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Of the 10 top single-season base stealers in modern history, eight played for second-place teams. I mention this not because it proves the point I'm going to make, but merely because I think it's an interesting coincidence. When Maury Wills stole 104 bases in 1962, breaking Ty Cobb's major league record of 96, which had stood for 47 years, the Dodgers lost the pennant in the 165th game, a playoff with the Giants. A National League umpire said that fall that Wills's running had cost the Dodgers the pennant. Junior Gilliam, said the ump, had taken a lot of pitches that he could have hit to allow Wills to steal. Three years later, Wills became the only one of the top base stealers to lead his team to a pennant. Of course, he had a little help from Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
More than any other statistical category, stolen bases fluctuate in response to everything else that changes in the game. This is because stolen bases aren't—really—very important. Contrary to popular belief, stolen bases don't create very many runs. Nor do they have very much to do with determining who wins and who loses. Good teams don't steal very many more bases than bad teams. Stolen bases have come and gone throughout baseball history because they are a sort of trendy item, an offensive trinket that has attracted managers at times but has been blithely ignored by them at others.
In the early part of this century, there were many more stolen bases than there are now. It was an era in which there were very few home runs; thus, a player's chances of being driven home, should he be on first, were comparatively slight. When the home run became common after 1920—the number of home runs more than tripled between 1917 and 1922—a base runner's chances of scoring from first improved greatly. His chances of scoring from second didn't change very much at all, thus lessening his incentive to steal.
Look at the running game, if you will, as an investment in which there is a certain measure of risk: A loss on the investment would occur if a runner who has been caught stealing would have scored anyway had he not attempted to steal. A gain on the investment would occur if a runner's chance of scoring increased with a successful steal.
When more home runs are hit, a runner's chances of scoring from any base increase. Thus the potential gain on the investment becomes smaller, the potential loss greater.
In other words, attempted base stealing is simply not worth the risk when a lot of home runs are being hit.
Major league managers are neither statisticians nor investment counselors, but they aren't idiots, either. Baseball men may say any number of silly things, but strategy is self-correcting in sports. By a form of natural selection, the strategies and habits that come into common practice in the game are almost unerringly logical, i.e., teams whose strategies don't work lose games, abandon those strategies and imitate the winners.
After 1920, every team wanted someone to imitate Babe Ruth. From 1920 until the 1950s, teams carefully kept their outfield fences within comfortable reach and scoured the bushes for large, muscular men who could reach them. Home runs became more and more plentiful, and for that reason the cost of an unsuccessful steal attempt soared higher and higher. Hence the number of attempted steals sank lower and lower.
Dodging fire from the right, the stolen base came under attack from the left with the introduction of night baseball in 1935. Night baseball drove batting averages down. No one knows exactly how much of the 20-point decline in major league batting averages between the mid-'30s and the early '60s is attributable to night baseball; I would say roughly all of it. Lowered batting averages reduced a player's chances of scoring from second base, thus again reducing the profit on a successful steal.
Caught between these two forces, the stolen base all but disappeared from major league baseball for 20 years. Major league baseball, I said. By the 1940s, baseball was being played in all kinds of places and under all kinds of conditions.