Is the stolen base a lost art? It might be when you consider how the game of baseball is changing. Since Babe Ruth introduced baseball to the era of the home run, it seems like base-running has become a real afterthought. Although stolen bases did regain popularity as a tactic in the 80s and 90s, the trend over the last 100 years has shown the number of homeruns per game increasing and the number of stolen bases decreasing.
In the early days of baseball, it was not uncommon for the top players in the game to get at least 50 stolen bases or more per season. There have even been a few cases of players having stolen over 100 bases in one year. For instance, Hugh Nicol stole 138 bases all the way back in 1887 while playing for the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the American Association.
However, players that can steal bases are hard to come by. In 1962, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Maury Wills stole 104 bases in a single season. Meanwhile, teammate Willie Davis had only 32 steals in the same year but still helped set a record for the highest number of stolen bases between two teammates at 136.
So, will Billy Hamilton bring the art of the stolen base back into the limelight? Hamilton will be playing his first full year in the majors in 2014 with the Cincinnati Reds. In 2012, he stole 155 bases while in the minors. On September 18, 2013, Hamilton made his first start and stole four bases during that game, making him the first player in more than ninety years to steal four bases in his first ever start.
This listing of the top players in MLB history in terms of stolen bases covers a good number of noteworthy players. Seven of them are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s clear from this list that base-stealing is something that was more commonplace years ago, but that doesn’t mean it cannot make a comeback.
10. Honus Wagner – 723 Stolen Bases
Honus Wagner is considered to be one of the greatest players from the early days of modern baseball. He spent eighteen years with the Pittsburgh Pirates and was paid $10,000 per year from 1908 to 1917, a big step up from the $5,000 he made in 1907. His 723 stolen bases are just a part of the strong statistics that he maintained from 1897 when he started with the Louisville Colonels to his retirement in 1917. Wagner had a .328 career batting average, 1,733 RBIs and 3,420 hits. Don’t forget about his famous T206 baseball card from 1909. The card has gone up for auction at values of more than $2 million and is considered to be the most valuable trading card in history.
9. Max Carey – 738 Stolen Bases
Max Carey was a teammate of Honus Wagner’s for part of his career in Pittsburgh. Playing from 1910 to 1929 and spending seventeen years with the Pirates, he had 738 stolen bases and led the sport in the category for ten seasons. He didn’t make anywhere near as much as the Flying Dutchman did, though. In 1912, Carey received $2,100 for his services to the Pirates. The ironic thing about this is that the original copy of his contract from that year went on the auction block in 2012 and sold for $12,000, a massive increase over the $1,000 that it was originally worth. Like Wagner, Carey is also a Hall of Famer and is forever immortalized as a legend in Pittsburgh Pirates history.
8. Eddie Collins – 741 Stolen Bases
From 1906 to 1930, Eddie Collins spent time with both the Philadelphia Athletics and Chicago White Sox. While he did have 741 stolen bases, he struggled with keeping a good steal percentage throughout his career. For instance, Collins stole 46 bases in 1915 but was also caught 30 times. In 1923 he stole 48 bases and was caught 29 times. Collins was part of the Athletics’ $100,000 Infield in 1911 and was sold to the White Sox for $50,000 in 1914, making around $15,000 a year with the team. He did not have any involvement in the plot to tank the 1919 World Series but he still played for the Sox for a few years after the event took place.
7. Arlie Latham – 742 Stolen Bases
Arlie Latham stole 129 bases for the St. Louis Browns in 1887 and 109 more the year after. He had 50 or more stolen bases for seven more years in his career and even stole a base at the age of 49 when he was a player-manager for the New York Giants in 1909. However, he also committed 822 errors while at third base. His salary of $1,000 per year playing in the late part of the nineteenth century was around the norm for players at the time. The Dude is not in the Hall of Fame because, like so many other pre-modern players, his statistics could be skewed due to how different the game was back then.
