No matter how many rules Major League Baseball adds to speed up play, it is safe to say that no two teams will ever be able to beat the record for the fastest nine-inning game in big-league history: 51 minutes. Not one hour and 51 minutes. Fifty-one minutes.

On 28 September 1919, five days before the Cincinnati Reds met the Chicago White Sox in an infamous World Series tattered by gambling, the New York Giants beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 6-1, in New York in the first game of a doubleheader – in 51 minutes.

The date of the game had a lot to do with the speed at which it was played. Because only National and American League champions participated in the postseason, 28 September marked the end of the 1919 season for the second-place Giants (87-53) and last-place Phillies (47-90).

So players had incentive for wrapping it up quickly so they could head back to the hinterlands for the winter. Moreover, the final scheduled games of the season, to be played on 29 and 30 September, were moved up so the Giants could stage a Sunday doubleheader at the Polo Grounds. Two games for the price of one always draws fans. There was no NFL then, either.

The Phillies thought the fast game was a great idea. They wanted the season to be over. They’d played in the 1915 World Series, losing to the Boston Red Sox, but had slipped into the National League cellar in 1919, where they would finish again in 1920. Jack Coombs, a first-time manager, was fired on 7 July with the Phils stumbling at 18-44.

Accomplishing something in record time was in fashion back in those days. According to the new Illustrated Daily News (later the New York Daily News), the record for a big-league nine-inning game had been 56 minutes, set by the Giants and Brooklyn on 30 August 1918.

(According to baseball-reference.com, however, the Brooklyn Robins took a tidy 55 minutes to seal a 3-1 victory over the Reds only a week before the Phillies-Giants game.)

“Both Giants and Phils agreed to go after the speed record before the game started,” the Daily News reported. “That they shattered the mark and still scored seven runs is remarkable. The men went up intent on smacking the first pitch. They did for the most part, and this led to the hasty finish.”

Bill Klem, the legendary no-nonsense umpire who was known as ‘The Arbitrator’ (and set a big-league record with 251 ejections), was assigned to home plate. He apparently had no problem with the arrangement.

“The game had progressed almost six innings before the spectators became fully aware of the fact that the clubs with a little hustling could finish the game in record time,” the New York Sun reported the next day. “About the sixth inning, when the [20,000 spectators] saw that the players were running to and from their positions, urged on by Umpire Klem, they realized the teams were really hustling.”

The Giants’ starting pitcher was Jesse Barnes, seeking his 25th victory of the season. Barnes was even better than usual in a complete-game effort that day, allowing five hits and one unearned run, which the Phillies scored with two outs in the top of the first.

Probably owing to the fact that the Phillies were so eager to swing, he did not walk a batter and struck out only two – “nor did he hit anybody,” the Sun reported. He retired 17 straight batters between the first and seventh innings. The New York American reported he threw only 64 pitches, setting a big-league record.

“The Phillies were entirely baffled by his twisters,” the Sun reported. “They got only two hits up to the seventh inning. For the first five innings, the New York outfielders did not have a putout, and they accumulated only two after that.”

The Giants fared much better against Philadelphia pitcher Lee ‘Specs’ Meadows, who failed to avoid his 20th loss of the season. Meadows gave up 13 hits and six runs, all earned, but he walked just three hitters and lasted all nine innings, helping to move things along. It also helped that the Giants scored all six of their runs in the first six innings.

The New York Times, careful as ever, labeled the game as “certainly the fastest game played in the major leagues in many years, and probably a record”. The same two teams had played nine innings in 32 minutes in 1913, but that was an exhibition (in more ways than one).

Further, the Times reported that in the 51-minute game that “there was no unusual effort to make a speed record until the Phils’ half of the ninth. At that time, it became apparent to the players that they could do something unusual, and for a half-inning, they hustled.”

“Even with two out in the closing inning, [Philadelphia first baseman Fred] Luderus poked a hit to centre-field, and he did not attempt to walk into any putout,” the Times reported.

The next batter, Phillies’ shortstop Dave Bancroft, did walk into a putout, sending a check-swing roller to New York second baseman Larry Doyle, who tagged out Bancroft. The Times later sniffed, “Bancroft’s effort with two down in the ninth was the only part of the game in which real effort was lacking.”

It did take some effort for the players to sprint in and out from the field. So Mathewson sat his regulars in the second game, which New York won, 7-1. The star of that game was a 22-year-old rookie named Frankie Frisch, a Bronx kid known as ‘The Fordham Flash’, who played in the big leagues until 1937 and was a Hall of Fame inductee in 1947.

What the Phils and Giants did that day was no small feat. According to baseball-reference.com, the average big-league game in 1920 was played in 1hr 51min, a full hour longer than the historic game at the Polo Grounds. (There was no time recorded for the second game.)

Just the 2min 15sec commercial breaks between half-innings account for a minimum of 36 minutes per game today, so big-league players would really have to hurry to beat the Giants and Phillies some 104 years later. They are showing a little more urgency, though.

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