h1

Bill North

November 14, 2008
 Untitled 
I.
It must have seemed like it was going to be a blooping basehit, beyond the reach of infielder and outfielder alike. Dick Allen, in the midst of the last of his many MVP-caliber seasons, had been running from second base on the play, and from what I’ve read Dick Allen was not just a one-dimensional mangler of pitches but an intelligent player who knew the whole game well. He must have sized up the fluttering wounded quail off the bat of White Sox teammate Brian Downing and been convinced that it would touch down safely in the outfield grass. He must have set his mind on roaring across home plate with the tying run.

Is there anything more exciting than speed? As the ball arced down toward the outfield grass, Oakland A’s centerfielder Billy North suddenly appeared like a flash of heat lightning. This is how I imagine it happened. One moment no one is there and an eyeblink later Billy North is a green and yellow bolt catching the ball off his white shoetops. His momentum carries him forward, toward the second base bag, and I imagine that he thought about making the throw to the infielder waiting there to double off Dick Allen. Maybe North even cocked his arm to throw. But then North must have seen that Dick Allen had no chance to beat the centerfielder to the bag. (A sign of Allen’s lack of fleetness came later in the game, when he was pinch run for by Tony Muser, who stole all of 14 bases in his nine-year career.) Billy North hung onto the ball and kept running. With speed like that, speed so transcendent it must have felt exactly like joy, why stop? The outfielder transformed himself into an infielder and stomped on the bag, ending the inning and preserving the lead with what has to be one of the more unusual unassisted double plays ever recorded.

Must have felt pretty good to be Billy North that day.

II.
The A’s won their third straight World Series title that year, 1974. They won another division title the following year, but in 1976 the ranks of their championship-caliber players began to thin. The organization seemed to decide to counter the beginnings of an erosion of talent by employing an offensive strategy very much resembling sheer desperation.

In short, they tried to steal everything they could possibly steal.

They tried to steal early in games, in the middle of games, and late in games. They had bid adieu the previous year to the two-year experiment of using sprinter Herb Washington as a Designated Pinch Runner, but in his wake they now employed two Herbly reserves, Larry Lintz and Matt Alexander, who played in a combined 129 games and had only 31 at bats between them (Alexander had 30 of them and produced the duo’s lone hit); the two pinch runners combined to steal 51 bases. Their personal stolen base totals (Lintz: 31; Alexander: 20) were topped by several teammates, including Phil Garner with 35, Claudell Washington with 37, Don Baylor (!) with 52, Bert Campaneris with 54, and team leader Billy North with 75. In all, the team, which even featured Sal Bando swiping 20 bags (more than his stolen base totals in his previous five seasons combined), stole 341 bases, the most by any post-deadball-era team.

The question is, did it work? Did it allow the A’s to stave off their eventual crushing demise? Well, they didn’t win their division for the first time in six seasons, but they certainly did a lot better than they would the next season, when the bottom really dropped out. But did all the stealing lead to more wins?

My thinking is that maybe it did (but maybe it didn’t). First of all, the A’s had what I think is a decent success rate on steals that year, given the fact that to steal all those bases they must have had the green light all the time, even against pitchers and catchers who were very difficult to steal against, and given the fact that they certainly weren’t ever going to take someone by surprise with their running game. For the season, they stole bases at a 73.5% clip. I believe experts in the analysis of baseball stats have come to the conclusion that a 75% stolen base success rate or better will help a team’s offense, while anything less will hinder it. But since the A’s were only slightly below that mark, I figure they could get a pass in this regard.

More tellingly, the A’s scored quite a few more runs that year than they would have been expected to, given their on-base and slugging percentages. I did a couple of calculations using the Runs Created formulas, and it seems they should have been expected to score 620 or 621 runs. They scored 686. It stands to reason that all the stolen bases helped them get those extra 65 or 66 runs.

How much were those extra runs worth? If they had scored only 621 runs, they would have been expected, using Bill James’ Pythagorean Expectation, to win 83 or 84 games. They won 87. However, if you feed their actual runs scored and runs allowed into the Pythagorean Expectation, it turns out they should have won 91 games, which would have put them a game ahead of the division-winning Kansas City Royals. I don’t know why they performed below their expected win total, but is it possible that they lost a handful of close games in late innings because at the end of those games they had exhausted themselves with all the running?

