The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Jackie Robinson

What is the most exciting play in baseball?  Is it the walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth?  How about a bases-loaded triple?  For that matter, how about a triple play?

Certainly, one of baseball’s most exciting plays is stealing home plate.

Now, although there are different “kinds” of steals — straight steals, double steals, busted suicide squeeze plays — for the sake of brevity, this article will not differentiate between the various types.

When Washington outfielder Bryce Harper stole home off of Philadelphia lefty Cole Hamels a couple of months ago, it was noteworthy not only because Hamels had plunked Harper in the back to apparently send him some sort of message (guess THAT didn’t work), but also because the straight-steal of home (as opposed to being on the front end of a double-steal), is such a rarity these days, (notwithstanding the fact that the Padres Everth Cabrera stole home just two days ago against the Dodgers.)

There was a time, however, when stealing home was an important tactical weapon in the arsenal of most baseball teams.  Certainly, it requires the guts of a cat burglar and the stealth of a ninja.  Or, at the very least, a pitcher half-asleep on the mound.

Jackie Robinson often comes to mind when I think of a player stealing home.  Perhaps his most famous steal of home occurred in the 1955 World Series against the Yankees in Game One.  Yankee catcher Yogi Berra went ballistic when Robinson was ruled safe at home by the home plate umpire.  Berra maintains to this day that Robinson really was out.

This was also the only World Series the Dodgers ever won in Brooklyn, and it was Robinson’s only steal of home in a World Series.

Recalling this exciting event led me to ask an obvious question, “How many times did Jackie Robinson steal home in his career?

Of course, stealing home was going on in baseball long before Jackie Robinson came along.  The first unrecorded steal of home must have taken place in the 19th century.  We do know that Honus Wagner stole home twice on June 20, 1901.

Interestingly, the Dodgers own Pete Reiser set the modern N.L. single-season record for steals of home plate with an amazing seven in 1946, the year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.  (Ty Cobb holds the single-season record with eight steals of home in 1912.)

Jackie Robinson, it turns out, stole home a whopping 19 times in his career, against approximately 12 times caught stealing.  Before 1950, “caught stealing” as a statistical category was not consistently recorded, so we can’t be sure exactly how many times Robinson was caught stealing home.  For four of Robinson’s ten seasons, therefore, we have incomplete data from which to draw accurate conclusions regarding his overall success rate.

Shane Tourtellotte of the Hardball Times, in an interesting and provocative article published on March 2nd of this year, posits the interesting hypotheses that Robinson’s 19 successful steals of home (20, if you count the one in the ’55 Series), were worth more in run-producing, game-winning value than all of his other steals combined.

So, did Jackie Robinson steal home more than any other player in history over the course of his career?  Not by a long shot.  As far as we know, 38 players have stolen home base at least ten times in their careers.  Here’s a list of the top 20: (Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Almanace.com)

1)  Ty Cobb – 54

2)  Max Carey – 33

3)  George Burns – 28

4)  Honus Wagner – 27

5)  Sherry Magee – 23

5)  Frank Schulte – 23

7)  Johnny Evers – 21

8)  George Sisler – 20

9)  Frankie Frisch – 19

9)  Jackie Robinson – 19

11) Jim Shekard – 18

11) Tris Speaker – 18

11) Joe Tinker – 18

14) Rod Carew – 17

14) Eddie Collins – 17

14) Larry Doyle – 17

17) Tommy Leach – 16

18) Ben Chapman – 15

18) Fred Clarke – 15

18) Lou Gehrig – 15

I was surprised that, although Robinson’s 19 steals of home are impressive, they are not nearly the greatest total of all time.  Ty Cobb’s record of 54 career steals of home is a record that I can’t imagine ever being broken.  The most recently active player with at least ten career steals of home plate is Paul Molitor, who retired 14-years ago at age 41.

The biggest surprise to me on the list I posted above is Lou Gehrig.  Who knew Gehrig stole home just four fewer times in his career than Jackie Robinson?  In truth, if Gehrig had one flaw as a baseball player, it was as a base stealer.  In his career, Gehrig stole 102 bases, but was also thrown out 100 times.

Among baseball statisticians, anything less than a 70% success rate means you should have stayed put.  A 50% success rate indicates an actual loss of overall run production, due to the opportunities squandered where a base runner who had stayed put might have been driven home by his teammates.  (See Tourtellotte’s article for more on this as well.)

Anyway, if you have Babe Ruth and Tony Lazzeri around you in the lineup, is there really any reason to try to steal home?

Speaking of Babe Ruth, it may also come as a surprise to you that The Bambino actually stole home ten times in his career, most, presumably, on the front end of double-steals.

