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It is astonishingly common in sports—who knows why?—for legends to develop that contradict the facts in the most direct possible manner. One such canard is that Maury Wills rediscovered the stolen base in 1962; that following his dramatic example of increasing his league-leading total from 35 to 104 in one year, the stolen base revolution began. Nothing could be further from the truth. A look at the stolen-base totals of the last 30 years (see graph, page 32) clearly shows that the 1962 season marked the end of a seven-year cycle of rapid growth in stolen-base totals and, in fact, ushered in a nine-year period of relative stagnation in the development of the stolen-base offense. Stolen bases per 100 major league games rose from 27 in 1953 to 42 in 1962, increasing almost every year. By 1971 they had risen to only 45.5 per 100 games—an annual growth rate of less than 1% for the period following Wills.
The 1950 season represents a "false bottom" to the stolen-base curve, a season in which an outrageous jump in power totals pushed stolen bases to an all-time, but artificial, low. That year Dom DiMaggio led the American League with 15 steals. The real bottom of the curve, however, was the period 1953-55. In 1954 Jackie Jensen made a singular contribution to the history of the tandem offense: He led the American League in stolen bases and also set a record, which still stands, for grounding into double plays. This required considerably more grounding into double plays (32) than it did base stealing (22).
Why did the stolen base come back to the game in the late '50s? The way was opened for its return, in a sense, by its mere absence: More and more teams were ignoring the stolen base as something that had to be defended against. Since no one was stealing, throwing ability at the catching position became secondary to getting another big bat in the lineup. It would be silly to give up offense for a good throwing arm if nobody was going to steal any bases on you anyway. Some of the catchers of the 1950s who were even regarded as good-to-excellent defenders—Andy Seminick, Gus Triandos and Sherm Lollar, to name a few—were solid, muscular men who could no more spring out of a crouch and fire than they could leap off a branch and fly. The poorer defensive catchers of the time, including Smoky Burgess, Stan Lopata and Frank House, often couldn't get out of a crouch at all.
There is another critical point to consider here, of course. Before 1947, major league baseball was played exclusively by white Americans in bandbox parks, in which their style of play—dominated as it was by the long ball—was becoming increasingly narrow and stultified. In the meantime, their black and Latin American counterparts were playing in environments which were, to put it mildly, diverse: one day a major league stadium, the next day a cow pasture. They played, by all accounts, a wide-open, aggressive game in which the stolen base was a prominent feature.
When Jackie Robinson finally led these players to the majors, they found a game which was ill equipped to defend against many of the things that they could do—most of all, steal bases. The movements toward more home runs and lower batting averages continued until the 1960s, but stolen bases began to increase with the influx of black and Latin players. It's doubtful that the players of the 1960s ran any faster as a group than those of the 1940s and 1950s. Yet Frank Robinson stole more than six times as many bases in his career as Joe DiMaggio, even though DiMaggio was faster afoot than Robinson. Indeed, by 1961, stolen-base rates had grown by 30% in 11 years, and Luis Aparicio was firmly established as the first great base stealer of the modern era, swiping 160 bases over a three-year period, the most by any major-leaguer since the lively ball era began in 1920. It's worth noting that since 1953, every major league stolen-base leader has been black or Hispanic.
What Maury Wills did only served notice that the stolen-base revolution had arrived. Because Wills's accomplishment was so stunning, he got credit for starting it. In fact, because Wills called attention to it, he very nearly brought it to a halt.
The years following 1962 were characterized by a frantic search for new and better defensive catchers. In what must be a record of its kind, 11 of the 20 major league teams had a different No. 1 catcher in 1963 from the one they had had in 1962. Three of the new catchers—Tim McCarver, Bill Freehan and John Bateman—were 21 or younger. Older ones like Doc Edwards, Earl Battey and Clay Dalrymple must have felt lucky to hold on to their jobs. Smoky Burgess may have become the last .328 hitter to lose his.
Teams combed the woods for hot young catching prospects who could throw. Not surprisingly, quick, strong-armed youngsters, who might have spurned catching before, began to gravitate toward the position. Another remarkable coincidence: There were probably more outstanding catchers born in 1947 than in any other year, notably Johnny Bench, Thurman Munson, Ray Fosse and Bob Boone. With those catchers coming along, plus Carlton Fisk, a year younger, and strong throwers like Freehan and Joe Torre who were already in business, the rate of increase in stolen bases slowed through the '60s.
And by 1962 baseball men finally observed that the abundance of home runs was making the homer seem cheap, and therefore not exciting. They addressed this problem in typical fashion by doing something that made absolutely no sense: They made the strike zone larger. We thus had a decade of .215-hitting shortstops who swung from the heels and contributed a home run now and again—with the bases empty, of course—resulting in an unending string of 1-0 and 2-0 and 2-1 games that magnified every nuance and subtlety of a nuance-plagued and subtlety-riddled sport. In the matter of stealing bases, the game became schizophrenic. If you stole second, it was less likely that anyone would hit the single to drive you in, while if you stayed on first, you might be brought around by a home run. On the other hand, with the low scores, the value of a single run, if you could get it, was greatly magnified. Stolen-base totals thus fluctuated throughout the decade. On balance, there was a good gain in raw totals, a small decline in percentages of successful steals. It was, in short, the most god-awful boring brand of baseball ever devised. I blame the whole thing on [Commissioner] Spike Eckert. People who should have been screaming at the umpires and managers and debating over who would be Rookie of the Year began screaming at the police and the President and worrying about evil and social injustice and stuff. Attendance often suffered.
Wills was the greatest base stealer of his time, but he was making a basic mistake, and Lou Brock would eventually discover it. Wills made a science of getting as big a lead as possible. He always said that if you could get back to the base standing up, your lead wasn't big enough. The best base stealers of the later '60s—Brock, Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn—regarded Wills as the oracle on the subject; they never discussed their craft without including a tribute to Wills. In 1972 Brock finally realized something: Getting as big a lead as possible isn't necessarily the best idea.