Sometimes, the universe works in mysterious ways.
In 2012, a shortstop in the Cincinnati Reds’ farm system set a minor league record by stealing 155 bases. He stole them so often and with such exhilarating ease that fans and pundits wondered if they were witnessing a prototype; a burgeoning, transformative figure in the art of base running. Twenty-one year old Billy Hamilton certainly looked the part – lean and lithe; his long, kinetic strides leaving vapor trails in the spaces between the bases he took.
And that record – 155 steals in a single season – was a remarkable accomplishment. Consider the company he bested to get there – Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills. None of them ever stole that many bases in a single year.
Coleman was the closest at 145 in 1983 while he was with Single-A Macon, and it was Coleman’s record Hamilton broke, by fully ten more steals. Granted, the minor leagues are not the major leagues, not by a long shot. And Henderson, Brock, Raines, Coleman, and Wills all had superb stolen base totals at the game’s most difficult level.
Still, 155 steals is a staggering number, no matter the league. Just think about what goes into a single steal attempt, let alone over 150 successful ones.
In the time it takes a baseball to travel from the pitcher to the catcher – at 90 miles per hour – and from the catcher to a given base – at 75-80 mph – a runner must be able to cover 90 feet – 30 yards – and beat the baseball to the bag. And he has less than four seconds to do it.
In fact, the players who do it well routinely complete the theft very near the three-second mark. They are among the elite who can actually outrun high-speed projectiles – bipeds beating ballistics.
To complicate matters – or to add spice to the stew – a base stealer must be able to determine when a pitcher has committed his balance and body to throw a pitch to the plate and when he can still wheel around and throw towards the runner and the base. The runner has to process this – has to know with certainty – what the pitcher will do at the very instant he begins to do it.
Because once a runner decides to leave the base, there’s no looking back. He plants that first big stride in the ground and goes. Those three seconds are incredibly unforgiving.
In turn, the pitcher can disguise his intent – whether he will throw to the plate or back to the base – letting doubt delay a runner’s decision and increase the odds of the ball outspeeding the base stealer to the target. It’s a hand of poker, without the self-important posturing.
So, Hamilton’s record – his sheer bushel of beating thrown baseballs to bases – is impressive, indeed.
However, before bestowing Hamilton with any enduring crowns of base stealing exclusivity, it should be noted that he might not even be the best Billy Hamilton to blaze across the base paths.
That distinction is reserved for a speedy outfielder who pilfered his first big league bag 124 years before Cincinnati’s prodigy dazzled the modern game.
William Robert Hamilton earned the nickname “Sliding Billy” for his speed, his aggressive approach to the game, and, well, because, he slid so damned much. However, there was good reason for all of that dirt on his uniform.
He is one of five players in Major League history to steal at least 100 bases in a single season, and he accomplished the feat four times (1889-1891, 1894). Hamilton still ranks third all-time in career steals. His 914 stolen bases remained a big league record for 77 years until Lou Brock finally surpassed the mark in 1978.
Over the years, though, many have discounted Sliding Billy’s gaudy stolen base total due to when they were taken (1888-1901). For instance, rules of the time allowed for such things like a steal being awarded for taking an extra base on a hit. Such quirky ordinances have muddied the concept of the stolen base from that period, especially when compared to the version tallied in the modern game.
However, if steals of that era were truly that diluted, the top career marks in the category would be littered with players from the late-1800’s. However, of the Top 15 base stealers in Major League history, only two others could be considered contemporaries of Hamilton (Arlie Latham – 7th and Tom Brown – 13th). Even so, Hamilton had over 170 more stolen bases than his closest peer from that time (Latham with 742) and accumulated them in three fewer season, to boot.
So, he was the elite base runner of his day, whether or not split hairs over the statistical classification of his many jaunts around the bases are applied. He was the best at what he did when he did it – and by a fairly wide margin.
But because he played most of his career before the advent of radio and decades before newsreels and, later, television and the internet, Sliding Billy pretty much slid his way right out of the public consciousness.
However, when another speedy player – coincidentally named Billy Hamilton – came along decades later but happened upon the spotlight at time when media attention was never greater, that singularity of name helped to rightfully bring attention back to the brilliant career of the 19th century star.
Although the elder Hamilton’s base running exploits were remarkable, his ability to get on base to do all of that burglary was even better.
His .344 career batting average is tied for 7th All-time in big league history, in a statistical dead heat with the great Ted Williams – all the way out to a fourth decimal point, actually. Along the way, Hamilton topped the .400 mark in 1894, hitting .403 for the Philadelphia Phillies, and finished north of .380 on two other occasions.
And he was so selective at the plate that he led the National League in walks five times. Combined with his exceptional hitting, that penchant for getting on base brought Hamilton another piece of history. His .455 career on-base percentage still ranks as the fourth-highest ever.
However, his most impressive deed on the field is at the very heart of the game itself.
