Stealing Home: Or, Why Babe Ruth is a Better Thief Than Rickey Henderson

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 6, 2010

Stealing Home: Or, Why Babe Ruth is a Better Thief Than Rickey Henderson

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    Baseball is an absurd game. And I think that’s why we love it.

    I was reminded of this when I happened across The Sandlot as I was skimming through channels the other day. In an odd sort of bummer, I tuned in at the very end, just after the gang has finally defeated Hercules and Smalls and Benny have their meet and greet with James Earl Jones. Alas, I had missed out on all the fun stuff.

    The good news is that I was in time for the money shot.

    Now, a proper way to conclude the film would have involved Smalls being mercifully beaten by Dennis Leary for stealing his Babe Ruth ball – a warning to all kids who would dare to recreate Smalls’ tomfoolery. But no. Instead, we get a classically cathartic Hollywood ending. It turns out that Benny and Smalls have both found careers in baseball: Benny as a prolific pinch runner for the Dodgers, and Smalls as his ever-faithful broadcaster. The movie ends when Benny ("The Jet") takes off from third and steals home just ahead of the tag, thus ending the game. The Dodgers win, and The Jet's teammates carry him off the field amidst the commotion of a standing ovation. And then we see the grown-up Smalls grinning contentedly beneath the bill of his outrageous hat as he shares a thumbs up with his old friend.

    Back in the day, I had to fight back the tears. But I’m older now, and all the nostalgia that was welling up inside my chest was not enough to keep me from scratching my beard. I got a real curious feeling. I understood why the filmmaker's chose to have a straight steal of home serve as the climax for their film. It is, after all, the most exciting play in sports.

    But a straight steal of home to win the game? Has that ever even happened before?

    Click "Start Slideshow" to find out about that, and many other stealing home tidbits.

Glenn Brummer and the Walk-Off Steal of Home

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    A walk-off straight steal of home actually has been done before, albeit not very recently. It was last accomplished in August in 1982, by the immortal Glenn Brummer, a backup catcher for the Cardinals. He stole third and home in the bottom of the twelfth inning in a game against the Giants. Not only did they win the game, those two steals represent half of his career total of 4.

    In pure baseball history fashion, that's just too damn interesting. And it gets better...

Modern Times: Jayson Werth and Jacoby Ellsbury

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    In this day and age, I figured you’re more likely to see Bigfoot than you are a straight steal of home at any point of a game. But it actually does happen pretty frequently. The last player to do it was Jayson Werth, who swiped home on May 13, 2009 against Ronald Belisario and the Dodgers. Clearly, he didn’t want Jacoby Ellsbury, who stole home off Andy Pettitte and the Yankees on April 27th of that year, to hog all the attention.

    Thanks to my shameless, unwavering bias for the Olde Town Team, I’d rather talk about Ellsbury and the Sox. When Ellsbury slid safely across home plate, he became the first Sox player do so since Billy Hatcher in 1994, a span of fifteen years. In that time, the Fenway Faithful were treated to four no-hitters, four batting champions, two home run champs, two Cy Young seasons from Pedro Martinez, and two World Series titles.

    Indeed, the Baseball Almanac yielded other cool tidbits as well (non-biased too).

The Incomparable Ty Cobb

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    Anybody who pretends to know anything at all about baseball should not be surprised at the fact that the player who holds the record for the most steals of home in a career is Ty Cobb, who did it 54 times in his 23 year career. The next closest total is held by Max Carey, who did it 33 times: 21 fewer than Cobb. Cobb also has the record for most steals of home in a season, doing it 8 times throughout the course of the 1912 season.

    Cobb also holds an even more impressive record: for stealing second, third, and home all in the same inning, which he did four times in his career. To put that in perspective, it has happened only 49 times in more than 120 years of big league ball, and by only 39 different players. Put simply, Cobb is responsible for close to a tenth of that record. Do you think Barry Bonds, the controversial disputed corrupt all-time leader in home runs, is responsible for a tenth of all home runs ever hit? I think not. Clearly, home runs aren’t all that impressive. Like Yogi once said, “It only counts as one.”

    Clearly, Cobb was a reckless son of a gun. Even Ernest Hemingway, who wasn’t much of a gentleman himself, thought Cobb was a little over the top. “He had a screw loose,” he once said about Cobb, “It was like his brain was miswired.”

    Indeed, the notion of stealing three bases in a single inning must sound absurd to the contemporary baseball fans. But it actually happened quite recently, and under fascinating circumstances to boot.

Odds and Ends

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    The last player to steal three bases in a single inning was Colorado’s Eric Young in June of 1996, more than fourteen years ago. Had it not been for him, Chris Stynes would be the subject of discussion right now. Indeed, Stynes accomplished the feat in May of that same year. Young edged him out of the record books by a month, and it hasn’t happened since in more than 14 years of baseball.

    Eleven different players have stolen home twice in the same game. Oddly enough, Ty Cobb is not one of those eleven, which naturally suggests that that day’s hurler wasn’t about to let that jerk with the miswired brain to get him again (and rightfully so). Alas, you’re not likely to see this feat again any time soon. The last player to do it was Cleveland’s Vic Power in 1958, more than half a century ago. Nevertheless, you can still hold out hope for your favorite team to have two different players steal home in the same inning. The Kansas City Royals did it back in 1980, a mere thirty years ago.

    Another thing you’re not likely to see any time soon is a steal of home by a pitcher, which was last done by the Cardinals’ Curt Simmons in 1963.

World Series Thefts

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    As far as baseball’s biggest stage is concerned, there have been thirteen steals of home in World Series play. Two of these steals belong to the Yankees’ Bob Meusel, who victimized the Giants in 1921 and the Cardinals in 1928. But of the thirteen, only six of which were straight steals of home. The others all came on double steals, the last of which occurred in 2002 when the Angels’ Brad Fullmer caught the Giants napping.

