Of the 10 top single-season base stealers in modern history, eight played for second-place teams. I mention this not because it proves the point I'm going to make, but merely because I think it's an interesting coincidence. When Maury Wills stole 104 bases in 1962, breaking Ty Cobb's major league record of 96, which had stood for 47 years, the Dodgers lost the pennant in the 165th game, a playoff with the Giants. A National League umpire said that fall that Wills's running had cost the Dodgers the pennant. Junior Gilliam, said the ump, had taken a lot of pitches that he could have hit to allow Wills to steal. Three years later, Wills became the only one of the top base stealers to lead his team to a pennant. Of course, he had a little help from Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
More than any other statistical category, stolen bases fluctuate in response to everything else that changes in the game. This is because stolen bases aren't—really—very important. Contrary to popular belief, stolen bases don't create very many runs. Nor do they have very much to do with determining who wins and who loses. Good teams don't steal very many more bases than bad teams. Stolen bases have come and gone throughout baseball history because they are a sort of trendy item, an offensive trinket that has attracted managers at times but has been blithely ignored by them at others.
In the early part of this century, there were many more stolen bases than there are now. It was an era in which there were very few home runs; thus, a player's chances of being driven home, should he be on first, were comparatively slight. When the home run became common after 1920—the number of home runs more than tripled between 1917 and 1922—a base runner's chances of scoring from first improved greatly. His chances of scoring from second didn't change very much at all, thus lessening his incentive to steal.
Look at the running game, if you will, as an investment in which there is a certain measure of risk: A loss on the investment would occur if a runner who has been caught stealing would have scored anyway had he not attempted to steal. A gain on the investment would occur if a runner's chance of scoring increased with a successful steal.
When more home runs are hit, a runner's chances of scoring from any base increase. Thus the potential gain on the investment becomes smaller, the potential loss greater.
In other words, attempted base stealing is simply not worth the risk when a lot of home runs are being hit.
Major league managers are neither statisticians nor investment counselors, but they aren't idiots, either. Baseball men may say any number of silly things, but strategy is self-correcting in sports. By a form of natural selection, the strategies and habits that come into common practice in the game are almost unerringly logical, i.e., teams whose strategies don't work lose games, abandon those strategies and imitate the winners.
After 1920, every team wanted someone to imitate Babe Ruth. From 1920 until the 1950s, teams carefully kept their outfield fences within comfortable reach and scoured the bushes for large, muscular men who could reach them. Home runs became more and more plentiful, and for that reason the cost of an unsuccessful steal attempt soared higher and higher. Hence the number of attempted steals sank lower and lower.
Dodging fire from the right, the stolen base came under attack from the left with the introduction of night baseball in 1935. Night baseball drove batting averages down. No one knows exactly how much of the 20-point decline in major league batting averages between the mid-'30s and the early '60s is attributable to night baseball; I would say roughly all of it. Lowered batting averages reduced a player's chances of scoring from second base, thus again reducing the profit on a successful steal.
Caught between these two forces, the stolen base all but disappeared from major league baseball for 20 years. Major league baseball, I said. By the 1940s, baseball was being played in all kinds of places and under all kinds of conditions.
It is astonishingly common in sports—who knows why?—for legends to develop that contradict the facts in the most direct possible manner. One such canard is that Maury Wills rediscovered the stolen base in 1962; that following his dramatic example of increasing his league-leading total from 35 to 104 in one year, the stolen base revolution began. Nothing could be further from the truth. A look at the stolen-base totals of the last 30 years (see graph, page 32) clearly shows that the 1962 season marked the end of a seven-year cycle of rapid growth in stolen-base totals and, in fact, ushered in a nine-year period of relative stagnation in the development of the stolen-base offense. Stolen bases per 100 major league games rose from 27 in 1953 to 42 in 1962, increasing almost every year. By 1971 they had risen to only 45.5 per 100 games—an annual growth rate of less than 1% for the period following Wills.
The 1950 season represents a "false bottom" to the stolen-base curve, a season in which an outrageous jump in power totals pushed stolen bases to an all-time, but artificial, low. That year Dom DiMaggio led the American League with 15 steals. The real bottom of the curve, however, was the period 1953-55. In 1954 Jackie Jensen made a singular contribution to the history of the tandem offense: He led the American League in stolen bases and also set a record, which still stands, for grounding into double plays. This required considerably more grounding into double plays (32) than it did base stealing (22).
