Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Baseball Tradition With All the Trimmings

As Mustaches Return to Fashion, Aficionados Reflect; a 'Lip Sweater' 
 Associated Press
Rollie Fingers, A's, 1973
By Scott Cacciola,
Wall Street Journal
April 27, 2012

John Axford had a career year for the Milwaukee Brewers last season. The 6-foot-5 reliever posted a league-high 46 saves. He was so good, he got votes for the Most Valuable Player Award, a rarity for a closer.

That was all very nice, Axford said. But to him, one of his greatest moments came after the season when the American Mustache Institute named him its Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year. It was an extraordinary honor, especially considering Axford is Canadian.

"I truly believe that a nice, masculine mustache would look wonderful on anyone," he said.

In promoting his self-described "lip sweater," Axford is the latest in a long line of ballplayers who have contributed to one of the game's rich, thick traditions—the mustache. It's been a staple of Major League Baseball for 40 years, curiously resistant to follicle fashion trends off the field. There have been angry mustaches (Al Hrabosky) and handlebar mustaches (Rollie Fingers) and really awful mustaches (Derek Holland).

"I think baseball is such a team game that it's an easy way for guys to express their personalities," said Sal Fasano, a former backup catcher whose burly 'stache was inspired by old samurai movies that he watched as kid. "I also have the advantage of being a hairy Italian."

There's a self-evident truth about ballplayers with mustaches: Ballplayers with mustaches love talking about mustaches. And sometimes they get nostalgic. "I was good friends with Dwight Evans, and he's got a big one," said Dennis Eckersley, a Hall of Fame reliever who now works as an analyst on Boston Red Sox broadcasts. Eckersley hasn't shaved his mustache since 1983, when he broke out his clippers in the wake of a New Year's Eve party. ("One crazy a-- night, know what I mean?") It has since endured because of marital relations. "It's one of my favorite features on him," said his wife, Jennifer.

Getty Images

Dennis Eckersley, A's, 1988
Like many players entering the big leagues in the early 1970s, Eckersley drew inspiration from the Oakland A's—the most mustachioed team ever. A's star Reggie Jackson created a stir when he arrived at spring training with one in 1972, as baseball had been largely devoid of facial hair for decades. The St. Louis Cardinals' Richie Allen appeared mustachioed on a 1970 cover of Sports Illustrated, but it didn't catch on. John Thorn, MLB's historian, said the last mustache he could recall before then belonged to Frenchy Bordagaray in the 1930s.

In any case, A's owner Charlie Finley wasn't enamored with Jackson's fashion statement, nor were many of his teammates, who felt he did it to stand out. "I heard the same thing when I'd be on national television and hit a home run," Jackson said. "People would say, 'Well, Reggie only hits home runs on television because he likes the attention.' If that was the f------ case, I would've hit one every day."

He insists he grew his mustache only because his father had one. But this filial devotion didn't endear him to teammates. Several players conspired to grow their own mustaches so Jackson would blend in. (Take a moment to appreciate that logic: The A's were so annoyed with Jackson, they decided to look more like him.) Then the real twist: Finley, who was never a wallflower when it came to marketing gimmicks, offered $300 to anybody on the team who also grew one. Thus, the "Mustache Gang" was born.

The fact that the A's then won three straight World Series, from 1972 to 1974, shouldn't be considered mere coincidence, said Aaron Perlut, chairman of the American Mustache Institute. "It could be argued that there is no greater performance-enhancing device in baseball," he said. Perlut also claims that mustaches improve good looks by 38%. "That's science," he said.

He has evidence. He cites Jason Giambi, who broke out of a slump with the New York Yankees in 2008 after he adopted what Perlut describes as a "sexually dynamic mustached American lifestyle." There's also Carl Pavano, who went 17-11 with the Minnesota Twins in 2010 after he embraced lower-nose foliage.

One of today's most famous baseball mustaches belongs to Holland, the Texas Rangers pitcher whose 'stache has a bald patch in the middle. "Man, it's a bad mustache," he admits. And yet his numbers have been impressive: He went 16-5 last season. "I don't think it's had any bearing on his performance," said his agent, Mike Martini.

Holland said he plans to shave it in June for engagement photos with his fiancée, but perhaps he should think twice. Consider Rick Ankiel, whose mustache was a source of civic pride when he was with St. Louis. Then he shaved it early in 2009. A city mourned. "The world's a little less hairy: Rick Ankiel's mustache is dead," read one headline on Less than two weeks later, Ankiel slammed into a wall tracking a fly ball and was carted off with a neck injury. "The cushioning that the mustache would have had on impact was largely taken for granted," Perlut said.

