Bill NorthNovember 14, 2008
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.
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?
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.
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).