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.
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Ty Cobb (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Pete Rose
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Babe Ruth
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Mickey Mantle
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Roger Maris
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Hank Aaron
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Stan Musial
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Pedro Martinez
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Ted Williams
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Joe DiMaggio
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Joe Jackson
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Johnny Mize
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Cy Young