1979 Stolen Base Leaders

November 3, 2009

Stolen Base Leaders 1979

I wonder if Willie Wilson will pop some champagne during game six of the World Series tomorrow night when floundering Phillies slugger Ryan Howard inevitably flails at his next third strike like a drowsy man trying to kill a bumblebee with a sledgehammer. For twenty-nine years, Wilson has held the World Series record for strikeouts, with twelve, a record that Howard tied last night, in one fewer game than it took Wilson to amass his ignominious dozen. Howard’s record-tying failure came just moments after another World Series record was tied, the incredible, Pat-Riley-haired, oddly robotic Chase Utley matching Reggie Jackson’s exalted mark of five home runs in a single series. The adjacent placement of Utley and Howard in the Phillies batting order has to give a huge edge to Howard in the race to see which Phillie is able to set a World Series benchmark. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Chase Utley sees a pitch within several acres of the strike zone, what with the tall pile of swing-and-miss looming behind him in the batter’s box.

Of course, Howard is no slouch, and there’s always the possibility that he’ll snap out of it. I am hoping that he does, and not only because I’m rooting for the Phillies. I have always had a soft spot for guys who go into huge, sad-faced slumps in the World Series with everyone watching. Baseball is a game of slumps and streaks, and everyone goes through them, but in the heightened atmosphere of the World Series these slumps summon the sullen gravity of tragedy, forever defining the poor mortal who has lucklessly stumbled into them. The first time I remember having a sharpened awareness of one of these slumps was in 1980, with Willie Wilson, who kept feebly waving at pitches all the way up until the final out, when his feckless lunge at a Tug McGraw offering sparked the first World Series celebration in Phillies history.

Though in some ways Wilson will forever be frozen in that moment of futility, the truth is that he could never be frozen anywhere. The man is not known primarily for striking out but for his almost superhuman speed. Wilson, forever the fastest man in the baseball universe inside my skull, if not in the baseball universe itself, used that speed to keep running long after the 1980 series, playing for several more seasons, including a 1985 campaign that ended with Wilson performing well during the Royals seven-game victory over the Cardinals. He played for almost two decades in all, was a good hitter and a great fielder, and stole more bases than all but a few men in baseball history.

Also, you could argue that he was the greatest hitter of triples the world has ever seen.

First of all, he led the league in triples four times, more than anyone besides all-time triples king Sam Crawford, who also led the league four times. Also, the only player who ranks higher than Wilson on the career triples list who played as late as the 1970s was Roberto Clemente, and Clemente had 166 triples in 10212 plate appearances while Wilson had 147 triples in 8317 plate appearances. (If Wilson had kept up his rate of tripling and had gotten Clemente’s amount of plate appearances, he would have hit 180 triples.) Besides Clemente and the long-lasting line-drive smasher Stan Musial, all of the other players ahead of Wilson on the career triples list were done playing well before the color line was broken, and most of the massive triples-amassers did their damage in the years before the Ruthian era of the longball ensued.

Why was there so much tripling going on back in the spike-gashing days of Cobb and Speaker? I understand why the dead ball reduced the number of homers, but I don’t quite get why it increased the number of triples. But whatever the reason, it was a lot easier to hit a triple when Honus Wagner ruled the earth than it was in the Age of Steve Balboni. A quick glance through my baseball encyclopedia shows that the teams Crawford played on hit on average (very roughly speaking) about 80 triples a year. Wilson’s Kansas City teams—despite playing in a relatively large stadium with Astroturf, i.e., a good place for triples—generally hit half or, at most, three-quarters as many triples per year as Crawford’s teams. In 1985, for example, the Royals hit 49 triples. Willie Wilson hit 21 of them! By comparison, when Wilson’s namesake, Owen “Chief” Wilson, set the single-season record for triples in 1912, with 36, his Pirates team hit 126 triples. My math skills and handle on logic are laughable at best, but it seems to me that had Willie Wilson been on that Pirates team and carried the same proportional triples load that he did with the ’85 Royals, he would have finished the 1912 season with 6,847 triples. Well, maybe not, but I believe that had he played in the Era of the Triple he would now hold both the single-season and the career mark for triples, rather than just his soon-to-be-relinquished record for fanning in the World Series.

(And Omar Moreno was no slouch either.)


  1. I’ve wondered the same thing about triples in the Dead Ball Era, actually. I suspect the fielders simply weren’t as good (I know the percentage of balls in play turned into outs has increased dramatically since 1941, when Ted Williams hit .400, for example.) I’ll bet they were a lot more loose about not giving a fielder an error, too, but who knows? Sounds like a job for Rob Neyer.

