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Here's to Athletics' Herb Washington, Who Did Baseball Not Quite Like Anyone Else

Herb Washington, released by the Oakland Athletics on this day in 1975, played in 105 games in his A's career and never got an at-bat, an MLB record for non-pitchers that will never be broken. He's gone on to great success and was a major donor of medical masks in the Youngstown, Ohio area in the battle against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Herb Washington. Just the name leaves some longtime Oakland A’s fans shaking their heads.

Good idea? Bad idea?

Back in 1974, it was then-A’s owner Charlie Finley’s idea to take the world-class sprinter from Michigan State and tried to create a new position, designated runner. Washington ran well enough to earn a World Series ring, but it was 45 years ago today, May 5, 1975, that he was released by the A’s, ending his unique baseball career.

In 1974 he stole 29 bases in 92 games and never collected an at-bat. By the time he’d appeared in his last game on May 4, 1975, he set a record that almost certainly will never be matched or even approached – 105 games played by a non-pitcher without an at-bat.

To give that a bit of perspective, no one else in Major League Baseball history has even reached double digits in that category. Only two other players – Eddie Phillips with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1953 (nine) and Jack Cassini with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1949 (eight) – got into more than three games without an at-bat.

The 1974 A’s were loaded and were coming off back-to-back World Series wins. The had enough muscle, Finley reasoned, that they could keep a roster spot opener for a man who never pitched and never hit. Finley believed the well-time stolen base could make the difference.

He frequently did, although his World Series experience could have been better. He was picked off first base in the ninth inning of Game 2 by the Dodgers' Mike Marshall, with the A's down a run. It was the only game the A's lost in the 1974 Series.

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From 1968-73, Finley found spots for Allan Lewis, a speedy outfielder, to do almost nothing but steal bases. Lewis, a sometimes outfielder, finished his A’s career with 31 at-bats and 44 steals. And he played in the 1972 and 1973 World Series, his last two seasons in the big leagues.

Washington, who hadn’t played baseball since high school in Flint, Mich., got a mixed reception from the rest of the A’s. Lewis could play in the outfield a bit. Washington’s only job was to pinch-run. But Washington had supporters in both Finley and manager Alvin Dark.

Curiously, while he scored 29 runs and stole 29 bases in his only full season in the big leagues, only 14 of Washington's steals led to runs. The other 15 came in the natural progression of game, moving up as the rest of the A’s offense did its job.

It may not have seemed like it at the time, but getting released freed Washington up to spread his wings. In 1980, after a stint working at Michigan State, he opened an inner-city McDonald’s franchise in Rochester, N.Y. He would go on to own 29 franchises by 2009, which at the time made him the African-American franchisee running the most McDonald's outlets in the U.S. He later branched out into the Youngstown, Ohio area.

Two decades after becoming the only baseball player with the designation “pinch runner” on his 1975 Topps baseball card, Washington went on to become a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

And about three weeks ago in the heart of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, he donated more than 400 medical masks to Youngstown-area police and fire departments and to local oncology offices.

So yes, there was life after the A's.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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