First sense: (“A double play in which the out at second base is an illusion because the fielder crosses the bag without touching it, or touches the base without possessing the ball, or takes a step away from the base when pivoting for the throw to first base. Despite the rule stating that the bag must be touched by the fielder possessing the ball, many umpires (to keep players from getting hurt in collisions) ignore the violation if the ball clearly beats the runner to second base.”)
“Whether the league also will abolish the ‘phantom double play,’ another violation of the rules that is permitted at second base, time alone will reveal. As it is now, pivot men in double plays at second base are permitted to ‘cheat’ by not touching the bag with the ball in their possession as they fire to first.” Roger Birtwell, Boston Globe, May 2, 1953, p7
Second sense: (“A double play in which the batter hits an easy fly ball on a hit-and-run play and the middle infielder fakes receiving a throw at second base, thereby deceiving a sliding baserunner, who is subsequently called out for not getting back in time.”)
“Solly Hemus and Alex Grammas faked so cleverly to simulate pivot action on a phantom double play in the eighth inning that a Philadelphia base-runner, Bob Bowman, a rookie outfielder, took the decoy and slide robustly into second base. As a result, he was doubled easily off first base when Moon caught the ball, which had been hit high into the air into center field.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 23, 1954, p1C
NOTES: (Ken Liss)
These are earliest examples of these uses I could find for the two definitions in the Dictionary. But the term “phantom double play” appeared long before that, though with different meanings.
Earliest example, with sense of fielders practicing double plays without baserunners:
“Demont, O’Brien, and Cartwright, of the Washington club, rehearsed daily double plays in which imaginary runners are retired. This phantom double play is one that the Orioles work in practice, and is calculated to produce activity in the brain as well as the legs.” Pittsburg Press, March 29, 1897, p5
NOTE: This sense of the term continued to appear occasionally, as late as 1951 and possibly later.
The Heinie Zimmerman phantom double play:
“No one has a chance to run Heine Zim off third base, of course, if he behaves himself and cuts out the phantom double play.” I.E. Sanborn, Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1915, Sporting Section p1
NOTE: There is no description in this article of what is meant by the term, but the following extensive excerpt from a column by Christy Mathewson two month later describes it in detail. It involves a fielder stepping on a base to put out a baserunner even though there is no force play in effect for the runner.
” I have been told—and there is no reason for questioning the source of my information—that one event made Roger Bresnahan the manager of the Cubs this year. It occurred in Brooklyn last summer, and ‘Heine” Zimmerman had the other leading part in the sketch. ‘Zim’ pulled what is called in clubhouse vernacular a ‘phantom double play.’ The purpose of this is to square the player with the crowd.
“Men were on first and third bases with one out, when the batter hit an easy grounder to the great ‘Zim.’ He stepped on third base, which did nobody any good, not even the bag, for it did not retire a runner, and then threw to first, putting out the batter and permitting the runner on third to score. ‘Zim’ had worked this play two or three times before—for his opponents—without a ‘call’ from Henry O’Day. It got under Bresnahan’s skin, and he hopped on Zimmerman for it. The Pride of the Bronx bawled a comeback, and the result was a mixup with fists in front of the Cubs’ bench. This display of spirit made Bresnahan manager of the Cubs.
“‘Zimmerman is playing great ball for me this year,’ declared Roger during the recent series in New York. ‘He is trying all the time and has laid off the ‘phantom doubles.’ We are little pals together, ‘Heine’ and I.”
Christy Mathewson, Salt Lake Telegram (Wheeler Syndicate), May 23, 1915, p4
A similar “phantom double play,” where a player threw home to catch a runner although there was no force in effect, is described in a game in the Southern Michigan League in June 1915. A year later, a widely syndicated column about Zimmerman by Randolph Rose gives this description.
“It was one hot day last summer when Zimmerman pulled his famous phantom double play.
“A hard-hit ball came down to him at third base. After a pretty little run he scooped it up and with a graceful speedy motion touched third and threw to first, but the touching of third had taken just enough time so that the throw was too late to catch the runner going to first.”
— Randolph Rose, Baldwin (AL) Times, June 15, 1916, p8. (Rose notes that Zimmerman “doesn’t take the game as seriously as he should and for that reason sometimes loses track of the number of outs, the number of men on bases and a few little details like that.” Fans and players, he says, “will never quit kidding him about” the phantom double play.)
There are several references to such plays in subsequent years, many of them mentioning Zimmerman (even after his retirement in 1919). In some stories the throw gets the runner at first; in others it is too late; in still others it is off the mark. A few stories mistakenly credit Heine Mueller as the originator instead of Heine Zimmerman. This use tails off in the ’30s and ’40s. The latest use of the term in this sense I’ve found is in 1949.
Edging toward the modern meanings:
“A ‘phantom’ double play gave Dean a 1-0 lead in the second inning. Bordagaray singled and reached third on Durocher’s single with one out. Ogrodowski tapped to Fette, who went after the twin killing via Warstler at second to Fletcher, but Warstler failed to tag second, so Bordagaray scored.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 14, 1937, p13
NOTE: In this use of the term, the double play was not called because the pivot man failed to tag second base.
“‘Now, I was just telling them about the phantom double play in St. Louis. Remember?’” Sportswriter Warren Brown of the Chicago Herald-American to Billy Jurges, quoted by Frank Graham, Ottawa Journal, February 6, 1947, p1
NOTE: In this column, Brown tells the story of a game between the Cubs and Cardinals. (It would have to be between 1934 and 1938 based on the players involved.) Runners on first and third, one out. Joe Medwick hits it back to the pitcher, Bill Lee, who turns and throws to second but his throw to Jurges is way wide. With only two umpires working the game, however, the base umpire (Bill Stewart) moves his eye from second to call the play at first and misses the errant throw. The result is a double play; the run coming in from third doesn’t count; and the Cardinals lose. This is close to the modern sense, but based on a mistake by the umpire rather than giving allowance to a fielder for coming close to touching the bag.
“The Dodgers thought that Umpire Bill Stewart took a second run away from them in the sixth and that it was a phantom double play that the Cubs infield executed on them.” Harold C. Burr, Brookline Daily Eagle, August 25, 1951 p6
“But Stewart, woefully guilty of missing the play, gave it the old automatic call although there was no play at the bag. Thus did Campanella become the first known batter to hit into a ‘phantom double play.’” Pittsburg Courier, September 1, 1951, p14
NOTE: These are two articles about another blown call by the umpire. In fact, it’s the same umpire—Bill Stewart—as the 1930s story related in the 1947 article above. In this case Cubs first baseman Chuck Connors came off the bag before catching the relay throw in order to try and catch Jackie Robinson running from third to home, but Stewart called the double play thus costing the Dodgers a run.
No earliest use given in 2009 Dickson Baseball Dictionary