Lee, the Cubs first baseman, entered the game at Dodger Stadium leading all NL Triple Crown categories -- and then dramatically expanded his leads. Lee went 5-for-5, and the last hit was a big three-run homer that gave Chicago its last three runs in a 9-5 victory.
To make it even more impressive, Lee has the Major League Triple Crown at this point. He leads the Majors outright with a .380 average and 50 RBIs, and he is tied with the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez in home runs with 17. For what it's worth, the last player to lead the Majors in all three categories was Mickey Mantle in 1956 -- .353 average, 52 homers and 130 RBIs. Boston's Carl Yastrzemski was the last player to win any Triple Crown, in 1967.
Sure, the obvious reaction is to say it's too early to talk about a Triple Crown. They virtually never happen, anyway. But no one has been in Triple Crown position this late in the season for more than a decade, and now is a good time to bone up a little on the last man to turn the trick in the NL.
The phrase "Triple Crown" was originally applied in Great Britain to an English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh national rugby team that defeated all three of its opponents in a single season. Of course, it now applies to horse racing's three signature events -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes -- and, at least in lore, to Major League Baseball.
Medwick's Triple Crown season was a thing of beauty in a baseball town recovering from the Great Depression. He played his entire 17-year Major League career in the NL and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968. He helped the "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals to the 1934 World Series title over Detroit in his second full season, and gradually ramped up his power numbers. In 1937, the outfielder played in all of St. Louis' 156 games and finished with a .374 average, 31 homers and 154 RBIs.
Triple Crown Winners
|Derrek Lee is batting a Major League-leading.380 (.421 with runners in scoring position) with a Major League-leading 17 homers (tied with Alex Rodriguez) and a Major League-leading 50 RBIs, through June 1. A look at the only Triple Crown winners in Major League history:|
|Bold indicates the player led all of baseball in all three Triple Crown categories. *Yastrzemski and Medwick tied for their league leads in HR.|
Though Mel Ott of the New York Giants also homered 31 times that season, Medwick still qualified for a Triple Crown because he at least shared the lead in all three categories.
It was a personal peak in Medwick's career, despite his longevity. He dropped to 21 homers in 1938 and then 14 the season after, going on to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers -- and ultimately finishing his career back with the Cardinals.
Medwick grew somewhat bitter after his playing days, at least in part because of what he perceived as a lack of respect for what he had accomplished. It's even clearer now what an accomplishment it was. In 1963, 15 years after his last game, Medwick reportedly was upset that he had yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. "The young writers, they ought to do more homework," he said.
Medwick's induction came five years later. He died in 1975. He is forever remembered as "Ducky," although it is said that he hated the nickname and teammates never would utter it in his presence. That's because his other nickname was "Muscles."
There have been five Triple Crowns since Medwick's. Like Medwick, Yastrzemski tied in one of the categories (44 homers, with Minnesota's Harmon Killebrew) in Boston's pennant-winning 1967 season.
The most serious run in the NL in recent years was by Gary Sheffield while with San Diego in 1992. He was among the leaders in all three categories during the final weeks and received heavy trailing publicity on the road, but he had the misfortune of being the teammate of Fred McGriff, who got in his way by winning the home run title with 35. Sheffield won the batting title with a .330 average, and Philadelphia's Darren Daulton snuck in with a league-high 109 RBIs. Sheffield hit 33 homers and drove in 100 runs.
The Cardinals' Albert Pujols made fans think Triple Crown two seasons ago, ultimately winning the batting title by a hair over Todd Helton on a dramatic last day -- but falling short of runaway RBI winner Preston Wilson and home run champ Jim Thome. Maybe the biggest reason there hasn't been a recent NL Triple Crown winner is the decision in recent years to pitch around Barry Bonds. It gave him virtually no chance in the RBI category during those years of dominance.
Is it too early to talk about an NL Triple Crown possibility when June has only just begun? Probably. But when Lee's fifth hit sailed into the night air Wednesday at Dodger Stadium, it was only fair to wonder.