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Meltdown: How Tommy John Committed 3 Errors In 12 Seconds06:48
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Tommy John committed just 49 errors in 26 seasons. But he struggled defensively on one particular play in 1988. (AP)
Tommy John committed just 49 errors in 26 seasons. But he struggled defensively on one particular play in 1988. (AP)

It happened in 1899. Unless it was 1895. Mike Grady was playing third base for the New York Giants when he committed five errors on a single play. Or maybe it was six?

Nobody was really sure. But for more than 100 years, Mike Grady was believed to hold the Major League record for the most errors on a single play by a single player.

In 2012, baseball historian Bill Deane debunked the whole thing. Grady’s five  or six  error play never happened.

As it turns out, the real story of the actual MLB record for most errors on a single play by a single player is a lot more recent.

"I took pride on my defensive abilities. I could still field."

Tommy John

In the summer of 1988, 45-year-old Yankees starting pitcher Tommy John was in his 25th season as a Major Leaguer.

"But I could still pitch," Tommy says. "I could compete. I could hold my own."

And there was another thing Tommy was proud of.

"I took pride on my defensive abilities," he says. "I could still field."

Tommy John (Ron Frehm/AP)
Tommy John (Ron Frehm/AP)

On July 27th of that year, Tommy got the start against the Milwaukee Brewers in Yankee Stadium. In the top of the fourth, Tommy and the Yankees were up 4-0.

"Well, I had good stuff," he recalls. "I had good ball movement. I'm cruising right along."

But with one out, Tommy walked Milwaukee second baseman Jim Gantner. Jeffrey Leonard came to the plate.

"He hit a ball off the end of the bat," Tommy says. "And he hit a little squirter down the first base line."

Tommy charged the ball.

"And I made my first mistake by saying to myself, when I saw the ball, 'I'm gonna barehand it.' "

Tommy says that, in his long Major League career, he almost never barehanded ground balls. He was a glove guy all the way. The little voice in his head knew that.

“ 'No, I … no. I shouldn't do it. No. Oh … ' ” he remembers thinking.

The problem was that he didn’t listen to that voice.

"And I picked the ball up and dropped it," he says.

And you can score that: “Error charged to the pitcher.”

Gantner was now on his way to second. And Leonard was hustling up the line.

"I should have taken a bite out of the ball and gone back to the mound and had runners on first and second," Tommy says.

But Tommy thought he still had time to get Leonard out at first.

"And I turned, and I threw it to first base," Tommy says. "And I didn't have a good grip on the ball. And I threw it about 10 feet wide of Mattingly at first base.

"Well, that's my second mistake."

The ball had caromed off the ball boy sitting along the right field line. Now Gantner was on his way to third, with Jeffrey Leonard not far behind.

The Brewers third base coach waved Gantner around.

"Then it's rolling down the right field line," Tommy says. "And Dave Winfield never backs a play up. But he backs this play up. He picks the ball up, and he throws it home."

The right fielder’s throw appeared to be on target to the waiting glove of the Yankees’ catcher.

"Oh, no. That was my third error."

Tommy John

"And I hear somebody say, 'Cut 2!' 'Cut 2' means you cut the ball off and relay it to the catcher," Tommy says. "I cut the ball off, I turned and I threw the ball to the catcher, who was about 20 feet away. And I whizzed it right by his head."

Gantner scored. The ball skidded out of play as Leonard approached third. As the play-by-play guys tried valiantly to keep up with the chaos, the umpire awarded Leonard home. The score was now 4-2.

Tommy thought … "Oh, no. That was my third error."

 … in just 12 seconds.

"And, you know, it was a physical meltdown," John says.

Tommy got out of the fourth inning with no further damage, other than to his pride. He returned to the dugout, where he gathered his teammates and told them …

" 'Guys, look. I've got three more errors in me. Let's get our butts out there and let's start hitting the ball so my next three errors won't make a tie game out of it.' And everybody's just guffawing," he recalls. "They were just laughing their butts off."

The inspiring pep talk worked. The Yankees rallied for 12 more runs. Tommy went eight innings and gave up just one more run for the 16-3 win.

After the game, Tommy looked for Yankees manager Lou Piniella. He found him in the clubhouse talking to writers about all those fourth inning bungles.

"And I said, 'Lou', and he looked. He said, 'Yeah, what do you want?' I said, 'If you knew how to motivate these guys like I do, we wouldn't be as far out of first place as we are.' And everybody’s laughing. I thought that was funny."

'That's Part Of The Game'

Tommy went 9-8 that year, and the Yankees missed the playoffs. But he says his debacle on July 27, 1988 provided solid material for the offseason.

Tommy John during the 1988 season. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Tommy John during the 1988 season. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

"It gave me a lot of stuff during the winter when I would go out and I would do speaking engagements and stuff," Tommy says. "It gave me fodder so people would laugh.

"It happens. That's part of the game. That's why we play the game. And that's why people watch the game, and that's why they pay to go in, and that's why they can boo you."

Tommy John retired the following year. During his long career, he committed a very stingy 49 errors. That’s an average of just under two per season.

Maybe that’s why he seemed a little surprised when I asked him if he’d talk with me about his Major League record. 

"I pitched 26 years," Tommy says. "I win 288 games. And I have a surgery named after me. And people want to talk about three errors on a play."

Sorry, Tommy. Let’s charge the reporter with an error on that one.

And let it be recorded here that you were a good sport ... and fielded all questions very cleanly.

This segment aired on September 21, 2019.

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Gary Waleik Producer, Only A Game
Gary Waleik is a producer for Only A Game.

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