  2. I think you’re onto something with the fielding. The gloves back then were barely more useful than a soggy oven mitt, for one thing. Probably more “nooks and crannies” in those old ballparks, too, which could help pinball the ball around a bit more. Also, maybe when guys started swinging for the fences that cut down on the amount of guys trying to be the kind of bat-control specialist who could poke a ball down the line for an opposite field triple. And certainly guys back then were more willing to take chances on the basepaths, which would lead to more triples.

  3. The fielding may be part of it, but I think the primary reason is simple – field dimensions. In that 1912 season, for example, 15 of 16 MLB ballparks had some point in the outfield 420′ or more from the plate. Five had centerfield walls over 500′ away, according to ballparks.com.

  4. Good call on the field dimensions (I didn’t know big fields were so common.) I had visions of slower outfielders chasing balls that scooted by them, and at, say, the Polo Grounds, a ball could go for quite a while. I hadn’t much thought about field dimensions because I’d assumed with a dead ball, far-off fences wouldn’t really come into play, but now if you combine giant outfields and slower outfielders, you can vision of triples multiplying. As far as the daring base runners, I wonder if anybody knows of stats that would reveal if runners were thrown out at third (or second) more often? I have no idea of there is anyplace that has records of such a thing.

    I also wonder if the fact that later-day players had more extra-base power makes getting to third less imperative? Why take a chance on getting thrown out when the next guy up might jack an extra base hit? And if modern players are speedier, why take a chance when you can likely score from second on a single anyway?

  5. Is it a fallacy to assume they were all slower in the dead ball era? The stolen base was a much bigger part of the game than it was from the 20s-50s and it seems odd to say “they hit more triples because players were slower.”

    The field dimensions have to be the main culprit.

  6. Two primary factors for more triples were the focus on speedy players and spacious parks. Small ball was the game. The stolen base was a critical element of the game. Steve Balboni would have offered little to a deadball era team. Teams wanted serious speed. The playing fields were more spacious. Many ballparks had big dimensions, such as the West Side Grounds of the Chicago Cubs, which was 560 feet to the center field fence, and the Huntington Avenue Grounds of the Boston Red Sox, which was 635 feet to the center field fence. The dimensions of Braves Field prompted Ty Cobb to say that no one would ever hit the ball out of it.

  7. As an example of successful team makeup in the deadball era, look at the 1908 Cubs. Everyone on that team could steal a base. Kling, as catcher, was one of the best base stealers for a catcher in history. (Evers called him the greatest catcher the game had known . . . of course he said this in 1910, but Evers was really emphatic about it.) In 1908 Kling stole 16 bases. Chance at first stole 27. The team had 10 players that stole 11 or more bases. Even their backup catcher stole 6 bases with only 150 AB’s. As a team they hit 56 triples and 19 homeruns. They stole 212 bases which led the league. Speed, speed, speed.

  8. I think the players, as a group, were almost certainly slower back then. We’re bigger, stronger, and faster now by almost any measurable criteria. But that was offset by the lack of stigma in getting thrown out stealing or trying to take the extra base — there was no shame in trying to stretch a double into a triple.

    I agree that ballpark dimensions and focus on the speed game were the primary factors in the number of triples being hit. I also have a pet theory regarding the fences themselves. In my mind’s eye I see balls hitting the wooden fence and dropping dead, or even occasionally getting wedged underneath, forcing the outfielder to run that extra fifteen feet to retrieve it. I dunno, could be something, or not.

  9. Advances in sanitation and medical care have also cut down on triples. For example, until the 1920’s, it was not uncommon for an outfielder to be suddenly overcome by Yellow Fever while chasing a fly ball.