    Of course, a man swiping home on the back end of a trick play is not nearly as somebody doing it on a  half-mad, flame-footed dash to home plate. The most iconic of these naturally belongs to Jackie Robinson, whose steal of home in the first game of the 1955 World Series against the Yankees is now immortalized in that classic piece of video in which Yogi Berra rips his mask off and starts screaming at the umpire.

    Billy Martin, the Yankee second baseman at the time, also made an attempt at home in the sixth inning of that game. But the reason the grainy footage of his attempt doesn’t live forever on Youtube is because he got caught. Nevertheless, this is the same man who would later encourage Rod Carew to attempt a straight steal of home at any given moment. “You can't be afraid of being thrown out,” Martin told Carew, “because that's going to happen occasionally. You have to do it recklessly.”

    Carew is the author of 17 steals of home: proof positive that Billy Martin is far less foolish than the George Brett incident would have us think.

Babe Ruth and the Yanks

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    Speaking of Billy and the Yanks, the Yankees hold the record for most steals of home by a team in a single season, doing it 18 times in 1912. It would be another eight years before they would realize that the easiest way to get runs is to just hit the ball out of the ballpark. Enter Babe Ruth.

    But then there's the fact that the Bambino's name is among those who have stolen home more than ten times in their career. The one and only George Herman Ruth, Jr. stole home 10 times in his career. That's right, the same Babe Ruth who was portrayed by John Goodman. Not to be outdone, Lou Gehrig, Babe’s mate on those Murderer’s Row teams, stole home 15 times in his career. Clearly, the Bronx Bombers were actually more of a small ball team.

    Surprisingly, Rickey Henderson, who stole more bases than God, only stole home four times in his career. Lou Brock, who nearly stole as many bases as God (which places him far behind Rickey), never stole home.

Rickey Talks Tactics

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    Rickey had some pretty intriguing thoughts about the relative infrequency of stealing home. He himself was rather in awe of Carew – who, once again, did it 17 times. “[That’s] a testimony to Rod's instincts and quickness,” he wrote in his autobiography, Off Base, “but pitchers at that time worked more from the windup than they do now. Now they keep runners closer to third base by working from the stretch…. It was easier then.”

    Indeed, as Rickey’s testimony and the dwindling frequency of the steal of home as baseball moves forward can show, it is becoming more and more apparent to baseball professionals that stealing home is tactically foolish.

    Indeed, once you break down all the different variables, stealing home is actually downright reckless.

The Running Man's Dilemma

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    Now for your daily Tom Emanski tutorial:

    With less than two outs, any runner on third would do well to patiently wait for a hit, a deep fly ball, or if infield is playing back, a ground ball. Two outs may represent a different story, as the capacity and aggressiveness to steal home more than makes up for the lethargy of just waiting for a hit. According to Carew, this was precisely what Martin was trying to tell him: “He said I could use my speed to advantage in a game situation in which we needed a run and the guys weren't hitting.”

    But even if a runner like Carew or Ellsbury is raring to go, the situation is still mighty complex. The handedness of the hitter at the plate is a pretty big deal. If a lefty is at the dish, the path to home is obviously much clearer. The flipside of that is that the catcher has an unobstructed view of the runner, making his job of spotting him and tagging him out much easier. If the hitter is a righty, there are two chief dangers. The first is the runner sliding into his own guy, risking not only injury to either one of them, but obviously being tagged out. The second is a line drive down the third base line. Those tend to hurt if they hit you. And if the runner happens to have strayed into fair territory, he’s out.

Sight of Hand

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    Of course, the handedness of the pitcher is also a huge variable. Stealing home off a lefty, like Ellsbury did off of Pettitte, is obviously easier because the pitcher has his back to the runner, allowing him a bigger lead and a better jump. Unless the catcher or somebody else starts barking at said hypothetical southpaw, he has absolutely no way of knowing the runner is breaking for home. And even then, he might balk, and the run would score anyway. A righty, on the other hand, will be looking directly at the runner.

    As such, breaking for home against a righty may just be the most courageous move in all of sports. If the runner is successful, like Tampa’s Carl Crawford was against Boston’s Jason Johnson in 2006, the embarrassment must be utterly crippling.

    And then there’s whether or not the pitcher delivers from the windup or not. It’s not uncommon for a pitcher to forego the stretch with a runner on third (particularly with the bases loaded). If he does indeed pitch from the windup, that means the runner on third has a few extra seconds to play with. And in a straight steal of home, seconds are everything.

Beating the Clock

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    It is generally agreed that a runner with above average speed (i.e. Carew, Ellsbury, The Jet) can conquer the 90 feet between bases in about 4 seconds. Your average fastball (90 MPH) gets to home plate in about a half a second. So unless the runner is stealing on an eephus pitch, he’s not going to beat the ball to home plate simply by being fleet of foot.

    As such, the pitcher’s delivery matters a ton. According to John Rickert of SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research), righties are a little quicker to home plate, delivering the ball at an average of 1.10 seconds. Lefties allow the runner a little extra time, as they clock in at 1.21 seconds. So if you factor in delivery time and pitch speed, the runner doesn’t even have two seconds to play with. This basically means that he needs a two second head start. In Babe Ruth's case, he must have had needed about a four second head start.

    Put all of that together, you see why the straight steal of home is both so rare and so damned exhilarating: it needs to be perfect. Absolutely perfect. Hence the reason why it is indeed the most exciting play in sports.

Your Turn

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    I you would like to share your own favorite memory of a player stealing home, feel like chatting about The Sandlot, or if you can think of a more exciting play than the straight steal of home, please post a comment.