Why did the stolen base come back to the game in the late '50s? The way was opened for its return, in a sense, by its mere absence: More and more teams were ignoring the stolen base as something that had to be defended against. Since no one was stealing, throwing ability at the catching position became secondary to getting another big bat in the lineup. It would be silly to give up offense for a good throwing arm if nobody was going to steal any bases on you anyway. Some of the catchers of the 1950s who were even regarded as good-to-excellent defenders—Andy Seminick, Gus Triandos and Sherm Lollar, to name a few—were solid, muscular men who could no more spring out of a crouch and fire than they could leap off a branch and fly. The poorer defensive catchers of the time, including Smoky Burgess, Stan Lopata and Frank House, often couldn't get out of a crouch at all.
There is another critical point to consider here, of course. Before 1947, major league baseball was played exclusively by white Americans in bandbox parks, in which their style of play—dominated as it was by the long ball—was becoming increasingly narrow and stultified. In the meantime, their black and Latin American counterparts were playing in environments which were, to put it mildly, diverse: one day a major league stadium, the next day a cow pasture. They played, by all accounts, a wide-open, aggressive game in which the stolen base was a prominent feature.
When Jackie Robinson finally led these players to the majors, they found a game which was ill equipped to defend against many of the things that they could do—most of all, steal bases. The movements toward more home runs and lower batting averages continued until the 1960s, but stolen bases began to increase with the influx of black and Latin players. It's doubtful that the players of the 1960s ran any faster as a group than those of the 1940s and 1950s. Yet Frank Robinson stole more than six times as many bases in his career as Joe DiMaggio, even though DiMaggio was faster afoot than Robinson. Indeed, by 1961, stolen-base rates had grown by 30% in 11 years, and Luis Aparicio was firmly established as the first great base stealer of the modern era, swiping 160 bases over a three-year period, the most by any major-leaguer since the lively ball era began in 1920. It's worth noting that since 1953, every major league stolen-base leader has been black or Hispanic.
What Maury Wills did only served notice that the stolen-base revolution had arrived. Because Wills's accomplishment was so stunning, he got credit for starting it. In fact, because Wills called attention to it, he very nearly brought it to a halt.
The years following 1962 were characterized by a frantic search for new and better defensive catchers. In what must be a record of its kind, 11 of the 20 major league teams had a different No. 1 catcher in 1963 from the one they had had in 1962. Three of the new catchers—Tim McCarver, Bill Freehan and John Bateman—were 21 or younger. Older ones like Doc Edwards, Earl Battey and Clay Dalrymple must have felt lucky to hold on to their jobs. Smoky Burgess may have become the last .328 hitter to lose his.
Teams combed the woods for hot young catching prospects who could throw. Not surprisingly, quick, strong-armed youngsters, who might have spurned catching before, began to gravitate toward the position. Another remarkable coincidence: There were probably more outstanding catchers born in 1947 than in any other year, notably Johnny Bench, Thurman Munson, Ray Fosse and Bob Boone. With those catchers coming along, plus Carlton Fisk, a year younger, and strong throwers like Freehan and Joe Torre who were already in business, the rate of increase in stolen bases slowed through the '60s.
And by 1962 baseball men finally observed that the abundance of home runs was making the homer seem cheap, and therefore not exciting. They addressed this problem in typical fashion by doing something that made absolutely no sense: They made the strike zone larger. We thus had a decade of .215-hitting shortstops who swung from the heels and contributed a home run now and again—with the bases empty, of course—resulting in an unending string of 1-0 and 2-0 and 2-1 games that magnified every nuance and subtlety of a nuance-plagued and subtlety-riddled sport. In the matter of stealing bases, the game became schizophrenic. If you stole second, it was less likely that anyone would hit the single to drive you in, while if you stayed on first, you might be brought around by a home run. On the other hand, with the low scores, the value of a single run, if you could get it, was greatly magnified. Stolen-base totals thus fluctuated throughout the decade. On balance, there was a good gain in raw totals, a small decline in percentages of successful steals. It was, in short, the most god-awful boring brand of baseball ever devised. I blame the whole thing on [Commissioner] Spike Eckert. People who should have been screaming at the umpires and managers and debating over who would be Rookie of the Year began screaming at the police and the President and worrying about evil and social injustice and stuff. Attendance often suffered.
