“The base paths belonged to me, the runner.” – Ty Cobb
Everyone seems to love the home run, and if you watch highlights of a major league game, the longball gets most of the attention. But the stolen base is still a marvelous weapon. At times, it can change the complexion of a game, and aggressive thefts of bases can demoralize the entire defense and swing the momentum to the offensive side.
Through the years, the Detroit Tigers have had some of the most daring and successful base stealers in baseball. Here’s my attempt to pick the top ten in franchise history.
10. Roger Cedeño
Had he played more than just one season with the Tigers, Cedeño would rate higher, he was that fast and that good at stealing bases. In 2001 he stole 55 bases while being thrown out just 15 times. Smack dab in the middle of the steroid era, Cedeño was playing a different game than everyone else. In one game in June against the Yankees, he swiped three bases, leading the Tigs to a victory. A month later he did it again against the Bombers. He played for five teams in 11 seasons, and he didn’t have much else to offer than speed, but Cedeño was a great base stealer.
9. Gee Walker
Walker played in an era when stolen bases were very scarce – the 1930s and 1940s. Baseball was 20 years removed from the Deadball Era and most ballplayers were swinging from the heels ala Babe Ruth. But Walker was born too late – he would have been a star in the Deadball Era. As it was, he stole 20 bases or more five times, and he finished in the top ten in that category nine times. He was known for his ability to perform the hook slide.
8. Jake Wood
Wood came up with the Tigers when the stolen bases was coming back into vogue thanks to Maury Wills of the Dodgers. The quick second baseman swiped 30 bases as a rookie while being tossed out just nine times. The next season he was 24-for-27. He didn’t hit well enough and lost his job to Dick McAuliffe, so he never had much chance to rack up big stolen base totals after his first few seasons.
7. Alan Trammell
Tram is probably the slowest player on this list, not that he wasn’t quick. He was a strong baserunner with above average speed, but he wasn’t a blazer on his feet. What he had was great instincts, helping him steal bases with excellent success. A hard worker, Trammell tought himself how to read pitchers and learned how to get a good jump. After the age of 22, he swiped 204 bases while being thrown out just 82 times in 16 years. In ’87 when he batted cleanup and should have won the MVP Award, he was 21-for-23 on the basepaths.
6. Germany Schaefer
The wacky little character who once ran the bases backwards after hitting a home run, Schaefer was an aggressive baserunner, probably more so than any other Tiger except Ty Cobb. He pilfered home 19 times in his career, was captain of the Tigers in 1907 and 1908 when they won the pennant, and once stole first base. “The Prince” was one of a kind.
5. Brian Hunter
Very possibly the fastest man to ever play for the Tigers*, Hunter was wicked fast. Hunter had one of the best seasons ever by a base stealer in 2997 when he nabbed 74 bases in 92 attempts for the Bengals. He logged 116 stolen bases in less than three seasons with Detroit. He was especially gifted at stealing third base.
4. Donie Bush
The little leadoff man during the Ty Cobb era, Donie Bush was a very fast little ballplayer adept at getting on base by the walk. He stole 402 bases for Detroit, the second most in team history. When he was 21 years old, he stole 53 bases as the Tigers won their third straight flag.
3. Kirk Gibson
From the first day he set his feet on a diamond, Kirk Gibson was a fantastic baserunner. Some ballplayers were just born to steal bases and run, Gibson was that way. Even though he was built like a football player (which he had been), Gibby was the fastest player on the Tigers in the 1980s. He was the first Tiger to hit 25 homers and steal 25 bases, and he narrowly missed out on being the first 30/30 Tiger on two occasions. Gibson excelled at accelerating to top speed quickly.
2. Ty Cobb
When he retired, Cobb held the all-time record with about 900 career stolen bases, depending on which source you believe. He stole home 54 times, a major league record that’s unlikely to ever be equalled. Cobb gained fame for the violent way in which he arrived at bases – hurtling his body into the fielder if he got in the way. But Cobb wasn’t a dirty ballplayer, he simply employed the tactics that were popular in his era. He took the strategy of the period and improved upon it. Cobb tested his baserunning over and over, sliding into pits of dirt over and over again to perfect his skills. he swiped second, third, and home on successive pitches in a game against the Red Sox.
1. Ron LeFlore
It takes a man with larceny on his rap sheet to top Cobb on this list of theives. LeFlore was very, very fast, maybe as fast as anyone who ever played regularly in the big leagues. Though he lacked extensive training, LeFlore was naturally gifted at stealing bases. He got a huge lead off first base and was excellent at getting a good jump. There were times when you could actually see him out run the baseball. He stole 58, 68, and 78 bases in his top seasons in the Motor City. He holds the Detroit record for most consecutive steals without being caught – 26.
*Cobb, LeFlore, and Gary Pettis are other candidates for this title.