Herb Washington was the only pure designated runner in the history of baseball. Though the A’s also used other players primarily as pinch-runners during the mid-’70s, such as Matt Alexander and Don Hopkins, Washington was the only specialist to never once bat or take the field as a defender, and so was the only player ever to have “Pinch Run.” as his listed position on the front of a baseball card.
A’s owner Charles O. Finley, a wealthy, blustering, delusional madman or visionary who in some ways epitomized and even defined the sublime and ridiculous era I have been trying for a long time to describe, envisioned Washington, a former college sprinter, as yet another advantage for the formidable Oakland squad. But instead of being a fortification of the already high-powered engine that carried the A’s to league supremacy throughout the early- to mid-1970s, Washington ended up being the most superfluous (hence greatest) hood ornament on the biggest, baddest, Blue Moon Odomest Cadillac in the league.
As recounted on the back of this card, Washington entered 91 games in 1974, his first season in the majors. He scored 29 runs, stole 28 bases, and was caught stealing 16 times. This is not a great stolen base to caught stealing ratio, and in fact would be identified by present day baseball numbers crunchers as counterproductive, Washington’s jittery unpolished improvisations on the basepaths killing too many possible rallies to justify the occasional extra base. He only lasted until May of the following year, adding two more stolen bases and one more caught stealing to his all-time record.
I did not scrutinize the stolen base to caught stealing ratio but was instead mesmerized by the fact that these statistics were included at all, for at that time and throughout the 1970s stolen bases were not included among the statistics on any other card. I also completely believed the overheated back-of-the-card space-filling prose created by a nameless Topps functionary, who wrote, among other things, that Washington was “personally responsible for winning 9 games for the A’s in 1974.”
My guess is that in a couple of these 9 games, Washington merely trotted across the plate in front of a home run by one of the actual baseball players on the team, that in a few more of the 9 games he scored after a series of events not of his own doing that would have led just as easily to a score by the actual baseball player he replaced, and that the game or two where his speed actually seemed to provide the winning edge were more than cancelled out by his inexperienced baserunning gaffes in other games and by the fact that he took the place on the roster of someone who could, say, field a ground ball or dump a pinch-hit single into rightfield once in a while. But then again, his mere presence may have inflicted psychic damage on other teams. By carrying a guy on their roster who could not hit, pitch, or field, the A’s were in essence declaring to their opponent that they could kick their ass with one hand tied behind their back.