Wills was the greatest base stealer of his time, but he was making a basic mistake, and Lou Brock would eventually discover it. Wills made a science of getting as big a lead as possible. He always said that if you could get back to the base standing up, your lead wasn't big enough. The best base stealers of the later '60s—Brock, Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn—regarded Wills as the oracle on the subject; they never discussed their craft without including a tribute to Wills. In 1972 Brock finally realized something: Getting as big a lead as possible isn't necessarily the best idea.
You can test Brock's discovery on your drive to work tomorrow morning. Suppose you're at a red light and one block away there's another light, which you know is going to turn red if you don't get there in 3.2 seconds. You have two options: Get as far into the intersection as you possibly can, so as to reduce the distance to the next light, or time the light and be rolling just as it changes. Which method will get you to the next light faster?
Sure. Brock finally realized that a little bit of momentum is worth much, much more than a little bit of distance. Wills had made a practice of nailing himself down in the middle of the intersection, unable to squirm until the light changed. Brock pioneered the rolling start. It was during the five years following Brock's realization that we saw the real emergence of the modern running game. Brock's record of 118 stolen bases came in 1974, of course. By '76, stolen bases per 100 games had reached a lofty 79. That figure hasn't risen since, and despite Rickey Henderson, it won't this year.
Obviously, the great leap forward cannot be attributed solely to a refinement in technique. Nor can it be attributed primarily to a refinement in technique. Like most of the changes that occur in baseball, this one was chiefly effected by the environment. Between 1968 and 1972, four teams moved from cozy old grass-field, Babe Ruth-era parks into new, spacious, plastic-turfed stadiums. Three of those teams—the Phillies, Reds and Royals—showed huge increases in stolen bases shortly after the move. So did the Astros and Brock's Cardinals, who went artificial in 1965 and '66, respectively, and the Expos, who joined them in '77. The fact that people can run faster on artificial turf than on grass explains part of the rise—a very small part. The principal reason why stolen base totals have increased so much since 1972 is the new ball parks themselves. First, because fans didn't want to see cheap home runs, the fences were built appropriately far away. Second, care was taken in the construction of these parks to ensure good visibility for the batters.
What did this mean to the base stealer? The higher batting averages improved a player's chance of scoring from second, and thus increased the potential profit on the stolen base; the declining home-run rate, meanwhile, decreased the cost of a runner being caught stealing. In short, home runs and stolen bases are competing methods of advancing base runners. The fewer home runs there are, the more stolen bases there will be, simply because the risk of attempting to steal outweighs the value of staying put.
What conclusions can we draw, now that the Rickey Henderson era is upon us? Merely that Henderson is an amazing ballplayer. As an offensive force, he's greater than either Wills or Brock (see chart, page 32)—incomparably greater, in fact, than any other leadoff man of this century. The great leadoff men of the home-run years, 1920-60—players like Richie Ashburn, Eddie Yost, Dom DiMaggio, Maxie Bishop and Earle Combs—had their excellence measured by their ability to get on base. The great leadoff men of the stolen-base years, pre-1920 and since 1960—players like Max Carey, Wills, Brock, Aparicio and Bert Campaneris—were good-to-excellent hitters and great base stealers. Henderson is the only player to excel at both skills. Consider a few comparisons:
1) Wills never led his league in runs scored. Brock led his league once and tied for the lead once. Neither Campaneris nor Aparicio ever scored 100 runs in a season. Henderson scored 111 his first full year up, led his league in his second (strike-shortened) year with 89, and is likely to lead the league this year with far more than 100.
2) In 1962, Wills's greatest season from every standpoint except batting average, he reached base 208 times on hits and 51 times on walks, a total of 259. Brock nosed past that total three times, reaching a peak of 276 in 1971. Henderson reached base 296 times in his first full season—301 if you include when he was hit by pitches. As of last Friday, he had already reached base on walks and hits 236 times. Wills and Brock each reached base about 1.4 times per game; Henderson's average is 1.79.
3) Among the many records that Henderson has broken or is threatening this year, the most amazing to me, and the most important to his team, is the American League record of 143 runs scored by a leadoff man. It's held by Earle Combs of the 1932 Yankees. But he played for a team that hit .286 with lots of power and averaged 6.5 runs per game. Henderson is threatening to break the record with a team that is hitting .232 and is ninth in the league in runs scored, 4.3 per game.