Associated Press
Keith Hernandez, Mets, 1984
Ex-New York Mets star Keith Hernandez is attached to his mustache. He still uses "Just For Men" products to color it, though he said his endorsement deal with the company recently ended. Hernandez, an analyst with SNY, said he's shaved it off three times in his life, and each time regretted doing so. He recalled once getting rid of it after a breakup with a girlfriend. "And then I said, 'That's silly. Come on, get over it.'"

Axford, the Brewers' closer, has altered his look this season from Fu Manchu to something he describes as "the evil magician." This goes hand-in-hand with the belief among relievers that mustaches intimidate hitters. "Which is ridiculous," said Thorn, the historian.

Like he did last season, Axford plans to shave his mustache in November as part of a prostate-health fundraiser. Keeping it is worth the occupational hazards, he said: "I was eating a burger last week, and hair kept getting in my mouth."

—Daniel Barbarisi contributed to this article.
Zuma Press
Derek Holland, Rangers, 2012

Associated Press
John Axford, Brewers, 2011

Friday, April 27, 2012

Passed Time

by David Wharton,
Los Angeles Times
June 19, 2011

Some observers look at how they believe the sport has lost its luster and offer ideas on how to jazz it up.
Ebbet's Field - Brooklyn New York
A big part of Ken Burns' documentary "Baseball" deals with bygone years when the sport truly ranked as America's favorite pastime.

Baseball towered over rivals such as college football and boxing in that golden age, and had yet to feel a pinch from the upstart pro football and pro basketball leagues.

That isn't the case anymore. Burns, who grew up playing Pony League in Delaware, has watched an increasingly fast-paced, high-tech culture rush past his languid game.

"We are living in … a world where everything is reduced to a tweet, where everyone is on their cellphones all the time," he said. "We see that baseball requires our attention."

As the season stretches on, so does the annual debate over whether the sport needs another update, something beyond interleague play and the designated hitter. The Times turned to an array of voices — creative minds, lifelong fans, all of them watching from outside the major leagues.

Their recommendations ranged from predictable to far outside the batter's box.

"The game has to be more accessible to a wider variety of people," said Peter Pucci, an award-winning choreographer whose work has incorporated baseball along with other athletic themes. "I think the owners are missing the boat."

Go short

Home runs do not entirely satisfy Bob Jacobsen. He would rather watch singles and doubles and runners trying to steal.

"When someone hits a home run, that's a wonderful 10 seconds," he said. "But you can cheer for 10 minutes while they try to figure out how to get a guy home from second."

The University of California physics professor thinks he has the science to encourage more of this action: Shorten the base paths, move the pitcher's mound back 15 feet and widen the foul lines roughly 10 degrees.

Jacobsen can guess what purists would think of his suggestion.

"They would hate it," he said.

But with more room for grounders and line drives to sneak past infielders, he envisions a game of speed and strategy where managers — and fans in the bleachers — ponder when to steal or call for the hit and run. There would be more chances for what Hank Aaron called baseball's most exciting play, the triple.

Stadiums would have to be reconfigured, home plate shifted closer to the fences. The major leagues might have to switch to a ball whose weight and hardness caused it to leave the bat faster, yet travel shorter distances.

"I go to A's games and I'm not seeing as many people in the stands as I used to," the professor said. "If you want to get more people to follow baseball, it probably has to change."

Get crazy

Who remembers when Bill Veeck, the owner of the St. Louis Browns, sent 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to the plate in 1951?

Ron Shelton does. The "Bull Durham" director worries that baseball has lost the sense of showmanship and innovation that marked its early days.

"When was the last time a major league team had a promotion that made you smile?" he said. "That's all been lost with the big money, the big stadiums."

Veeck was an unpredictable entertainer, hiring Max Patkin, the "Clown Prince of Baseball," to perform between innings and holding a "Disco Demolition Night" that started a riot at Chicago's old Comiskey Park.

His legacy endures in minor league ballparks across the nation, the Mobile (Ala.) BayBears presenting a monkey riding a dog and the Brooklyn Cyclones holding "Bellies & Baseball," with a Lamaze class in center field and lifetime season tickets to any woman giving birth during the game.

With its endless parade of bobblehead and rally towel nights, Shelton says the big league game "is being marketed all wrong."

Pucci, the choreographer, has a similar thought. Each summer, he takes his family to Cape Cod League amateur games where they can sit close to the action and kids run the bases afterward.

He wonders if the major leagues can recapture some of that intimacy.

"The game has become so corporate," he said. "It has lost its innocence."

Star power

As a regular on "Desperate Housewives" — he plays the character Mike Delfino — James Denton understands the value of star power. As a part-owner of the Orange County Flyers minor league franchise, he knows something about the business of trying to attract fans.

"Play to your strengths," he said.

For baseball, that means tradition. Denton thinks the game should return to fewer teams in the playoffs and, more important, dumping the unbalanced schedule that tilts so heavily toward division opponents.

It makes no sense to him that premier National League teams such as the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves come through Dodger Stadium only once a season.

In other words, as a season-ticket holder, he wants to see more Albert Pujols, less Xavier Nady.

"You can only watch the Diamondbacks and the Rockies so many times," he said. "That has hurt the sport."

Keep moving

The prospect of altering baseball takes Charles Fazzino in different directions.

The pop artist, whose hand-painted batting helmets have been displayed at recent All-Star games, recalls growing up in the Bronx and going to Yankee Stadium.

"The smell of hot dogs, the beautiful green field," he said. "You have a lot of time to sit there and experience everything."

But such restful memories butt up against what he sees now. A generation of kids raised on multitasking. More and more people leaving games before the ninth inning.

"If I would change anything, it would be the stops and starts," he said. "We're in a society where we want things to move a little faster."

Keeping pitchers on a tighter clock might help. Shelton weighs in on this issue, too, suggesting that umpires limit the number of times a batter can step out of the box between pitches.

Still, the director muses, "it's not a made-for-television sport."

Get over it

Change does not come easily to a game that holds tradition, its myriad rules and records, so dear. All of the people interviewed for this story had mixed emotions about tinkering.

"If you try to make it attractive to more people," Denton said, "maybe it's not good for anybody."

And maybe that explains Burns' response to the perennial handwringing over baseball.

"Try to get all the people who say they are bored and the commentators who complain and just get them to leave the country," he said. "This is the greatest game ever invented."

The filmmaker notices empty fields when driving past schoolyards and parks, but they make him worry more about our culture than his beloved sport.

"We see baseball as a precise mirror, good and bad, for everything we are," he said. "We ask these questions about baseball, we're really lamenting what has become of us.

The six panelists interviewed by The Times about their views on a possible future for baseball:

Burns is an Academy Award-nominated director whose documentary films include "Brooklyn Bridge" and "The Civil War." He loves baseball because it is the only sport with irregular fields, the only sport where the defense has the ball and "it's not on ice."
Shelton has written and directed a number of sports-related films, including "Bull Durham," "Tin Cup" and "White Men Can't Jump." He considers the late major league owner Bill Veeck "a genius."

Fazzino's 3-D pop art is exhibited in hundreds of galleries internationally, including the Art One Gallery in Santa Monica. He has turned baseballs, football helmets and tennis racquets into colorful artwork.

Pucci's "Pucci:Sport" incorporates movement from baseball, surfing, basketball and other sports. This summer, the former third baseman will participate in the National Choreographers Initiative in Irvine.

Jacobsen is a physics professor at the University of California Berkeley. He grew up in New York City as a Mets fan and believes the designated hitter "does some violence to the game."

Denton calls himself "a seam head" and, in addition to owning part of the Orange County Flyers team, has run a fantasy baseball league for 25 years. His acting credits include "Desperate Housewives," "JAG" and "The West Wing."

-- David Wharton

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Catcher’s Tears Were a Likely Inspiration for Rickey

                       Ohio Wesleyan University
Charles Thomas was said to have
been denied hotel rooms in 1903
April 14, 2012
New York Times

The Montreal Royals, the top minor league team in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, broke baseball's color line on Oct. 23, 1945, by signing shortstop Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro leagues. The Associated Press reported that the Dodgers' president, Branch Rickey, said he had given a lot of thought to discrimination since his coaching days at Ohio Wesleyan University in the early 1900s.
He recalled that during a trip to South Bend, Ind., to play Notre Dame, the team's only black ballplayer, Charles Thomas, was denied a room. Rickey asked whether Thomas could sleep on a cot in his room, and the hotel clerk obliged.
Later that evening, Rickey said, he saw Thomas sobbing and rubbing his hands, saying: "Black skin. Black skin. If only I could make them white."
Rickey tried to console Thomas by telling him that racial equality would come.
"Come on, Tommy, snap out of it, buck up!" he said. "We'll lick this one day, but we can't if you feel sorry for yourself."
Rickey said the scene haunted him.
"I vowed that I would always do whatever I could to see that other Americans did not have to face the bitter humiliation that was heaped upon Charles Thomas," he told The A.P.
                         Ohio Wesleyan University
Branch Rickey played and
coached at Ohio Wesleyan.
Rickey often repeated the story after signing Robinson, including when Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Rickey, however, rarely spoke about the scene in the hotel room in the years before signing Robinson.
"The Charlie Thomas story, though based in fact, is vintage Rickey," said Jules Tygiel, the author of the 1983 book "Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy." "The allegory is almost biblical, and the sermonlike quality of the tale invites skepticism. Many people place little stock in the episode as the primary rationale for his actions. Even if one accepts the Charlie Thomas story at face value, it does not fully explain why the Dodger president chose to challenge the color barrier four decades later."
Although Rickey may have embellished the details for dramatic effect, "there is no doubt that the incident occurred," Rickey's biographer Lee Lowenfish said. Thomas, too, confirmed it.
The two remained friends until Rickey's death in 1965.
Thomas was born in Weston, W.Va., in 1881, the same year that Rickey was born in Stockdale, Ohio. When Thomas was 3, his family moved across the Ohio River to Zanesville, Ohio. He lettered in football, track and baseball in high school, then attended Ohio Wesleyan, about 20 miles north of Columbus.
Thomas and Rickey were football teammates. Rickey, also a catcher on the baseball team, was declared ineligible for playing semiprofessionally. He became the university's football and baseball coach, recruiting Thomas, a football fullback, to be the catcher.
Thomas said he faced little outward prejudice from classmates and teammates.
"From the very first day I entered Ohio Wesleyan, Branch Rickey took special interest in my welfare," Thomas told Ebony magazine in 1968.
But Thomas regularly faced racial discrimination from opposing teams and fans. During a 1903 baseball game at Kentucky, some players and fans chanted to get him off the field, using a racial slur. Lowenfish wrote that Rickey ran across the field to the Kentucky dugout and shouted at the opposing coach, "We won't play without him!" The game was played without incident.
In segregated hotels, Rickey always made sure Thomas had accommodations, often on a cot in Rickey's room, Thomas said.
"So long as this relationship of master and servant was obvious," Rickey told the journalist Carl Rowan more than 50 years later, "then it was perfectly all right with whites who otherwise would object to a Negro's staying in the hotel."
The incident in South Bend probably occurred in May 1903, although it was not mentioned in newspapers. The Daily Journal-Herald of Delaware, Ohio, reported on May 13, 1903, that Notre Dame beat Ohio Wesleyan in South Bend, 11-0. Thomas found a measure of revenge three weeks later when he hit a home run in a home victory over Notre Dame.
"The feature of the game was witnessed in the first inning when Thomas stepped up to the slap and slammed the spheroid against the backyard fence for a home run," The Daily Journal-Herald reported June 5.
Thomas was remembered for his skills on offense and defense and for his grace under pressure. In a letter to the student newspaper on May 27, 1905, one alumnus who had attended a game against Ohio University wrote that "the only unpleasant feature of the game was the coarse slurs cast at Mr. Thomas, the catcher." The letter continued, "But through it all, he showed himself far more the gentleman than his insolent tormentors though their skin is white."
Thomas left college in 1906 to attend dental school in Columbus. He graduated in 1908 and opened his first practice in St. Louis. He later moved to Albuquerque, where he lived for 40 years before retiring in California.
Rickey, who left Ohio Wesleyan before the 1905 season, played briefly in the major leagues before he, too, moved to St. Louis, where he became an executive with the Browns, and then the Cardinals, for whom he was the general manager until 1942. Rickey was probably aware that any attempts to sign blacks in Missouri, a former slave state, would be met with hostility. The Cardinals played their home games at Sportsman's Park, the last major league ballpark to remain segregated.
Once Rickey became president of the Dodgers in 1942, he was in a position to effect change. Rickey signed Robinson, who played his first game in the major leagues a year and a half later.
When Thomas died in 1971 at 90, his obituary in The Albuquerque Tribune quoted a friend, Herman Schulman.
"He and Mr. Rickey were such good friends," Schulman said, adding. "Every time that Rickey would come to Albuquerque, he would always get hold of Dr. Thomas and they would have dinner."
Chris Lamb, a professor of communication at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, is the author of "Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball."

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Art of the Stolen Base

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Viewed in a certain light, the major leagues' stolen-base history reads like fiction. Some numbers simply do not look real. The notion of "eras" can be vague in sports, but not here. Long before the A's Rickey Henderson set the modern record of 130 in 1982, baseball underwent tactical shifts of seismic proportions.

At the turn of the 20th century, a time most historians pinpoint as the birth of the modern game, the baseball was a primitive sphere that didn't travel so well and was kept in the ballgame until it began to unravel. At the power-starved low point of the Dead Ball Era (1900-1919), the 1908 Chicago White Sox hit just three home runs all season - and four the following year.

There wasn't much point in trying to clear the fences, so teams were built around speed, strategy and the manufacturing of runs. You weren't much use to the 1911 New York Giants if you couldn't run, and that team stole a mind-blowing 347 bases while hitting 41 homers.

Tigers great Ty Cobb always said that Clyde Milan, an outfielder for the Washington Senators, was the fastest baserunner he ever saw - showcased by Milan's league-leading 88 steals in 1912 and 75 the following year. But Cobb was the master, clearing the 60 mark six times from 1909 through 1916 and setting a long-standing record of 96 in 1915.

Ty Cobb, above, revolutionized the steal
a century ago, stealing 96 in 1915.
Cobb wasn't merely fast and aggressive; he was downright mean. He slid into the bases angry, with spikes high, often with intent to maim. His batting was legendary (.366 lifetime average), and he came to symbolize a roguish, rough-and-ready period in which gambling - in the stands, in the taverns and, yes, sometimes within the game itself - was commonplace.

Ruth changes the game

In February 1920, the owners agreed to employ a livelier ball, along with instructions to the umpires to keep a fresh ball in play at all times (one day in 1916, an entire game was played using one ball). Babe Ruth had shocked the baseball world with a record 29 homers the previous year, and he was about to change the game forever: 54 homers in 1920, a surrealistic feat akin to Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.

It would be an understatement to suggest that Ruth was ahead of his time. As the Bambino ascended to 59 homers in the 1921 season, the National League leader (San Francisco-born George "High Pockets" Kelly) had 23 for the New York Giants. But a major transition was at hand. Why gamble on a base when you can yank the ball out of the park? In 1910, the American League's combined slugging average was .276; by 1922, it had climbed to .455.

In 1930, a statistically earth-shaking season in which the entire National League hit .303, only one man stole more than 18 bases. By 1932, the league leader had only 20. People talk about the St. Louis Cardinals' swashbuckling "Gas House Gang" in 1934, but their leading base stealer, Pepper Martin, had 23.

As World War II drew closer, the baserunning stats became almost comical. The Cubs' Stan Hack led the NL with 16 in 1938. As epic feats went down during the 1941 American League season (Ted Williams' .401 and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak) a rookie named Danny Murtaugh, later to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates, led the National League with 18 steals.

Robinson revolution

You won't find any evidence on the stats sheet, but the most significant baserunning development of the post-war era was Jackie Robinson's dismantling of the color barrier with the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. In those days, and throughout the 1950s, the art was defined by timing, presence, taking the extra base - something earned, not stolen. Barring the element of great urgency, it was considered "showboating" to make spectacle of the steal.

Robinson had more presence on the bases than anyone since Cobb - and to say the least, his brand of defiance carried infinitely deeper meaning. "He was center stage, and wherever he walked, center stage moved with him," wrote Roger Kahn in "The Boys of Summer." Standing at first base, "balanced evenly on the balls of both feet, he took an enormous lead. There was no action, only two men throwing hard looks. The cry in the grandstands rose. And Robinson hopped a half-yard farther from first ... He could steal home, or advance two bases on someone else's bunt, and at the time of decision, when he slid, the big dark body became a bird in flight."

Robinson became the idol of countless aspiring ballplayers, all of them respectful of stolen-base etiquette. Even with the young Willie Mays on board, the New York Giants totaled only 129 stolen bases from the 1952 season through '55. It wasn't until 1956, when Mays led the league with 40, that any NL player had cleared 35 in that decade.

