Speed Limit

”You can’t steal first base.”

That’s what they say about base-stealing ball players who can’t hit or draw a walk. Their speed is useless. Billy Hamilton of the Reds is the latest speedster to merit that old line. The guy can run like the wind. But you can’t steal first base.

Not since 1920 anyway. That’s when they made a rule to squelch the likes of Germany Schaefer, who played for the Senators and Tigers from 1901 to 1918. Schaefer was a clown. Once, during a drizzle, he strolled to the batter’s box carrying an umbrella and wearing a raincoat and galoshes. The umpire sent him back to the dugout just as a downpour drenched the field, forcing the ump to call the game.

Previously, he hit a homer and slid into first base, yelling “Schaefer leads at the Quarter!” He slid into second, yelling “Schaefer leads at the Half!”—and continued the same way into third and home. After he slid into home, he popped to his feet and yelled “Schaefer wins by a nose!”

But his real claim to fame occurred in a game in 1908. He was on first base with Davey Jones on third. He signaled to Jones that he was going to steal second, alerting Jones to run home if the catcher threw to second. Schaefer took off and slid into second, but the catcher held the ball. Schaefer was incensed. As the pitcher wound up, he hollered “Let’s do it again!” and sprinted back to first base. The catcher was so dumbfounded that he just stood there. On the very next pitch, Schaefer screamed “Whoop! Whoop!” and again took off for second. The catcher threw, Jones scampered to the plate, and Schaefer slid safely into second.

After a long career, Germany Schaefer retired after the 1918 season. A year later he died from tuberculosis. The next year Major League Baseball passed a rule making it illegal to run the bases in reverse.

So Billy Hamilton will have to steal his bases counter-clockwise, if he ever starts to hit. He can find inspiration from his namesake who played over a hundred years ago. “Sliding Billy” Hamilton, from 1888 to 1901, stole 914 bases, enough to slide him into the Hall of Fame.

From “The Glory of Their Times” by Lawrence Ritter.

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