[Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for the series finale of Succession—and the 1920 World Series.]
Already, the game had featured the first grand slam hit in a World Series, as well as the first home run in a World Series ever slugged by a pitcher. And then, Game 5 of the 1920 Fall Classic, offered up yet another dash of baseball history.
Cleveland (American League) was hosting the Brooklyn Robins (National League) at League Park. In the fifth inning, Brooklyn’s Pete Kilduff was on second base and Otto Miller was on first. Brooklyn’s relief pitcher, Clarence Mitchell was batting. On the third pitch, Mitchell lashed a drive to the right of the infield.
The Cleveland second baseman, Bill Wambsganss, leapt and snagged the ball out of midair. In one fluid motion, he stepped on second base to nullify Kilduff. Then he tagged out Miller, who had been running from first base on contact. Bang-bang-bang. With that, Wambsganss, became the first man to record an unassisted triple play in a World Series game, a distinction he holds to this day.
Full stop. And then full credit here to Sophie Kihm, the editor-in-chief of Nameberry, an online catalog of baby names. Kihm took to TikTok last week to call this bit of baseball arcana, to our collective attention. She surmised that Succession winner Tom Wambsgans—in the deepest of deep cuts, and the cleverest bit of foreshadowing—was christened in honor of Bill Wambsganss.
Yes, Tom Wambsgans (only one final “s” per IMDB) sounds like a generic mouthful of a name, benefitting a Minnesotan, who manages, at once, to be both cunning and clumsy. But this character naming was no off-handed concoction of the Succession writer’s room. Just as Bill pulled off a triple play all by himself—erasing Paul, Otto and Clarence in one fell swoop—Tom, likewise, erased his three counterparts: Kendall, Roman and Shiv.
Yet the Succession brain trust may have known more than it knew. Because Bill Wambsganss was worthy of a three-season arc of his own. Referred to, inevitably, as “Wamby”—first by peers seeking a shortcut; then by newspaper headline writers seeking the same—William Adolf Wambsganss was born in Cleveland in 1894. When Wambsganss was a year old, the family moved to northern Indiana. Fashioning himself after Cleveland star Nap Lajoie, Bill played baseball in high school. But he had designs of following the path of his father, a Lutheran minister, and enrolled at Concordia College in Fort Wayne. A year in, he was offered a job playing minor league baseball for the Cedar Rapids Rabbits of the Class C Central Association.
By the time he was 21, Wambsganss was signed by the Indians, backing up his idol, Lajoie. A year later Lajoie decamped to Philadelphia and in 1915, Wambsganss was named the starting second baseman. In 1920, the season was cruising along unremarkably. Then trauma struck twice, a few weeks apart. First, in a game against the Yankees on Aug. 16, 1920, Wambsganss’s teammate and fellow middle-infielder, Ray Chapman, was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by New York pitcher Carl Mays. (The sound of the collision was such that Mays, assuming the ball had been batted, picked it up and threw it to first.) Chapman collapsed to the ground and never regained consciousness, becoming the only Major League player ever to die during a game.
A few weeks later, baseball was dominated by rumors that the previous World Series—the Reds’ victory over the White Sox in 1919—had been thrown by the losing team. While the official indictments wouldn’t come until the offseason, the Black Sox scandal gained heft and, openly, players whispered about who would be caught in the gears.
By winning their respective league–happily Cleveland outlasted the White Sox—Cleveland and Brooklyn played in a best-of-nine (yes, nine) World Series. There were concerns that the World Series would be tainted and overshadowed by the Black Sox. But fans came in droves; the games captured the public imagination. Cleveland won, 5–2. Nearly 180,000 attended, netting more than $500,000, and each Cleveland player received a $4,168 bonus.
That marked the highlight of Wambsganss’s career. The Yankees’ dynasty would soon take hold. Wambsganss retired after the 1926 season. His career average: .259; his career home run total: seven. His love for baseball unextinguished, Wambshanns was a player/manager in the minors for much of the 1930s, but often removed himself from the lineup in favor of younger players. In the ’40s, Wambsganss managed the Fort Wayne Daisies and Muskegon Lassies in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the association immortalized in A League of Their Own.
On Dec. 8, 1985 Bill Wambsganss died of heart failure in Lakewood, Ohio. He was 91 years old. Friends told the Plain Dealer they were disappointed that there were 70 people in attendance at the memorial, and no representative from Cleveland’s baseball team. (Contrast this with the Logan Roy funeral scene.) “Dad was a fine ballplayer and a wonderful guy,” said his son, Bill Jr. “A lot of people just know him as the answer to one of baseball’s top trivia questions.”
Now, more than a century later, thanks to a generationally outstanding HBO series—he is known for something else. Sort of.