Today in Baseball History: Herb Washington’s short, weird career ends

Baseball Hall of Fame

In the age of the DH there are a lot of pitchers who never bat, but have you ever heard of a non-pitcher who has spent a whole season on a big league roster and never once made a plate appearance?

You have if you’ve heard of Herb Washington: baseball’s only full-time pinch runner.

Washington, born in 1951, was raised in Flint, Michigan where he became a track and field sensation. Upon graduation he was offered both track and football scholarships, but chose track. It was a good choice. While running for the Michigan State University Spartans between 1969 and 1972 he was a four-time All-American, won one NCAA title, won seven Big Ten titles, and set world records in the 50-yard and 60-yard dashes.

All of which made Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley wonder how Washington might do in the 30-yard dash between first and second base.

Finley was always looking for an edge or a gimmick for the A’s, and reached out to Washington, who was working as a sports anchor for the local news station in Lansing right after graduation. Washington, who had not played baseball since he was a Little Leaguer, initially thought someone was playing a prank on him. I mean, why would the two-time defending World Series champions want a guy who hadn’t picked up a bat in over a decade? Finley assured him that he was deadly serious. He wanted Washington to be a full-time pinch-runner.

Right after giving that assurance, Finley probably had to wonder whether Washington was pulling a prank on him when Washington demanded a guaranteed, no-cut contract to come play for A’s. Washington was serious. After all, Finley wanted him to drop a budding media career for a gimmick, so he wanted to be sure he got paid. Washington won that negotiation: Finley signed him to a guaranteed $45,000 deal with a $20,000 signing bonus for the 1974 season. Adjusting for inflation, Finley paid the 1974 equivalent of $340,000 for his extremely omni-dimensional player.

With some coaching from former base-stealing champ Maury Wills — who was then working as an analyst for NBC Sports — Washington began the season. At the outset, though, the 42-year-old Wills probably would’ve been a better option, because Washington was caught stealing in four of his first five attempts. Meanwhile the A’s — odds-on favorite to win the AL West for a third straight season — were hovering around .500 and were having trouble breaking away from the Rangers, Twins and White Sox.

Washington soon got his stuff together. He ended up playing in 92 games, all as a pinch-runner, stealing 28 more bases in his next 39 attempts, at one point going 16-for-19 and scoring 29 runs. The A’s, likewise, righted the ship and won the AL West and the AL pennant once again. Then came the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers which, frankly, was not Washington’s finest hour.

Up 1-0 in the Series, but down by one run in the ninth inning of Game Two, Washington was inserted as a pinch runner for the first time in the Fall Classic. At first base: fellow Michigan State Spartan Steve Garvey. On the mound: Michigan State Spartan Mike Marshall. Marshall, as a graduate teaching assistant, had actually been one of Washington’s instructors when he was a student. It turned out that the teacher was still the master: Marshall picked Washington off first base and the A’s lost the game. Luckily it was the only game they lost, as they beat the Dodgers four games to one and completed the World Series three-peat. Washington would be inserted as a pinch-runner two more times but did not manage to steal a base. 

Finley brought Washington back for the 1975 season. He even had a baseball card in that year’s Topps set. It was the only time in the history of baseball cards that the player’s position was listed as pinch runner:

That card would be Washington’s greatest highlight of 1975, though. He managed to play in 13 games but only steal two bases when Finley released him and decided to sign speedy guys who could actually play a little outfield from then on out. The date: May 5, 1975, 45 years ago today. At the time A’s team captain Sal Bando — one of many A’s stars who resented Washington’s presence on the roster —  said, “I’d feel sorry for him if he were a player.” For his baseball career Washington’s stats: 105 games played, 0 ABs, 0 innings played defensively, 31 steals, 17 times caught stealing and 33 runs scored. Not great, but definitely memorable.

Washington’s post-baseball career has been pretty great, though.

Immediately after baseball he joined a professional track and field league which existed between 1972 and 1976, after which he worked as an executive at a telephone company for a time. For he past 40 years, however, Washington has been a hamburger mogul. In 1980 he purchased his first McDonald’s franchise in Rochester New York. He now owns over 20 McDonald’s restaurants. He also became the director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He founded a minor league hockey team. He’s done a lot.

In hindsight, it’s not a shock that someone as savvy as Washington out-negotiated Charlie O. Finley. And, with all apologies to Washington’s baseball skills, it’s not a shock that he got the better end of the deal overall.


Also today in baseball history:

1904: Cy Young tosses the first perfect game in American League history and  the first perfect game thrown in the majors overall since the distance between the mound and plate was changed from 45 feet to 60 feet, six inches in 1893.

1913: American League president Ban Johnson suspends St. Lous Browns manager George Stovall indefinitely, after Stovall spit tobacco juice into umpire Charlie Ferguson’s face after being ejected. In the event, the suspension lasts 17 days, ending after Stovall sends Ferguson a written letter of apology.

1922: For the first and only time in his career, a pinch hitter is sent up to bat in place of Ty Cobb. You may assume that Cobb — who would go on to bat .401 that season — was outraged at such disrespect. Nah, because the manager who sent up the pinch hitter was . . . Ty Cobb. The guy who took the Georgia Peach’s turn in the order, Bob Fothergill, was one of five straight pinch hitters sent to bat in the ninth inning of the game by Cobb the player-manager. He did it in order to try to break up a no-hitter by Bill Bayne of the Browns. The gambit works, as the Tigers — though still losers on the day — manage a run on two hits in the game’s final inning.

1925: In a different game against the Browns Cobb compiles 16 total bases by hitting three homers, two singles, and a double on a 6-for-6 day. No one pinch hits for him.

1962: Los Angeles Angels rookie Bo Belinsky throws the first no-hitter in Angels history and the first no-hitter in Dodger Stadium history, beating the Orioles, 2-0. That’s some good bar trivia, my friends. Every single person will guess Koufax. No one will ever guess an Angels pitcher. Mostly because most people don’t know that the Angels played in Dodger Stadium — which they called “Chavez Ravine” during their games — from 1962-1965.

1978: Pete Rose singles off Montreal’s Steve Rogers for the 3,000th hit of his career.