It is one of the odder facts of baseball that of the eight unassisted triple plays in major league history, two of them came on successive days. Diamond savants may recall that on May 30, 1927, with Pirates on first and second, shortstop Jimmy (Scoops) Cooney of the Cubs caught a line drive, touched second and tagged out the runner from first, who had been running with the pitch. The next morning, Tiger first baseman Johnny Neun read about Cooney's feat over breakfast and wondered aloud to his roommate, shortstop Jackie Tavener, how long it would be before someone made another unassisted triple. Tavener figured maybe 10 years, which shows how much he knew: Not only did the next triple play occur that very afternoon, it was made by Neun himself.
With the Tigers leading Cleveland 1-0 in the ninth inning and Indians on first and second going with the pitch, Neun caught a liner at first, tagged the runner trying to return to first and then, noticing the lead runner already at third base, ran to second to make the out himself. Legend has it that Neun replied to Tavener's pleas for the ball by saying, "Nothing doing. I'm running into the Hall of Fame."
Fifty-nine years after the back-to-back triple plays, both men responsible for them are living, healthy and alert. Cooney, now 91, had first appeared in the majors with the Red Sox when Babe Ruth was a pitcher on the team. Strangely, he had been one of the victims of another unassisted triple play—by Pittsburgh shortstop Glenn Wright in 1925. (The other outs were Rogers Hornsby, on first, and Sunny Jim Bottomley at bat.) Cooney went on to finish his career in 1928 with a .262 average for seven seasons. Cooney then spent 25 years as a foreman at the Cranston ( R.I.) Print Works, overseeing the handling and processing of bales of cloth and directing the plant's semipro team. He also moonlighted on the Cranston special police force: His main job was taking tickets at the Rhodes Dance Hall.
He retired in 1960 and has lived alone in a house in Pettaquamscutt Lake Shores in Narragansett, R.I. since his wife died eight years ago. Despite two cancer operations, Jimmy says, "I don't feel too bad. I have no pain." He laughs as he adds, "I spend my time sleeping."
Neun, now 85, started out in the majors playing under Ty Cobb for the Tigers and batted .289 during his six years. In the minors in 1924, he once stole second, third and home on successive pitches. He stole home twice in a doubleheader against Washington, and he led the American League in pinch-hitting appearances and hits in 1926, going 12 for 42. After retiring in 1931, he managed in the Yankee system for nine years and at Cincinnati in '47 and '48 before moving into scouting and coaching. Many of Neun's off-seasons were spent as a sports writer for The Baltimore Evening Sun, and he still does some scouting for the Milwaukee Brewers and coaches during spring training. He lives in Baltimore, where he was born on Oct. 28, 1900.
It's strange that Cooney and Neun, having lived so long and having answered so many questions about that Memorial Day weekend, have never really met. They did play against each other in a game in the International League in 1929 but never exchanged words.
If they were to meet today, what would they say about themselves, their sport, their lives? With these thoughts in mind, a conference call was placed to the two men one evening not long ago. Happily, few third-party intrusions were necessary.
Intruder: Mr. Neun, you're on with Mr. Cooney.
Neun: O.K. Jim?
Cooney: How are you, Mr. Neun?