III.
Billy North was the last of the championship A’s to flee the team’s late-’70s implosion. His 1978 trade to the Dodgers allowed him yet another campaign with a pennant-winning club, and then the next year he moved back to the Bay Area, where he joined former A’s teammate Vida Blue (the second-to-last in the exodus of A’s stars) on the Giants. The Giants were coming off their best season in years, one of those improbable near-success stories that fans of a team will cling to as if it were a brilliant ephemeral detour from the usual predictable down-sloping narrative of their lives. Hopes for 1979 must have been high, and the acquisition of champion speedster Billy North perhaps seemed as if it would be the one thing to push them over the top.

It didn’t. The Giants returned to their familiar Padre-haunted irrelevancy near the bottom of the National League West standings. It wasn’t Billy North’s fault, however. After a subpar 1978 season he bounced back with his customary good leadoff man numbers, posting a .386 on-base percentage, a team-high 87 runs, and more stolen bases, 54, than any San Francisco Giant has ever had. In fact, this last element of his 1979 season made him the single-season record-holder for the teams on both sides of the bay (other players had stolen more in a season when the franchises were located in other cities). Though this record still stands for the San Francisco Giants, North was soon wiped off the top of the Oakland A’s record book by Rickey Henderson. Perhaps this began the slow erosion of Billy North in the collective memory of baseball fans. When one now thinks of stolen bases and the Oakland A’s, there’s not much room for anyone but Rickey.

IV.
So if Billy North is disappearing, then there’s no hope at all for Bill North. Apparently, judging from the signature on the card at the top of the page, this is what the player pictured began to prefer to be called. But if you type “Bill North” into Google you will not see a link to his page on baseball-reference.com come up. And not having a page on baseball-reference.com is kind of like not existing, in terms of major league baseball. To baseball fans, there is only Billy North. I can see why this is. Billy North just sounds more dashing and mythic, the hero of a tall tale, the symbolic embodiment of youth, the possessor of an unusual, thrilling gift. If Bill North had been in centerfield that day in 1974 when Dick Allen decided to try to score, the ball would have thudded off the grass for a game-tying single. Bill North would have played it on a bounce, like a normal mortal. Bill North would have tossed it back into the infield. Bill North would have returned to his position for a continuation of normal baseball.

Lucky for us all, when the ball started diving toward its seemingly predestined landing spot in the grass, Billy North appeared.

******

Bonus trivia question: Seven players stole more bases than Billy North in the 1970s. Can you best-of-seven the question by naming four of those seven? No Feldmaning; i.e., no peeking at Internet or other sources for the answer (the term, which should be in wider circulation, is based on Feldman, a minor character in a Daniel Clowes comic).

26 comments

  1. 1.  I’d like to think I was there that day–1974 was when I started talking my baseball-oblivious dad into taking me to A’s games some weekends. But I can’t imagine that my dad would have ever sat through a doubleheader, so probably not.

    The other name behind Rickey when it comes to stolen bases is Bert Campaneris, who is second on the all time A’s list. I ran into him (almost literally) on the Coliseum concourse one game last year. Campy was a very small man. His official height and weight are exactly the same as mine–5’10” 160–but he looked about 5’5″ and 140. He still looked quick–he could probably still steal a base better than some A’s of more recent vintage.


  2. 2.  1 : That reminds me, dang it, I meant to put a trivia question at the end of the post. In fact, I’m going to do that right now.

    Also, FYI to all: there are some new comments on old posts for Kent Tekulve (Pirates), Jim Rice (Red Sox; but beware all ye proponents–my fully biased self included–of Rice’s HOF candidacy); and Reggie Jackson, 1977 (Yankees).


  3. 3.  WITHOUT LOOKING???!!!

    DAVEY LOPES

    WILLIE WILSON

    LOU BROCK (FUNNY HOW LOPES & WILSON SPRING TO MIND BEFORE BROCK)

    JOE MORGAN

    —NOW I’M REALLY GUESSING—

    MICKEY RIVERS

    OMAR MORENO

    GARY MADDUX


  4. 4.  3 : An admirable effort, but the wrongs just barely beat the rights 4 to 3.


  5. 5.  RON LEFLORE???

    BIFF POCAROBA???

    TUCKER ASHFORD???

    MIKE LUM???

    WILLIE MONTENEZ???

    JOSE BAEZ???

    MAN, I’M GONNA HAVE TO GO LOOK…


  6. 6.  Lopes, Morgan, and Brock sound about right.

    Tommy Harper, maybe?

    I’m assuming there is a Royal somewhere in that group, but I’m blanking on who came up when.