6. Vince Coleman – 752 Stolen Bases
In 1983, Vince Coleman stole 145 bases while playing in the minors and had 110 stolen bases in his rookie year with the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals. He stole over 100 bases in two other seasons and led the league in steals in each of his first six years in the game. Coleman didn’t quite have the same touch after leaving the Cards for the New York Mets in 1991, but he proved to be a viable player over the course of his career with 752 steals. Amazingly enough, Coleman’s salary only cracked the $1 million mark for his last year with the Cardinals. Before that his pay hovered around $750,000 per season but he landed a bigger deal with the Mets for $3.1 million per year over four years.
5. Tim Raines – 808 Stolen Bases
While the artificial turf at the Stade Olympique was troublesome to many, Tim Raines took advantage of this fast surface during thirteen years of ball with the Montreal Expos. Raines, who also played for the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees in a 23-year career, stole 808 bases and led the league in steals each year from 1981 to 1984. He had 90 steals in 1983 and soon after had a streak of three years with a .320 or better batting average. Like many other people who played for Les Expos, Raines left the team for more money (although he was actually traded because his salary was expected to be too high). Whereas the Expos paid him $2 million US in 1990, Raines got $3.5 million per year in a five-year deal with the Chicago White Sox in 1991.
4. Ty Cobb – 897 Stolen Bases
For 22 years, Ty Cobb was one of the most talented, feared and controversial players in the MLB with the Detroit Tigers. The Georgia Peach is best known for having the best career batting average in baseball history with a .366 total including a .420 average for 1911. He also had 4,189 hits in his career, the second-highest of all time. Cobb was a dangerous base stealer, having compiled 897 in his career including 96 in 1915. Much of his success came from how he supposedly tried to stab and injure some players with his spiked cleats while sliding into a base. In 1927, Cobb had an $85,000 salary with the Philadelphia Athletics. This was much greater than the $6,750 average that most players made at the time.
3. Billy Hamilton – 914 Stolen Bases
How ironic is it that another player named Billy Hamilton is looking to bring back the stolen base today! He’s not the first Billy Hamilton to be a stud in this category. From 1888 to 1901, William Robert Hamilton stole 914 bases with 100 or more steals coming in four seasons including 111 in both 1889 and 1891. Most of his success came with the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Beaneaters. Very little is known about what Sliding Billy was earning but it’s estimated that he got around $2,100 in 1894. This is a radical departure from the $490,000 that the Billy Hamilton of today is earning. Then again, the original Hamilton’s total was very high when compared to others getting $1,000 per year during his time.
2. Lou Brock – 938 Stolen Bases
In June 1964, the Chicago Cubs traded Lou Brock and two others to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ernie Broglio and two other Cards. Looking back, this qualifies as one of the most one-sided trades in baseball history. Broglio went 7-19 in three seasons with the Cubs after going 70-55 with the Cardinals while Brock had 888 of his career 938 steals with the Cards including 118 in 1974. He also led the majors in that category eight times. Brock made $85,000 in 1970, a total worth around $510,000 today. He also got $180,000 in 1975, now equivalent to $780,000. Still, the top base stealer of all time truly dwarfed Brock’s numbers in all respects.
1. Rickey Henderson – 1,406 Stolen Bases
Anyone who wants to try and top the Man of Steal’s 1,406 stolen base record will probably have to play as long as he did. Rickey Henderson spent 25 years in the game with fourteen of them being with the Oakland Athletics. In 1982 he stole 130 bases and even led the league in 1998 with 66 steals at the age of 39. He also scored 2,295 runs for his career, the most in baseball history. Rickey Henderson made $44.5 million in his major league career with $4.8 million coming from Oakland in 1994. He even played for a few independent baseball teams shortly after his final MLB game in 2003. Henderson played for a bit in the Golden Baseball League, a league where older players could make up to $3,000 per month for their services. It’s doubtful that the money meant anything to him at that point in his career, as Henderson clearly loved playing the game above all else.
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