4) Henderson's 122nd stolen base was the 311th of his career. He's 23 years old. At the same age Brock had stolen 16 bases; Wills had stolen none. If Henderson doesn't steal another base until 1986, when he will be 28, he will still have stolen more bases than Brock had at the same age. It's very possible that Henderson may pass Maury Wills's career total of 586 by the time he's 26. It's even possible that Henderson will break Brock's all-time career record of 938 bases by the time he's 30.
Yet for all the fame they're bringing him, Henderson's stolen-base exploits this year have done virtually nothing to help his team from a dismal fate. Why? Despite the attention they command, stolen bases are not, I repeat, very important. Picture a vast desert. A single tumbleweed blowing across the landscape will attract the eye because it's the only thing moving. A runner stealing bases draws attention not because what he's doing is important, but because he is moving. Nobody gets excited about records for doubles or triples; very few people even know what those records are: doubles—67, Earl Webb, 1931; triples—36, Owen (Chief) Wilson, 1912. In the last 10 years, batting averages are up a few points, home runs are up maybe 5%. You have to be a statistician to care about stuff like that. Maybe the most significant result of Henderson fever is the inclusion of stolen base totals into newspaper box scores this year for the first time. It sure makes my job easier.
How important are stolen bases? In an article in the 1976 Journal of the Society of American Baseball Research, George Wiley reported on many years of study to determine the correlation between records in each statistical category and team success. He found the correlation between stolen bases and team wins "so low as to conclude that in themselves they have little or no effect on final team standing." Wiley was studying baseball history from 1920 to 1960; you may be heartened to learn that the correlation is a little higher in our own time. But not much: This year the fifth-place A's lead the American League in stolen bases, last year it was the sixth-place Cleveland Indians.
Some teams, like the A's, Royals and Expos, do generate a few extra runs by stealing bases, but other teams, like the Orioles, Red Sox and Cubs, would score more runs than they do if they never attempted to steal a base.
Pete Palmer of the Sports Information Center in Quincy, Mass., one of the premier analysts of the game, estimates that each stolen base creates .2 of a run for a team, and that each player caught stealing costs that team about .35 of a run. If those figures are accurate, then Henderson's base stealing this season has produced a net gain of about a dozen runs for the A's. That's a nice auxiliary contribution from an outstanding player, but in the context of the hundreds of runs that can separate the best offense from the worst, it's peanuts.
You may not find those arguments convincing. I understand. I never believe anything an economist says, myself. But in a strange way, most people already know that the stolen base isn't really important. Nobody votes for the stolen-base champion as the MVP. In the 19 years since Wills's big MVP season, not another stolen-base champion has won the award. Thirteen home-run champs have been MVPs in that period, eight batting titlists, 14 slugging percentage leaders, 18 RBI leaders, 10 runs-scored leaders, plus three or more who led in walks, at bats, hits, doubles, triples, shutouts and ERA. Obviously, many MVPs have led in more than one of these categories. Six players who didn't lead in anything have won the award. If people really believe that stolen bases are important, why are stolen-base champions the only ones who have been blanked? Will Henderson win this year? My personal favorite is Milwaukee's Robin Yount.
I sometimes point out that in the last 20 years, eight teams have led their league in stolen bases and still finished last—twice the number of last-place finishers who led their league in all the other major offensive categories combined. This provokes an inevitable response: Teams that don't have very much power are more likely to steal. Sure they are—but on the other hand, teams that don't have very much speed are more likely to hit home runs. They don't finish last. Nobody seems surprised to learn this.
Where are stolen-base totals going? If more stadiums are built with wide-open spaces in the outfields, we could be entering an era in which it will take 100 stolen bases to lead the league. But the three newest stadiums in baseball, the Kingdome, Minnesota's Humpdome and Montreal's Olympic Stadium are home-run hitters' parks, and home-run totals seem to be rising again. Any team that can build an offense around power, will.
One year when Maury Wills was in the Class-A Western League, along with Bill White, who went on to be the Cardinal first baseman and now is a broadcaster, White led that league with 40 stolen bases. Wills had 28. When Wills broke the major league record, White was asked if it showed how hard Wills had worked to improve himself. "It sure does," White replied. "Besides, I don't have to steal bases to stay in the majors."
*per 100 games played
When HRs soared, SBs plummeted (1917-53). Non-whites ran wild ('53-62) until defenses caught up. Brock led a surge ('71-76) that has ended despite Henderson's feats.
per 162 games
Henderson is head and shoulders above Brock and Wills.