Year Inducted: 1961 (Veterans Committee)
Basestealling has almost always been synonymous with baseball. Being a great baserunner is what got players like Lou Brock, Ty Cobb and Rickey Henderson such high acclaims (though with other, additional attributes like their hitting abilities). While each of these players dominated the game via steals, none of them played in the era when it seemed like high stolen bases were the norm. In the earliest years of baseball the rules for stolen bases were different. A player could be rewarded for a steal if he went from first to third on a single, or advanced on a groundout. Historians have done some stat correction for those events, but even then the values need to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, when Brock was chasing Cobb’s record for career steals many historians pointed out that the real record was set in the 1890’s at 937 by a relatively unknown player named Billy Hamilton. Hamilton’s career numbers have been adjusted due to scoring errors thanks to the geniuses at Retrosheet.org, but his numbers still ring true for a Hall of Fame career.
“Sliding Billy” wowed crowds and dazzled opponents in a dominant 14-year career mostly with the Braves and Phillies. He had a slash line of .344/.455/.432 with a wRC+ of 142. Hamilton collected 2158 hits in the bigs including: 242 doubles, 94 triples and 40 homers. Being deployed typically in the leadoff role, Hamilton scored 1690 runs while only driving in 736. Impressive to note with his career runs scored total is that he only played in 1591 games, so he scored more than one run a game on average.
Hamilton gained the nickname “Sliding Billy” by being a pioneer of using the headfirst sliding method, rather than feet first. Crowds fell in love with that ability, and Hamilton used it to steal his then record of 937 steals, now reduced to 912 due to the aforementioned scoring errors. Part of the reason why Brock stuck around as long as he did was to claim the official steals record, as Cobb had only 892 steals, well below Hamilton’s then-accepted mark. Even with the correction to his steal total, Hamilton ranks 3rd all-time still in steals and 7th in baserunning runs above average with 85.5. Every player ahead of him has played in several hundreds of more games than Hamilton, something to show just how dominant he really was on the bases.
There are two main things holding Hamilton back, as much as being one of the top 100 players in the Hall of Fame can be considered held back. The first is his playing career. Hamilton only played in 14 seasons, and while he should be commended for accumulating such great value in that short of a time, his overall numbers do tend to suffer compared to even contemporaries of his such as Cap Anson and Roger Connor. The other is his fielding. Hamilton was a notoriously poor defender. While his speed allowed him to have amazing range, he had difficulty with both fielding and throwing the ball, which hurts his defensive value and, as a center fielder, hurts his overall game.
Hamilton was overlooked for years in terms of the Hall of Fame, as has happened to many of the older stars. He gained induction in 1961 by the Veterans Committee, but clearly should have been one of the first admissions into Cooperstown. Hamilton could hit well and was one of the best baserunners ever.
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