Friday, July 10, 2009

A Little Baseball History: Stealing Home, the Walk-Off and the Weird

Baseball enjoys the most extensive history of any American sport. Professional baseball dates back to six years after the Civil War ended when the Philadelphia Athletics were champions of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1871. Baseball historians dispute this league's status as a 'Major League', but baseball as a sport predates the Civil War to sometime in the mid-1850s. Through the years, we, from casual observers of the game to baseball gurus, have witnessed some of the most exciting plays in the history of American sports. We have seen records that were considered unfathomable to begin with eclipsed time and time again. As baseball fans we have seen our share of remarkable moments, heartbreaking defeats and the downright weird. We have seen some of the sports' most beloved players crossover from sports idol to cultural icon. Perhaps most importantly, we have witnessed players, whose courage and dedication goes unmatched throughout the course of history, inspire people the world over.

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But enough of that. That's nothing new. We all knew that, right? The exciting plays that I am referring to are walk-off homeruns and straight steals of home. Jackie Robinson made the straight steal of home famous when he stole home base in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series (Yogi Berra still claims that Jackie was out), but his 20 steals of home plate are not the most in baseball history. That distinction goes to Ty Cobb with 54 throughout his career. Coming in second is Max Carey who played from 1910 to 1929 for the Pittsburgh Pirates and later the Brooklyn Robins. He stole 738 bases in his career including 33 straight steals of home. Jackie comes in 9th with 20. Many historians and statisticians credit Jackie with 19 steals of home, excluding the steal in the 1955 World Series game because it came in the postseason. If credited with 19, Jackie would still come in 9th all-time, but would share the place with Frankie Frisch, a Hall of Famer who played for the New York Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals.

The most successful stealer of home in the modern era was Rod Carew, who stole home 17 times. Lou Gehrig stole home 15 times and Babe Ruth stole home 10 times. It's become a lost art in the modern era of baseball, although Jacoby Ellsbury's straight steal of home against Andy Petite and Jorge Posada on April 26 has sparked renewed interest in the play. Later, Gary Matthews, Jr. and Chris Gertz would steal home on the same day, June 28.

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Walk-off home runs are much more common these days, but they are exciting nonetheless. You'll never see a walk-off met with indifference no matter what ballpark you visit. There's always a roar. It does, after all, only occur when the home team is up to bat.

So what put this article idea in my head? A Nationals victory. That's right, a Washington Nationals victory. Didn’t think it could happen, did you? Neither did I.

When the Washington Nationals walked off the field at Minute Maid Park in Houston as the home team victors, something did not seem quite right. The game went 11 innings, although they only played for 7 minutes. The winning pitcher's name, although credited in the box score, was nowhere to be found on the Washington roster. And the winning run was scored by a player who did not begin the game as a member of the Nationals. It was like a bad episode of The Twilight Zone only I didn't recognize any of the cast members. This was all too much for me and I passed out.

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After I came to, I found out that the game was actually begun on May 5, but was suspended until Thursday. Although the game started in Washington, the final 7 minutes were played in Houston. And the winning pitcher, Joel Hanrahan, was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 30, which explained his current absence from the roster. In exchange for the pitcher, the Nationals received Nyjer Morgan. It was Morgan who scored the winning run on Thursday. This explained his absence when the game began over two months ago. Interestingly enough, this is what sparked me to look up a little baseball history to see if something as crazy as this has ever happened before.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find out if a pitcher was ever credited a victory for a game in which he was not on the roster of either team when the game finished. I did, however, discover quite a few surprising statistics and records that I never knew existed, including the stark difference in successful straight steals of home in the modern era of baseball compared to baseball history.

Most fans would assume that the New York Yankees have had the most players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Nope. They have 41 players currently in the HOF, good for fifth best. The Giants have had the most inductions with 55, followed by the Dodgers and Braves with 45 and the Cardinals with 42. The Marlins, Rockies and Diamondbacks are the only current teams with no Hall of Famers. Yes, even the Rays have a Hall of Famer (Wade Boggs).

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Eight teams have never won a World Series: the Nationals, Rangers, Rays, Mariners, Padres, Brewers, Astros and Rockies. Only the Nationals, Rangers and Mariners have never played in the World Series. The Yankees have won the most World Series titles with 26, followed by the Cardinals with 10, the Athletics with 9, the Red Sox with 7 and the Dodgers with 6. The Giants, Pirates and Reds have each won 5 World Series titles.

The highest winning percentage of all-time belongs to the New York Yankees with a .567 winning percentage. The Giants are second at .538 and the Dodgers are third at .524. The Tampa Bay Rays have the lowest winning percentage at .423. Second to last is the San Diego Padres at .461 and then the Texas Rangers at .469. The Phillies and Mariners come in next at .470.

Surprisingly, the best batting average of any team throughout the history of baseball belongs to the Colorado Rockies with .278. The Yankees are second at .268, followed by the Cardinals with .267. The Mets have the worst all-time batting average at .250. Second lowest belongs to the San Diego Padres with .252 and then the Washington Nationals with .254.

The research for this article was done at Baseball-Reference.com and on various sites across the web. I also referenced a 2002 article about stealing home as a lost art in today's game written by Paul Post and Ed Lucas. Researching statistics, reading baseball historians and shuffling through vintage and iconic baseball photographs are great ways to relive or discover baseball's rich past. Although stealing home is not an officially charted statistic in the MLB, fans and observers of the game recognize the incredible feat that Ty Cobb and other 'home stealers' accomplished throughout their careers. It is because of fans, dedicated statisticians and sports historians that baseball has survived as America's pastime since the days of the Civil War.

Written By Danny Hobrock



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