Dodgers, who held on to win game six (though, they ultimately lost the Series). The bad news is that the game would be Gionfriddo’s last in the major leagues.
Gionfriddo’s catch against DiMaggio would be the defining moment in his career, and the photograph of the catch became an iconic baseball picture.
6. Derek Jeter’s Flip to Nab Giambi at Home
In the 2001 ALDS, the Oakland Athletics were up 2 - 0 in the best of five series. The A's had all the momentum and were at home for game three, hoping to close out the Yankees in Oakland.
In the bottom of the seventh with a man on first, A's batter Terrence Long hit a double to right field. Oakland's Jason Giambi took off running for home.
Yankees Right Fielder Shane Spencer fielded the ball and overthrew his cut off man.
As the ball lazily bounced towards home, Derek Jeter ran in from shortstop, grabbed the ball, and immediately flipped it to catcher Jorge Posada who tagged a standing Giambi at home.
It was not only a great play, but a momentum changing play. The Yankees won that game by one run, then they won the next two games to defeat the A's and advance to the ALCS.
5. Bill Wambsganss and His World Series Unassisted Triple-Play
Just one year after the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919, the 1920 World Series featured one of the most memorable plays in early baseball history.
In the fifth inning of game five, the Brooklyn Robins were at bat and the Cleveland Indians were on defense. There were runners on first and second with no outs.
Brooklyn's Clarence Mitchell hit a liner towards center and Second Baseman Bill Wambsganss lept up to catch it for out one. He then promptly stepped on second for out two, then tagged the runner from first who by this point was nearly on second. Out three.
Bill Wambsganss had just completed the rarest of plays in the rarest of settings: an unassisted triple play in the World Series. To this day, it is the first and only unassisted triple play in World Series history.
The Indians went on to win game five, and eventually, the 1920 World Series.
4. Ron Swoboda’s “Miracle” Catch in the 1969 World Series
This play occurred at a pivotal moment in game four of the 1969 World Series between the New York Mets and the Baltimore Orioles.
It was the top of the ninth and the Orioles were down by one run with two men on. Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson was at bat, and he hit the ball on a line into right field for what many thought would be at least a double.
The Mets’ Right Fielder that day was Ron Swoboda, who wasn’t particularly known for his speed or defense.
Yet Swoboda got an excellent jump on the ball and dove at just the right moment, stretching his body parallel with the ground to make the backhanded catch.
Although the Orioles’ Frank Robinson scored on the play, the Mets would score another run in the tenth and win the game to take a 3 - 1 Series lead. The “Miracle Mets” would go on to win the next game and claim their first-ever World Series championship.
Swoboda’s surprising catch stopped any chance the Orioles had at capturing the momentum, and looking back, that catch helped pave the way to the Mets’ Series victory.
3. Buck Martinez’s Broken Leg Double Play
During a July 1985 game at the Kingdome in Seattle, Phil Bradley of the Mariners was heading for home on a Gorman Thomas base hit to right field.
The throw came in to catcher Buck Martinez of the Toronto Blue Jays. Bradley barreled Martinez over, breaking his leg in the process.
Still, Martinez held on to the ball, so Bradley was out. Buck then had the sense of mind to throw to third base to check the runner, but the ball went into the outfield.
Toronto's left fielder threw the ball back to home where Martinez caught it and tagged out the runner for the double play.
This was a most unusual yet incredible double play done by a man who had to be in a ton of pain. For this reason, it earns the number three spot on our list of the best baseball plays all time.
2. Willie Mays’ Catch in the ‘54 Series
The 1954 World Series matched up the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants.
In the eighth inning of game 1 at the Polo Grounds, Vic Wertz of the Indians hit the ball to deep center field. Willie Mays, playing in shallow center, turned and ran, catching the ball over his shoulder in dramatic fashion.
Mays immediately wheeled around and threw the ball in, with his body circling around and falling to the ground after his throw, which kept the runner on second.
The Giants went on to win that game and the Series in four straight.
Mays' play would later be known as simply "The Catch", and it would go on to be one of the most iconic plays and photographs in baseball history.
1. Devon White’s Gutsy Grab in the 1992 World Series
Our pick for the best baseball play in the game's history was Devon White’s phenomenal catch and near triple play in the 1992 World Series.
It was game 3 at the Skydome in Toronto. The Series was tied at one game each, and it was the top of the fourth inning of a tie ballgame with the heart of the Atlanta Braves order coming to bat.
With two on and no outs, Braves slugger David Justice hits a shot to deep center field.
Toronto Blue Jays Center Fielder Devon White took off for the ball, periodically glancing back while running towards the wall.
At just the right moment, White caught the ball to his left while simultaneously crashing into the wall. Then, White had the presence of mind to quickly throw the ball back to his cut off man, Roberto Alomar, who threw it to John Olerud at first base to double up Terry Pendleton.
Olerud then threw it to Third Baseman Kelly Gruber, who got Deion Sanders into a rundown and very nearly tagged him out. Replays would later show that Gruber did indeed tag Deion, and that the whole sequence should have been a rare World Series triple play.
The whole play (e.g., the catch and the events after it) is incredible in and of itself, and for that reason it gets our top spot on this list.
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