Herb Washington

December 7, 2006

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.


  1. 1.  2 comments from old CG site:

    peter said…
    As a child, I can recall being puzzled, and somewhat fascinated by this card.

    And what did it all mean?

    Oh… those wacky American Leaguers;
    first the designated hitter, now a designated runner? And those uniforms? (the Astros would soon push the envelope on our side of the column.)

    But really, I mean what sport was this they were playing over there for crying out loud?

    Well, by now of course the entire major leagues are a farce, but I’d like to think, deep in my heart somewhere, that I still in some way consider American League baseball to be a curiosity residing enigmatically in the popular imagination someplace between indoor soccer and professional wrestling..

    12:18 PM

    Chancey said…
    Did you know you can research your entire blog’s traffic et al in Technorati.com? http://www.technorati.com/blogs/http%3A%2F%2Fcardboardgods.blogspot.com

    8:56 PM

  2. 2.  As a budding baseball card collector in the mid 80s, my parents gave me a large retrospective published by Topps, celebrating 35 years of baseball card sets. The book simply showed every single card made over those 35 years and I scoured it so thoroughly that I ruined the binding. As I became less interested in collecting the current cards, that book fostered my absurdly consuming interest in baseball history. Moreover, as I stopped collecting the current sets, I began hunting through the commons boxes at card stores for things like the ’75 Herb Washington card, which remains one of my favorites to this day. It has a place of honor right next to the John Odom card where the facsimile autograph is signed as “Blue Moon Odom”.

    Two other great things about this card…

    First, unlike so many other posed cards from this time, we can clearly the white adidas shoes that are so essential to the classic Finley-era A’s uniforms.

    Second, check out that glove that Herb’s wearing. It doesn’t look like a batting glove but, rather, something a policeman would have worn while directing traffic a generation or two earlier. And why only one glove? Perhaps Herb might be an inspiration for the Thriller-era Michael Jackson.

  3. 3.  I was always in so much awe of this card. I payed special attention to this set, as there were the “minis” as well as the regular sized cards to collect. Is it just me, or does Washington appear to be in the “leadoff” position roughly 2 feet away from the first base line? Washington, to me, is a great icon of the Finley era, complete with mustache, the batting glove removed from the wrapper minutes before the photo was taken, wrinkle-free and untainted of pine tar.

  4. I also love how he’s concentrating on “leading off” from first, yet behind him it’s painfully obvious that there’s nobody at the ballpark (because it’s 11 in the morning or whatever)

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