Strategies and game conditions have, of course, changed a great deal over the past hundred years.  For many reasons too numerous to discuss in this post, the steal of home hasn’t been a significant part of the National Pastime for decades.

Nevertheless, when it does occur, it brings us back to a time when daring base runners challenged pitchers to a duel unlike any other in sports:  I can run faster than you can throw.  It is a challenge that links us to baseball’s historic past, even as the game continues to evolve on into the future.

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14 thoughts on “Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Jackie Robinson

  1. Pingback: Runnin Redbirds Double Steals the Show | godbaseballandlife

  2. molitor! oh yeh and that makes a heck of a lot sense. he was not only fast. he was a base runner thinking an extra base all the time. it was like he had three eyes and then a fourth called anticipation.
    the gehrig number is definitely a shocker especially after reading here how many times he got thrown out. i wonder if they were steal homes like the bryce harper which is more of a delayed steal than a molitor straight steal home. i was looking at this yesterday. you can see how it messes up the pitcher and/or catcher. i think that’s del crandall on the color after the steal of home.

  3. Michael Alba Lamb on said:

    Excellent article… Just what I was looking for after seeing 42 this afternoon… on the walk to the lot from the Met game.

    Thanks!

  4. William, interesting post. Another interesting thing would be to find out the pitchers who were on the mound the most while home plate was being stolen.

    Glen Russell Slater

  5. “notwithstanding the fact that the Padres Everth Cabrera stole home just two days ago against the Dodgers”

    Yeah, I caught that too. You probably enjoyed it more.

    Like everybody, I knew about Jackie Robinson’s WS steal, but I didn’t know he’d stolen home so many times. And while many players stole home more (of which, honestly I wasn’t aware until reading this), I imagine JR would have a few more if he’d played his entire career in the majors.

    Ty Cobb with 54? If only his character were the equal of his baseball skills.

    Hard to believe Lou Gehrig got thrown out so many times, considering he’s “the luckiest man, man, on the face of the earth, earth.”

    • Before the 1960’s or ’70’s, stolen base success percentages were usually much lower than what we now consider acceptable. Back then, getting caught was considered the (fair) price you paid for hustling and being aggressive. You know, “We’ll get ‘em next time!” A friend of mine has sent me loads of info about the number of times runners used to get caught stealing, and the numbers are just abysmal. Gehrig was about average, percentage-wise.
      Cobb was once considered the greatest player of all time, even when Ruth was around and slugging his homers. But yeah, as a person, he left a lot to be desired. There’s actually a Ty Cobb Museum in Georgia. I’ve always wanted to go down there and check out how they’ve managed to sanitize his career.
      Certainly, Robinson would have stolen home several more times if he’d come up to the Majors three or four years earlier, but at least MLB got to see him in his prime for a few years. His approach revolutionized the game, especially in the N.L.
      Thanks for reading, and for the comments,
      Bill

  6. Thanks for this very informative post. I am surprised that Maury Wills is not on the list.
    Allan

    • Though I’m not completely sure about this, the best info I can find is that Wills stole home just once in his career, on August 3, 1962. Lou Brock, by the way, never stole home. Rickey Henderson did it just four times. Baseball players stopped running when pitchers stopped the giant leg-kick windups with runners on base, and went instead to the slide-step. Also, managers began to view the steal of home as too risky a play.
      Thanks for the read, and for the comment.
      Bill

  7. I wonder if the pitching motions of pitchers back in the day had anything to do with the stealing home numbers; it seems if you look at guys who pitched in the 20s and 30s, they tend to have high leg kicks and reach way back. I don’t think guys were too worried about being quick to the plate back then,

    • That’s exactly right. I’m pretty sure that I read a similar explanation from Rickey Henderson on this topic. As pitchers went to the slide-step, runners had less time to make the dash to home-plate. Still, the number of attempts between then and now also indicates an overall change in mindset. The idea of run-creation primarily through base-running, established over a few generations in the late 19th century through the Dead Ball era up to 1920, took a long time to fade away even as the sluggers took charge of the game in the ’20’s and the ’30’s. The managers up through the end of WWII were weaned on the running game as essential, so it wasn’t until the next generation of managers came aboard that the new reliance on the three-run homer came about much later than one would have expected.
      At least that’s my theory.
      Thanks for reading,
      Bill

  8. As you point out, the game has certainly changed. I note that Rod Carew is the only player on your list (tied at 14th) who played after the 1961 expansion. Good job, good series.
    v

    • Although I understand the logic behind attempting to steal home less now than in previous decades, it would be fun to see this tactic make a bit of a comeback.
      Thanks, as always,
      Bill

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