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Two of the most exciting single plays in baseball are the grand slam — a home run knocking in 4 runs — and the inside-the-park home run. Grand slam home runs from balls crushed deep into the bleachers surely excite fans, but think about this: What about 4-run hits that did not clear the outfield fence?
There have been 225 inside-the-park grand-slam home runs dating back to 1881 in Major League Baseball. It amounts to about 1.6 such scampers per season. For comparison, there have been 304 no-hitters pitched in MLB games since 1876. Even no-hit games are more common.
What are also called “in-the-park home runs” are uncommon on their own — depending on the era, they might account for about a half of 1 percent of all home runs hit. But to smack one while the bases are full is all the more rare.
Grand slams are not an everyday occurrence. Consider that the career leaders in grand slams — Alex Rodriguez with 25, and Lou Gehrig with 23 — only managed a little more than 1 per season. (Gehrig played 17 seasons, Rodriguez 22).
Insight on Inside-the-Park Home Runs
Inside-the-park home runs, also called “in-the-park homers,” are when a batter touches all bases safely on a single hit, without knocking the ball over an outfield fence and therefore out of the field of play. These hits are officially recorded as a home run only if no errors contributed to extra bases taken.
Often when a runner races around the bases to beat throws and scores, one fielder (or more) made an error on the play to allow the hitter to advance farther than he should have. In those instances, official scorers will award a single, double or triple based on where they believe the runner would have ended up without the error(s), regardless of how many bases he touched once the play ended. (The run still counts, it’s just a matter of scoring for statistics).
You see a lot of “home run on errors” in games in the younger divisions of youth baseball — when defenders are not quite adept at throwing ahead of runners and catching the ball for tag outs.
It happens sometimes, too, in MLB games — a big embarrassment for the defenders. But for little league parents, watching their child sprint all the way around the bases can be a thrill of a lifetime. Even for T-ballers.
History with Inside-the-Park Home Runs
Before the 20th century, when many baseball stadiums either had outfield fences far, far away from home plate, or no fences out there at all, fans would line the edge of the outfield standing to watch. Sometimes just a simple rope would delineate where the playing field ended — if anything at all.
The rules, ball and style of play were very much different than today. Back then, the main element of the game was moving runners over one base at a time, scratching away to score runs, resulting in a lot of bunts, steals, hit and runs, hitting behind runners, and the like. Few batters swung from the heels for distance, because the balls did not travel like they do today, long high fly balls were frowned upon as easy catchable outs, and fields of play had expansive outfields.
In fact, back then some batters considered home runs as “an accident.” Hard liners would split outfielders and roll into the crowd and, if there were no ground rules declaring them automatic doubles or triples, they were live balls as the batter scampered all the way around. Sometimes an outfielder would lose a ball in the sun and have it float over his head, and he could not recover fast enough to nab the runner at the plate.
Even during the first two decades of the 1900s, when stadiums began to encircle fields with fences and stands behind them, the home run was nowhere near as common as today. For instance, Frank “Home Run” Baker earned his nickname by leading the American League in homers from 1911 to 1914 — and never with more than 12 in a season. “Home Run” Baker retired with 93 career homers.
However, there still were a lot more inside-the-park home runs during this Dead Ball Era, for a variety of reasons among them outfielders playing too shallow in fields with very deep outfield fences. They began to decline with power hitting that kicked into high gear with Babe Ruth and the 1920 season, and from there balls began to clear fences pretty much every game.
Inside-the-park homers can happen in any at-bat. That’s not true for the grand slam, which requires a long inning to develop to load the bases full of runners and set the stage for the most anticipated at bat of a game. Will the pitcher strand 3 runners? Or will the batter clear the bases?
Insider Grand Slams
As stated above, on average, more than 1 and a half inside-park grand slams occur each MLB season. The last was in July 2022, when Raimel Tapia of the Toronto Blue Jays hit a deep but playable ball that was misplayed by the centerfielder for the Boston Red Sox. The defender stood motionless with arms raised because he lost the ball in the twilight.
The ball ended up bouncing about 50 feet behind him, bouncing on the warning track as the centerfielder remained stunned in place. The left-fielder ran over to retrieve the ball and throw to the infield, but not until Tapia and 3 of his teammates had scored.
Terrible outfielder misplays are common causes of insider grand slams. Prior to Tapia’s fly ball, the previous inside the park grand slam was in September 2017, when a Phillies outfielder badly misplayed a hit so Michael A. Taylor of the Washington Nationals.
Perhaps the most famous inside-the-park grand slam was struck by Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente in July 1966. With his Pirates behind in the game, 8-5, and the bases full with no outs, Clemente drove a ball to the outfield wall. The three runners ahead of him scored, but at third base Clemente’s manager gave the sign to “hold,” or stay on that base.
Clemente, despite there being no outs and opportunity for 3 batters to knock him in for the win, kept running. Despite being fundamentally unsound, Clemente was safe, for the only walk-off game-winning inside-the-park grand slam. (After the game his manager, known to be a by-the-team-rules guy, declined to fine the future Hall of Famer).
Psychological Impact of ITP Home Runs and Grand Slams
Few single plays in baseball are as deflating to a team on defense than the grand slam, or an inside-the-park home run. Because the inside-park homer involves a serious race — defenders trying to get the ball back to the catcher in time to prevent the runner from touching home plate and scoring — when the defense fails it’s like losing a team relay race. Everybody involved feels like a loser.
Then there’s the grand slam, probably the equivalent of scoring 2 or 3 touchdowns at the same time in football. That’s how much of an impact a 4-run hit can cause, depending on the game score at the time. It’s the most sudden, impactful play in baseball, that can quickly shift momentum from one team to the other. Grand slams seem to linger as games progress afterward.
In baseball, team morale and momentum are important factors in games. Baseball is a team sport, yes, but it is made up of individuals who have feelings. When players are down on themselves on defense, they can become lethargic or “flat” while still on the field — and that lethargy can carry over when it comes to their turn at bat. Suffering a grand slam or inside-the-park home run can linger for innings, or maybe even the remainder of a game.
Question: Can any player hit an inside-the-park grand slam?
Answer: Typically the hitter is expected to be a fast runner — because rounding the bases involves a 360-foot sprint (with 3 turns) to beat the ball-relay to home plate. But amazingly over the years many pitchers, catchers, or even seemingly overweight players have achieved an inside-park home run. Notables include Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, not-so-fleet-of-foot catcher Ron Karkovice, and the stout Hack Wilson — all 5-feet, 6-inches and 190 pounds of him. The portly Prince Fielder did it twice in his career.
Q.: Who had the most inside-the-park home runs?
A.: Jesse Burkett hit 55 from 1890 to 1905. The most in a season was Hall of Fame right-fielder Sam Crawford, with 12. For those resulting in a grand slam? Hall-of-Fame members Kiki Cuyler and Arky Vaughan had 2 each, as did former batting champion Ferris Fain. Some baseball members believe there may have been more in the old days but scorekeeping wasn’t as detailed as today.
For comparison with Burkett’s 55, note that in the modern era, from 1950-on, speedster Willie Wilson had the most ITPHRs, with 13. There just were a lot more before 1920. Burkett hit only 75 home runs total in a 16-year career, so only 20 cleared the outfield fences.
Q.: Has any player only hit inside-the-park home runs?
A.: Not for a career, but Ty Cobb had the most home runs in the American League in 1909 with 9 — and they all were the inside-park variety. It was the most inside-the-park home runs in a season ever in the then-upstart A.L. Cobb won the A.L Triple Crown that year adding 107 runs batted in on top of a .377 average — and all the sprinted homers.