    Ooooh! Oooh! Bobby Bonds. He’s gotta be on there.


  7. 7.  Billy North is my favorite counterexample for the theory that guys with no power can’t walk because pitchers don’t fear them and will groove pitches rather than walk the guy. North had almost no power whatsoever, but did walk plenty: .261 / .365 / .323 (! that’s like a dead-ball era guy) – career.

    Trivia:
    I’m getting too old to remember whose careers are more 70s than 80s, yeech. (2 following 1 is a dead giveaway for Campy, yes?):

    Brock
    Wilson
    Campy
    Lopes
    Rivers
    LeFlore
    Dave Collins?


  8. 8.  6 : A four rights to one wrong victory!

    7 : A three wrongs to three rights tie.


  9. 9.  I had to look. Man, I considered and discarded #6 on the list! Also one of the guys who is tied for #9 behind North and would have been a much better guess than Collins, who I should have known was too young.


  10. 10.  Morgan

    Lopes

    Otis

    Patek


  11. 11.  10 : Three rights and a wrong.

    Now only one of the seven has NOT been mentioned yet in any guess.


  12. 12.  Pete Rose?


  13. 13.  Morgan
    Lopes
    Patek
    Cedeno
    Brock
    Campy
    Bonds


  14. 14.  13 : Ding! Nice job, ToyCannon. Seven for seven.

    I figured Patek would have been the last name mentioned in these comments, but turns out it was a guy just a short scroll down on the Cardboard Gods page, Cedeno.


  15. 15.  It must have been something to see the 341 steal A’s face off against the 218 steal Royals. I live in Boston so I would never have seen them, plus, I was only 7 years old at the time and wouldn’t have appreciated it anyway.


  16. 16.  It must have been something to see the 341 steal A’s face off against the 218 steal Royals. I live in Boston so I would never have seen them, plus, I was only 7 years old at the time and wouldn’t have appreciated it anyway.


  17. 17.  The actual number and player has to be recorded somewhere, but I swear the most foul balls I have ever seen in a single at bat were hit by Bill North when I was watching NBC’s Game of the week sometime in the late 70’s….He must have had 15 or some insane number like that.


  18. 18.  The above picture looks weird to me, as Billy North, in my memory, always had a beard.

    The thing I remember most about Billy North is that just as he was leaving the on-deck circle to got step into the batter’s box, he’d take two practice swings: one, a really short, quick level swing, and then a long, slow uppercut one, almost like a golf swing. The uppercut swing would have been nonsensical, as he didn’t swing like that, but somehow it seemed to suit him, as it always seemed to me that the practice swing matched the trajectory of his beard.


  19. 19.  I wonder if Billy North ever met Billy Southworth.
    Naw, most likely not.

    Nor is it likely that Max West and Hugh East played against each other, though they were in the same league in the same year.

    (This is more fun than “The Westing Game.”)


  20. 20.  13
    Everyone else did the heavy lifting. I would have forgotten about Patek but as I was scanning the comments I saw the Astro’s list and Cedeno’s name just rang my bell.

    Hard to believe how good he was during the mid 70’s. He was the reason they traded my namesake but I always loved watching him play.


  21. 21.  17
    Any Dodger fan could tell you about a classic Alex Cora at bat that ended with a home run.


  22. 22.  Not sure about West vs. East, but as far as a truly compelling teutontic matchup with theological implications, the 1980’s must have featured a number of instances in which pitcher Jim Gott squared off against hitter Tim Teufel.

    Good vs. Evil?


  23. 23.  22 : As usual, it’s baseball-reference.com to the rescue:

    http://tinyurl.com/5tppj4

    Apparently the devil struck first, but then god prevailed over the long haul.


  24. 24.  22 , 23 I remember Sports Illustrated’s baseball column commenting at the time about the Gott vs. Teufel matchup.

    And one week, after Roger Mason of the Rangers started against Ken Dixon of the Orioles, SI’s baseball column printed the — what else? — Mason-Dixon line.


  25. 25.  The Red Sox have Joe Thurston in their system. I’m waiting for him to face JP Howell. (Specifically their third matchup.)


  26. The play you describe at the beginning (Billy North doubling up Dick Allen all by himself) is why we need a YouTube for just sports. I YouTubed “Billy North” and the most interesting thing I got was a few clips from “North and South,” the TV mini-series version of the hideous John Jakes book.

    If they had a SportsYouTube, I’d have to quit my job just to look up clips of the ’70s Red Sox.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 124 other followers

%d bloggers like this: