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A Brief History of Stolen Bases and the Red Sox

PHOTO CREDIT: AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

The Red Sox have never been about stolen bases. It’s nothing new. We all know that the Sox have always been loaded with lineups consisting of lumbering sluggers. Many teams were built around hitters who could take advantage of the ballpark’s friendly dimensions. They were righties whose only goal was powering the ball to left and lefties who aimed for Pesky’s pole. The Sox were your typical flatfooted American League team, well before there was even a true difference between how the two leagues played.

There’s nothing wrong with not stealing bases. There’s no true connection between success and failure among teams that steal a lot and teams that don’t. I’m not trying to make a case for that. What my focus is is the culture of Red Sox teams that just never cared much for stealing bases. Red Sox fans are certainly used to it too. It’s been that way for pretty much a century. Generations and generations of fans grew up with teams that weren’t much to write home about on the base path.

I’ve been really thinking about the Sox and stolen bases lately. It all started with Jacoby Ellsbury and his five-stolen-base performance against the Philadelphia Phillies. He broke Jerry Remy’s record of four thefts in one game and now he’s the proud owner of three distinct Red Sox stolen base records (more on that later).  His playing style is pretty unfamiliar in Boston. Base stealing just hasn’t been the norm when it comes to baseball around here.  Here’s a brief history that highlights the good and bad of Red Sox base path burglary.

From Bad to Worse

The last time Boston led the American League in stolen bases was 1935, when they had 91 thefts on the year. That same season, Red Sox third baseman Billy Werber stole a whopping 29 and actually led the American league in ransacking sacks. That was the first, last and only time the Sox have ever, as a team, led the league in stolen bases. As for finishing dead last, well you’d have to go all the way back to 1904. That was the very first time the old town team finished in the basement in packet pillages. The Sox would then go on to embarrass themselves on the base path for the next one hundred years. They would go on to finish dead last in that category again in 1906, 1907, 1915, 1916, 1922, 1925, 1926, 1930, 1936, 1939, 1951 (only twenty that year) 1956, 1957, 1963, 1964 (only eighteen that year) 1966, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993 (tied with Baltimore), 1998, 1999, 2001, 2005 and 2006. The Red Sox absolutely dominated the 1980s when it came to immobility. With power guys like Jim Rice and pure hitters like Wade Boggs on the team, why bother running? Whitey Herzog would have quit after two days if he was managing these 80’s teams.

Twenty-seven times since 1901, the Boston Red Sox have had players finish first or at least in the top five in poached pouches. Buddy Meyer, Billy Werber, Tommy Harper and Jacoby Ellsbury are the only Sox to lead the league more than once. Each of them have two stolen base crowns each, as no Boston player has ever had a third.

In 1915, Boston finished with a league-worst 118 thefts and had been caught stealing 117 times. That’s actually pretty impressive. Considering stolen bases were still a huge part of the game then, and the Sox had both Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper.

Joe DiMaggio’s litter brother Dom DiMaggio was a terrific centerfielder. In the annals of baseball history he is criminally underrated and should get way more credit for being a terrific ballplayer. The seven-time All-Star was Boston’s token speedster and in 1950 he certainly showed it, sort of. Joe’s little brother led the American league with 15 stolen bags, the fewest ever to lead either league in the history of the game.

Here is, in my opinion, the absolutely most interesting piece of statistical history I can share with you, dear readers. The year was 2002, and the Boston Red Sox signed 43-year-old future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson. The man already had the most stolen bases by any player ever. At the time, Henderson had amassed 1,395 stolen bases. The Boston Red Sox as a franchise (one that started about a hundred years prior) had amassed 1,382 thefts. A single player for the Red Sox had more stolen bases than the 100-year-old franchise that he played for. The Red Sox have since then caught up to and passed Rickey in thefts.

The Best of the Best

There are of course some bright spots in Boston’s abysmal base stealing buffoonery (J. Jonah Jameson would have enjoyed that alliteration). Here are the best of the best:

Honorable Mention:

Dave Roberts. Most fans aren’t too sure exactly how many stolen bases Roberts had in 2004, but only one really matters. We all remember game four of the 2004 American League Championship Series. I’m sure Mariano Rivera certainly does. Ironically enough, one of the most important plays in the history of the Boston Red Sox was a bottom of the ninth, pinch run stolen base. He’ll always be remembered for that one stolen base.

The Best:

Otis Nixon. Nixon is an incredibly underrated base stealer. The center fielder has 620 thefts in his career. He really never gets any credit because he never led the league in stolen bases. That’s what happens, I guess, when you share your era with both Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines. He’s on this list because during the strike-shortened 1994 season he stole 42 for Boston and in my estimation could have easily ended up with the single-season record.

Amby McConnell. The second baseman played for Boston from 1908-1910 and during his 1908 rookie year he set the Sox rookie single season record for stolen bases. Pretty cool, but ol’Amby only had a hundred years to bask in his accomplishment. Ellsbury broke that record in 2008.

Jerry Remy. Years before he was a marketing gimmick and buying hotdogs for dolts from out of state, he was an excellent base stealer. It’s true that his best days of his very short career took place in California for the Angels, but in 1978 for Boston he did manage to swipe 30 bases. He was one of the main base stealers on pretty much every Red Sox team he was on (98 steals during his Sox tenure) and even had the then-record of four swipes in a game.

Tommy Harper. Harper is what I would consider a “lost great of the game.” Harper is an incredibly underrated player whose name never comes up in conversation. He was an excellent hitting outfielder and base runner. He had a 24-game hitting streak, three games with three stolen bases, led the league in runs twice, holds the Brewers single-season record for most stolen bases and had held the Sox record as well. In 1973 Harper stole 54 (now passed by Ellsbury) and was named Red Sox MVP. He was the gold standard for snitched satchels in a single season. I highly encourage everyone to read more about his awesome career.

Tris Speaker. The Golden Eagle was one of the game’s best centerfielders. He was a true legend that got his start right here in Boston. Some 267 out of his 436 career thefts came in a Red Sox uniform (he played in Boston from 1907-1915). One of the team’s premier base burglars, Speaker stole 50 bases and had the original single-season record in 1912.

Jacoby Ellsbury. He has done a lot of cool things during his time for with the Red Sox, which is why he is so high up on my list. In 2008, he had a 25-game stolen bases streak, just two shy of the major league record. He broke the one hundred year rookie record for stolen bases in a season. In 2009 he led the league with 70 stolen bases, breaking Tommy Harper’s record by 16 and in 2011, he became the Sox very first 30/30 man. Then, of course, a few weeks ago, he stole five bases in a game. Pretty good for a guy who’s only played what, ten games in his career?

Harry Hooper. From 1909-1920, Harry Hooper was a Red Sox mainstay in right field. A terrific hitter (the first man to hit a leadoff home run in both games of a doubleheader) and run producer, Hooper was a part of some of the game’s best lineups and a huge part of the early Red Sox dynasty. But what put him at number one on my list? With exactly 300 stolen bases as a Red Sox, he is the franchise all-time leader in thefts. He’s number one. He is the man no one’s come close to in nearly a hundred years.

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