Sliding Billy Hamilton: The First Great Run Producer
During the 1890s, “Sliding Billy” Hamilton drew fans by the thousands to watch his exploits on the baseball field. Hugh Nicol and Jim Fogarty, brilliant base runners, were about to retire, and along comes Hamilton to inject the next level of base running into the game. On offense, he was a one-man wrecking crew, wreaking total havoc at the plate and on the bases. He was one of the best contact hitters in history, batting .344 for his career. And, he was one of the great base stealers ever, tallying 914 steals, a record that stood until Lou Brock, and then Rickey Henderson, broke it.
Hamilton was born on February 16, 1866, in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up playing sandlot baseball. At age 18, he wasn’t very tall, but he was exceptionally quick. He mostly played center field. He developed a short, compact swing, and became a very productive hitter. And, he loved to use his speed on the bases. He is said to have studied Mike “King” Kelly, and quickly became an accomplished base stealer. He was often described as driving defenses “to distraction”. He could also take the extra base with the best of them.
By the time Hamilton was 22 years of age, he was a fixture in the Major Leagues, starting with the American Association’s Kansas City franchise. In 1890, he signed with the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies and started an amazing 6 year run of record-setting achievements, most of which are still unmatched today.In 1891, “Sliding Billy”, as he was now called, won the National League batting title; he repeated the feat in 1893. Then, in 1894, he scored a still-record 198 runs, while batting .404, part of the unbelievable Phillies’ trio of “Big Ed” Delahanty in left field and “Big Sam” Thompson in right field. Together, with teammate Tuck Turner, they comprised the only 4 teammates who ever batted over .400 apiece during the same season. The closest any player has come to Hamilton’s runs-in-a-season mark was the the 1921 season by Babe Ruth with 177 runs (since 1893).
For the 6 years (inclusive of 1890 through 1895 with the Phillies), Hamilton averaged an astounding 146 runs and 92 stolen bases per season! Along the way “Sliding Billy” became the only one (of what would become five players) in the Majors to ever hit a lead-off home run and a walk-off home run in the same game. He also stole 7 bases in one game.
With all the great players on the Phillies, including the fabled Roger Connor, the team did not have very much pitching. They competed well every year, but never won the pennant. Of course, they were going up against teams such as the Baltimore Orioles with John McGraw, Hughie Jennings and Willie Keeler–and the Boston team with Hugh Duffy and the greatest 19th century pitcher, Kid Nichols, on the roster.
His career on-base average is a lofty .455, 4th behind only Ted Williams, Ruth and McGraw. He stole 111 bases in 1891, and batted over .300 for 12 consecutive seasons. He chalked up over 100+ runs scored per season in 10 years, and is one of only 3 players to ever score more runs than games played in a career (1,690 runs in 1,591 games). George Gore and Harry Stovey are the other 2 players to have achieved this rare feat. Hamilton is the only one of the three to have scored most of his runs since 1893 (beginning of the modern era).
When talking about Hamilton’s base running skills, Jack Carsey stated, “I never saw any runner get a lead-off like Billy.” Hamilton turned base stealing into the formidable offensive weapon we now see. It’s just that there aren’t many Hamiltons around to generate that kind of excitement.
At the end of his playing days, Hamilton–always a good financial steward–did well in real estate, and lived a very comfortable life. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1961.
“Sliding Billy” Hamilton–The First Great Run Producer!