Slidin’ Billy

Slidin' Billy Hamilton with Boston

One reason I always liked Lou Brock was because he was smarter than the writers and pundits knew. When he was getting ready to establish the all-time stolen base record, most people were talking about how he’d run ahead of Ty Cobb. It seems Brock knew Cobb wasn’t the record holder. Because Brock kept playing until he picked up 938 stolen bases, one more than Slidin’ Billy Hamilton.

Hamilton was born in Newark, N ew Jersey in 1866 (does that make him a Civil War Baby Boomer?). He was a left-handed hitting outfielder who got to the Big Leagues in 1888 with the Kansas City Cowboys of the American Association (a Major League in 1888). They finished last with Hamilton playing 35 games, hitting .264, and stealing 19 bases. In 1889, The Cowboys got to seventh (in an eight team league) with Hamilton taking over as the regular right fielder. He hit .301, stole 111 bases, and scored 144 runs in 137 games.  In the shake up that led to the formation of the Player’s League in 1890, Hamilton went to Philadelphia in the National League, where he stayed through 1895.

This is as good a point as any to take on this stolen base record stuff. After all 111 stolen bases is a lot. Back when Hamilton was playing, stolen bases were figured differently than they are now. A single was assumed to advance a runner one base, so a man going from first to third on a single was credited with a stolen base. A double was assumed to advance a runner two bases, so a man scoring from first on a double was credited with a stolen base (Apparently it wasn’t home, because he didn’t get credit for stealing home. You figure it out.). Also I can find no evidence that “defensive indifference” was called in the period. So a lot of Hamilton’s stolen bases aren’t what you and I would consider stolen bases, but were noted as such in his own era. The rule was changed to the modern method of determining a stolen base after 1897, so almost all of Hamilton’s stolen bases are under the old definition and no one seems to be able to accurately determine how many of his stolen bases would fit the modern definition.  To give you some idea how much this rule change effected stats, Ed Delahanty (for one example) had 58 steals to lead the NL in 1898. In 1897 that would have been eighth.

Hamilton had great years at Philadelphia. He led the league in runs three times, in hits once, in walks three times, in on base percentage yet again three times, won a batting title in 1891, and of course he led in stolen bases four times. In 1894 he was part of an all .400 hitting outfield when he hit .403. In that season, he set the record for runs scored with 192 (or 198 depending on the source) and also stole seven bases in a games, a record by any definition. In 1896 he went to Boston (now the Atlanta Braves) and helped lead them to NL pennants in 1897 and 1898. He remained in Boston until his retirement in 1901. With Boston he led the league in runs once, walks twice, and on base percentage twice.

For his career Hamilton hit .344, had an OBP of .455, had 2154 hits, scored 1697 runs, and played in 1594 games. He died in 1940 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1961. I have no idea why it took so long except that he played a long time ago.

Hamilton has a lot of interesting numbers. My favorite pair is 1594 games played and 1697 runs scored, or 1.06 runs scored per game played. That’s one of those 19th Century numbers that astound me. Take a look at more modern players. To stick with great base stealers, Lou Brock played 2616 games and scored 1610 runs (0.62 runs per game) and Rickey Henderson played 3081 games and scored 2295 runs (0.74 runs per game). Even the greatest base stealers ever can’t match Hamilton’s ability to score runs. It’s good that Lou Brock knew at least a little baseball history. It allowed him to pass Hamilton in stolen bases (whatever the definition) because he wasn’t going to catch him in runs per game.

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One Response to “Slidin’ Billy”

  1. William Miller Says:

    I, too, love 19th century stats. They remind me of the stats my friends and I used to keep for our sandlot baseball games. I remember I once hit over .600 one year (Don’t know what my OPS+ was, though.) Still, any player who was among the best of his era, regardless of the rules, the quality of play, etc., still needs to be considered one of the all-time greats.
    Makes you wonder how different things will be in baseball a hundred years into the future.
    Cool post, Bill

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