If the entire object of the sport is scoring runs – which it is – Hamilton scored more of them in a single season than any player in big league history, ever. In 1894 – the year he hit .403 – Hamilton scored 198 runs. Since then, only Babe Ruth has gotten as close as 20 runs from the record (1921). And in the last 50 years, only one player has gotten within 50 runs of the mark (Jeff Bagwell with 152 in 2000).
Although he was one of the game’s greatest players, his personality was more bookkeeper than baseball superstar – particularly one of that vintage. Perhaps, it was that sedate persona during such an unruly time in the sport that limited his notoriety, because there was certainly more than enough spectacle to go around.
Ball players of the late-1800’s were a staggeringly rowdy bunch, often profane and habitually self-indulgent.
As for the staggering part (pun very much intended), many players imbibed so often and in such volume that they either drank themselves out of the game or, worse, to any early grave. Alcohol infused shenanigans commonly resulted in brawls on the diamond and saloon melees off of it. Coarse language at nearly every utterance was probably more acclimation than intentional vulgarity – wild milieus couldn’t help but produce wild denizens.
Perhaps, it was the uncertainty of the industry that drove the rollicking behavior. If a player lost his metaphorical grip on baseball, he was likely doomed to a life of agrarian or industrial misery. Few were educated enough to survive comfortably outside of the game. So, while they were privy to celebrity and decent money, many lived like there wasn’t a tomorrow, because – for a lot of them – there wouldn’t be.
Amidst that, Sliding Billy was an anomaly. He didn’t drink or cheat on his wife or curse repeatedly. In fact, the only hell he raised was on the field, and, even then, it was his running that caused the ruckus and not an overly aggressive personality or borderline dirty play that were hallmarks of most of his contemporaries.
He lived modestly, saved his money, and led a quiet but honorable life. Sadly, his spectacular play on the baseball diamond wasn’t enough to have saved his legend over the years. It seems that history preferred stormy over calm. As proof, it took the Hall of Fame over two decades to recognize Hamilton’s accomplishments (the Hall opened in 1936; Hamilton was inducted in 1961).
Meanwhile, 19th century stars Mike “King” Kelly and George ”Rube” Waddell – both superb players but chronic drunks – were allowed Cooperstown entry 15 years earlier than Hamilton (Kelly was inducted in 1945; Waddell in 1946). No doubt, the colorful yarns attached to Kelly and Waddell over time – whether brimming with hyperbole or not – helped to keep their names more ready at the recall when it came time to honor players from that era. After all, few could forget a baseball star who once kept a pet monkey on his shoulder (Kelly) or another who would occasionally miss games to chase fire engines down the street (Waddell).
However, it should be noted that Hamilton had significantly higher career totals in batting average, on-base percentage, hits, steals, and runs scored than Kelly (Waddell was a pitcher). He was also a much better defensive player than Kelly and had far greater range. What he did not have was a quirky, grandiose persona, and that, apparently, cost him the enduring recognition his playing record would seem to merit.
One has to wonder, then, if the modern-day Billy Hamilton – he of the 155 steals in a year – will be similarly swallowed by time, because he has also has a modest and unassuming personality. In fact, Cincinnati’s Hamilton has a number of things in common with Sliding Billy of yesteryear.
There is the name, of course. There is also the demeanor. The current Hamilton is polite and gracious, never allowing the notoriety of the moment go to his head. He works hard and mostly lets his accomplishments punctuate his play.
Then, there is the speed. Both Hamiltons share that – the game-changing, unstoppable ability to propel themselves around the bases with extraordinary quickness. And within that frantic realm is the stolen base.
Base stealing is in some parts brains, bravado, and birthright. Players best suited for it study pitchers and their pickoff moves relentlessly. Even then, they have to have the fortitude and faith to believe that they can outrun a thrown baseball. Most importantly, they need the God-given ability to become a blur.
The two Hamiltons truly have that – Sliding Billy’s 914 big league thefts and the modern Billy’s 155-steal minor league season are proof of extraordinary speed. However, what remains to be seen is what the 21st century version of Billy Hamilton will produce at the Major League level.
So far in 2014 – his rookie season in the big leagues – Hamilton has stolen 43 bases in just over 100 games. He has also been caught 16 times, the most in the National League. That difference between major and minor leagues has been a bit problematic for Cincinnati’s wunderkind – a 150-steal season in the majors is still a ways off. However, a likely 60-steal rookie campaign is not a bad way to start what could be the next great base stealing career.
Hamilton is also hitting a respectable .271, though his .299 on-base percentage could use some polish. At 23, he has plenty of time to sharpen his skills, to truly weaponize his remarkable speed. If he’s lucky he may even carve out a 14-year Hall of Fame career in the big leagues, become a lifetime .300 hitter and steal 900 bases.
If he does, it will be difficult to determine the better of the two Billy Hamiltons. Until then, the nod has to go to the player who did accomplish all of those things, even if history has given him the cold shoulder. Hopefully, the universe will not be required to conjure up a third Billy Hamilton in order for us to rightfully celebrate the other two.