By Michael C. Jones
Debate has raged this week over whether Triple Crown winner American Pharoah was more deserving than Serena Williams to be named the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year. Fans voting online thought so, but we’ll leave that debate for another time, other than to point out that the honor is SportsPERSON of the year.
To be sure, though, American Pharoah was one of the great sports stories of the year, and is likely to top a few lists of top sports stories of 2015. Only 11 other horses won the Triple Crown – the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes – and before American Pharoah, no horse had won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Few horseracing followers back then would have predicted the looming Triple Crown drought, since Seattle Slew had won it the year before Affirmed, and the great Secretariat blew away the Belmont field to win the Triple Crown in 1973. That’s three horses during the ‘70s alone, though Secretariat ended a streak dating back to 1948, when Citation won the Triple Crown before 25 years without a winner.
So how does the Triple Crown rank among a selection of the rarest accomplishments in sports? Let’s look at a few and find out.
Unassisted Triple Play
Only 15 players in Major League Baseball history have recorded an unassisted triple play, getting all three outs of a half inning all by their lonesomes. Cleveland’s Neal Ball, a shortstop, was the first to do it, in 1909, and second baseman Eric Brunlett of the Phillies was the most recent, in 2009.
Baseball Triple Crown
In 2012 Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers won baseball’s Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. The most recent Triple Crown winner before Miggy was Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox, who won it in 1967. Before then, since 1878 only 13 players had won the Triple Crown. Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams did it twice!
Tennis Grand Slams
The Grand Slam of tennis and golf refers to holding the four major titles in the same calendar year. Sticking to the most significant tennis event, singles, only two men and three women have accomplished a Grand Slam. Don Budge was the first to win the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in a single year, 1938. Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in 1962 and 1969. Maureen Connolly in 1953, Margaret Court in 1970, and Steffi Graf in 1988 won women’s singles Grand Slams.
Golf Grand Slams
Since The Masters became a thing, only five men have won the golf Grand Slam – The Masters, the US Open, the Open Championship (a.k.a. the British Open) and the PGA Championship in a calendar year. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods did it three times, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player did it once each. (No women have achieved the calendar-year, four-major Grand Slam.)
Since 1973, only two NBA players have recorded a 30/30, a remarkable 30 points and 30 rebounds in a game. Moses Malone did it in 1982, and Kevin Love accomplished the 30/30 in 2010. Why did we pick the year 1973? Because that’s the year Wilt Chamberlain retired. How man 30/30s did Wilt have in his career? Would you believe 118?! Come to think of it, perhaps Chamberlain’s proficiency at the 30/30 should disqualify it from a list of the rarest sports feats, as he made it almost ho-hum.
Basketball has its double-double: double digit stats in scoring and rebounds, or scoring and assists, and blocks and steals also could count. The rarer triple-double means double digits in scoring, rebounds and assists (although the feat has been accomplished with scoring, rebounds and blocks, by Dwight Howard, to name just one). The NBA didn’t keep track of stats for blocks and steals until the 1973-74 season, which is why the incredibly rare feat of the quadruple-double dates back to that season. Only four players since then have notched a quadruple-double. Nate Thurmond was the first to do it, in 1974, with 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocks in a game between his Chicago Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks. Alvin Robertson had a quadruple-double in 1986 (with 10 steals!). David Robinson of the Spurs is the most recent to accomplish the feat, in 1994 against Detroit. In March 1990, Rockets great Hakeem Olajuwon did it twice!
NHL Individual Double-Digit Scoring
In the NHL, players get points on the stat sheet for assists and for goals, but you knew that. How many players in NHL history have been so prolific in one game that they recorded double-digit scoring? Just one. Darryl Sittler of the Toronto Maple Leafs scored 10 points, on six goals and four assists, on February 7, 1976 in a win over the Boston Bruins. And yes, Darryl Sittler is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.