The New York Yankees reclaimed first place in American League with a 17-0 pounding of Washington on Tuesday, July 6, 1920, at the ballpark that would become known as Griffith Stadium. What made the game more memorable, however, was what happened in the fifth inning.
That’s when the Yankees scored what at that time was a 20th-century-record 14 runs, all of them unearned. The Griff men, as they were often known in those days, made five errors in the inning, although the fifth one didn’t allow any runs.
Three Washington pitchers – starter Eric Erickson, Bill Snyder and Harry Courtney – were the Yankees’ victims. New York led 2-0 entering the inning. The first batter, Sammy Vick, reached on an error, a bad throw by shortstop Frank Ellerbe. Wally Pipp followed with a double. Babe Ruth, in his first year as a Yankee, was intentionally walked for the 16th time already that season.
Bob Meusel’s sacrifice fly brought home the first run, unearned by any rule. Ping Bodie singled, with Pipp scoring and Ruth coming home when left-fielder Clyde Milan’s throw went wide past the catcher – error no. 2. Bodie made it all the way to third. Pipp’s run was ruled unearned, presumably because Pipp was held up at third and Milan throws was bad enough that it went into the stands and the other runners were awarded two bases. In that scenario Pipp’s run would turn out to be unearned.
Del Pratt’s fly ball apparently would not have been deep enough to score Bodie, but in any case, right-fielder Braggo Roth dropped it for error no. 3, and the third opportunity to retire the side, so this and subsequent runs were unearned. Bodie scored the inning’s fourth run and Pratt ended up on first with no RBI.
Muddy Ruel’s double put runners on second and third. The hit chased Erickson and brought in Snyder. Current rules would charge Snyder with earned runs for the five men he put on bases without recording an out, as per Rule 9.16 (i) Comment. (This really splits hairs: The runs scored by the five guys Snyder faced would be unearned for the team, if anybody cared.)
Pitcher Mays singled, scoring Ruel and Pratt. Snyder hit Chick Fewster in the ribs, then threw a wild pitch. Vick walked to load the bases Pipp walked, bringing in Mays with the seventh run. Ruth’s single scored two more.
In came Courtney. Meusel greeted him with a single, scoring Pipp and sending Ruth to third. Brodie grounded to Bucky Harris, who booted it for error no. 4. Ruth scored run no. 11.
Pratt launched one over Sam Rice’s head in deep center. The ball rolled under the center field fence. By way of a rule that was changed after the 1920 season, this was a home run.
Courtney wasn’t out of the woods yet. After Ruel was out on a tap in front of the plate, Mays reached when Rice dropped his fly to center — errror no. 5. Mercifully, Fewster struck out to end the mess.
Despite all the errors, the Yankees had seven hits and drew three walks, enough at least to put up a crooked number. Even without the 14 unearned runs, the Yankees scored again in the seventh and would have won, 3-0. Washington managed just three hits and a walk off the submariner Mays, who went the distance for his 10th victory. (It would be later in the 1920 season when Mays threw the pitch that resulted in Ray Chapman’s death.)
The Nats came into the game with their first five batters – Joe Judge, Milan, Rice, Roth and Harris – all hitting above .300. The game was the first time Washington, the only team that hadn’t been shut out, was blanked in 1920.
Despite the loss, Washington was still 36-30. New York, meanwhile, improved to 49-26 but still finished third, three games behind Cleveland and a game behind Chicago (in the final season for the soon-to-be-banned Black Sox players). Washington fell from fourth to sixth, going 32-54 the rest of the way.
The Yankees’ 14-run inning stood as the modern major league record (later matched by two A.L. teams and one in the N.L.) until May 21, 1952, when the Brooklyn Dodgers scored 15 runs in the first inning against the Reds. A year later — June 18, 1953 — the Red Sox topped that by scoring 17 runs in the seventh inning against the Tigers, a record that still stands.
On April 19, 1996, the Rangers became the only team to score 16 runs in an inning (the eighth) when they beat the Orioles 26-7. However, in those 15-, 16- and 17-run innings, all the runs were earned. So the Yankees’ 14-run fifth in 1920 remains the inning in which the most unearned runs were scored.