  10. Sloths . . . I just did a search on the fewest triples for a player’s career. I found this, which looked at 1900-2006:

    Fewest Triples, Career, At Least 3,000 ABs

    T1 Joe Oliver 3 3367
    T1 John Flaherty 3 3372
    T1 Rich Dauer 3 3829
    T4 Mike Andrews 4 3116
    T4 Mike Lowell 4 4142
    T4 Mike Sweeney 4 4404
    T4 Charles Johnson 4 3836
    T8 Ben Grieve 5 3215
    T8 Paul Sorrento 5 3412
    T8 Bo Diaz 5 3274
    T8 Paul Konerko 5 4561
    T8 Ramon Hernandez 5 3148
    T13 John Mabry 6 3375
    T13 Mark McGwire 6 6187
    T13 Scott Hatteberg 6 3813
    T13 Greg Brock 6 3202
    T13 Earl Williams 6 3058
    T13 Gus Triandos 6 3907
    T13 Phil Nevin 6 4188
    T20 Todd Hundley 7 3769
    T20 Cecil Fielder 7 5157
    T20 Brian Harper 7 3151
    T20 Greg Myers 7 3042
    T20 Ron Hassey 7 3440
    T20 Mike Stanley 7 4222
    T20 Mike Piazza 7 6602
    T20 Jorge Posada 7 4308
    T20 Paul Lo Duca 7 3274
    T29 Bob Horner 8 3777
    T29 Ron Coomer 8 3019
    T29 Mike Marshall 8 3593
    T29 Bubba Phillips 8 3278
    T29 Troy Glaus 8 4040
    T29 Brent Mayne 8 3614
    T29 Scott Brosius 8 3889
    T29 Darrin Fletcher 8 3902
    T29 Jason Giambi 9 5620
    T38 Wayne Gross 9 3125
    T38 Mike Matheny 9 3877
    T38 Henry Rodriguez 9 3031
    T38 Marty Barrett 9 3378
    T38 Bill Melton 9 3971

  11. Victor Martinez moved into first place this year when he went over 3000 at bats. He only has two triples.

  12. piehead: That Yellow Fever remark makes it two times in the last couple weeks that you’ve made me laugh out loud (the first being the comment in the Don Hood post that wished that Don Hood celebrated his recent 60th birthday by shivving someone in an alley).

  13. Damn, was Wilson fast. According to Wilson’s HR log on baseball-reference, 5 of Willie’s 6 homeruns in ’79 were inside the park jobs. 13 of Wilson’s first 16 homeruns were inside-the-park. Add in his triples and his stolen bases . . . Wilson had wings.

  14. Omar Moreno was the kind of player they invented the expression “You can’t steal first base” for.

  15. Can’t steal first? When I coached my daughters’ softball team (ages 9-12) more than once I harkened a kid in the batter’s box to come down the line to talk with me while I coaching third base. I’d say (so no parents could hear me) to a struggling little hitter, “Ok, you have two strikes on you, and this pitcher is kind of wild. So, if it looks like a pretty bad pitch, just swing any way on the third strike and just run to first base as fast as you can.” It worked more than once, but I do recall each kid looking at me really perplexed at the suggestion.

  16. Catfish – in my last year in little league, in our championship game, I reached first on a strike out not once, but twice, in each of my last two at bats. Both times I stole second and eventually came around to score (helping to send the game into extra innings and then helping to win). To this day I am not sure how intentional each of those K’s were, but I like to tell myself I knew exactly what I was doing!

  17. I’m not sure if this went into the 20th century but at one time there were no outfield walls just ropes that kept the fans back. It’s been said that hometown fans would move the ropes forward or backward depending on who was batting, that might account for some home field triples.

    As far as Wilson goes, He was the fastest baseball player I ever remember. I think he hit something like 5 inside the park homeruns in ’79.

    Wilson kind of had a reputation of being a jerk, which might have something to do with his cocaine use.

    I remember reading in one of the Bill James books that Wilson wasn’t a very good hitter until Whitey Herzong taught him how to slap the ball and use his speed. He turned into a pretty good hitter and he even won a batting title.

    But then Lee May became a Royals hitting coach and taught him to hit the ball hard and Wilson thought this was cool and actually got mad at Whitey Herzog for making him slap the ball.

    Almost overnight Wilson went from being a .310-.320 singles hitter to a .260 hitter who would hit 5 home runs a year.

  18. Anyone remember seeing Willie Wilson on the old Superstars competitions on television in the early 80s? He’s still, in my mind, the fastest person ever to play major league baseball.

  19. Babe Ruth hit more triples than Hank Aaron. How many people did not know that?

  20. I don’t think I ever saw someone look more lost at the plate during the postseason than Alfonso Soriano in the 2003 ALDS and WS. He would swing at anything (and usually miss) that was thrown within 50 feet of the plate.

    I remember that Omar Moreno was nicknamed Omar The Tension Maker.

  21. Along with the larger dimensions you have the fact that it was the DEAD BALL ERA. Thus, with a deader ball, if it wasn’t leaving the park it was staying in the park, thus you have triples.

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