The next face in the stolen-base pantheon was Luis Aparicio, the great White Sox shortstop. He led the AL in each of his first nine seasons, including a dazzling 56 in 1959, crafting his magic largely out of necessity. Home runs might have been the rage in Yankee Stadium, Seals Stadium (home of the Giants) and County Stadium (Milwaukee), but Aparicio played on hustling, scrappy teams that came to be known as the "Go-Go Sox." (And even at that, the '59 World Series team stole all of 113 bases total.)

Mays amazes

Still, it all came back to Mays. He was, and remains, the greatest baserunner anyone ever saw. The smartest, the most exciting, the most disruptive - you name the category. DiMaggio certainly had his backers, just for the utter perfection of his game, but the stolen base wasn't his thing: 30 in his 13-year career (you read that right), and none over the course of 51 World Series games.

DiMaggio was a connoisseur's delight, but Mays made fans out of people who didn't know a thing about baseball. They couldn't take their eyes off him. Dancing off second on a grounder to the shortstop or third, Mays routinely would take third - whether the fielder "looked" him back to second or fired to first. "The Mays Play," they called it, impossible to defend. And if you caught him in a rundown, he'd make it last until the batter reached second.

It was common to see Mays' cap fly off his head on the bases, but as Charles Einstein wrote in "Willie's Time," the act was "nothing artificial or contrived. It was not just the innate speed of Mays, but the way he could shift gears and suddenly turn on like an afterburner."

In a 1961 game at Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium, Mays shocked the Phillies, the fans and even the most seasoned writers by scoring from first on a groundball single to left by Orlando Cepeda. Mays could be tough, as well: That same year, against Cincinnati, Mays was on third when Ed Bailey hit a bases-loaded, one-out grounder to first. Gordy Coleman fielded it and stepped on the bag, then threw home, meaning there was no force play on Mays. It would have to be a tag - and Mays made sure it didn't happen.

"The visual memory I retain is that (Cincinnati catcher Jerry) Zimmerman exploded upon contact," Einstein wrote. "The ball, the glove, the mask, and several pieces of Zimmerman appeared to disassemble in midair, like the cat in a Looney Toons cartoon." 

Wills thrills

At this stage of the game's history, nothing had approached the base-stealing frenzy perfected by Cobb, Eddie Collins, Honus Wagner and other greats of the Dead Ball era. But then came a switch-hitting Dodgers shortstop named Maury Wills.

Unlike the fearsome Giants, the Dodgers were a light-hitting bunch that depended upon the lights-out pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. In their minds, it might as well have been 1911. One run at a time: Say, a walk to Wills, a steal of second, a sacrifice bunt by Jim Gilliam, and a sacrifice fly by Willie Davis.

There was nothing terribly unusual about the 1961 stolen-base leaders. The list spoke magnificently of the times: 35 for Wills, 23 for Vada Pinson, 22 for Frank Robinson, 21 for Henry Aaron, 18 for Mays. But in 1962, Wills went on a tear and didn't look back. His final total, 104, was downright inconceivable. It more than twice the total of eight teams that year.

Brock and beyond

As such, a new era was launched. Lou Brock broke Wills' record with 118 for the 1974 Cardinals. With all of the old-school codes forsaken, the 70-plus-steal season became commonplace (Dave Lopes, Willie Wilson, several others) as the decade progressed, and this was the backdrop to Henderson's debut. Like all the great ones, from Cobb to Robinson to Wills, Rickey left impressions that spread well beyond the printed page.
Bruce Jenkins is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Baseball's Fastest Players Since World War II

by Bruce Jenkins
San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The consensus from scouts, longtime media members and personal experience on baseball's fastest baserunners since World War II, in no particular order:

Mickey Mantle: Before his knee injury (the first of many) in 1951, Mantle was timed in a surrealistic 3.1 seconds from home to first - in the baggy-pants uniform of the day. Greatest-ever combination of power and speed, but short-lived.

Willie Wilson: Near the top of everyone's list, and usually No. 1. Got from second base to home in such a blur, it seemed he had bypassed third altogether.

Willie Davis: Former track star was unmatched going from first to third, and he had style.

Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders: Fleeting glimpses, perhaps, but unforgettable.

Willie Mays: A bit like Jerry Rice - as fast as he needed to be.

Ron LeFlore: Spent much of his youth running from the law, literally, and later went to prison. Fans of the Detroit Tigers won't forget his prime.

Others mentioned: Willy Taveras, Miguel Dilone, Ralph Garr, Omar Moreno, Kirk Gibson, Joey Gathright, Mickey Rivers, Willie McGee.