Herb Washington may have been the most unique player in baseball history. Naturally, a team that kept pinch runners felt he would help the Oakland A’s win.
It can certainly be frustrating watching a slugger clogging the bases. In a tie game, when a quicker runner would possibly take an extra base after a base hit, those players are station to station, moving up a base at a time. Depending on the circumstances, having a player with limited speed can leave runs on the diamond.
At least, that was the mindset of former Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley. An owner who was not afraid to be innovative (he infamously suggested orange baseballs to attempt to improve offense) Finley believed that having speed on the bench mattered. The A’s kept Allan Lewis essentially as a pinch runner – in 156 career games, he had 31 plate appearances.
In 1974, the A’s outdid even themselves. Manager Alvin Dark had been watching a college track meet and came away impressed with sprinter Herb Washington. Washington had played wide receiver in college, and was the world record holder in the 50 and 60 yard sprints, but had virtually no baseball experience. That did not stop Dark from convincing the A’s to bring him on board.
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And so began what may have been the strangest career in MLB history. While Allen had some baseball skills and actually played the field, Washington was there for one reason – to run. That was what Washington did, as he eventually appeared in 105 games without ever getting a plate appearance or playing in the field.
Washington was as advertised – fast. He also did not have anything resembling baseball instincts, alledgedly asking Dark if he should steal second base, which was already occupied by another baserunner. Nonetheless, Dark was his biggest supporter, feeling that Washington was valuable to the A’s.
He did some positive things on the basepaths. Washington stole 31 bases and scored 33 runs in his baseball career, but was also caught stealing 17 times. He was also infamously picked off by Mike Marshall in Game Two of the 1974 World Series, the only game that the Dodgers won.
After 13 appearances in 1975, Washington was released by the A’s, putting an end to his baseball career. Another speedster, Don Hopkins, took his place. The difference was that Hopkins was an actual baseball player, managing eight plate appearances in the majors and making five appearances in the outfield.
For his part, Washington did just fine after baseball. He entered the fast food business, becoming the owner/operator of numerous restaurants. Washington eventually went on to hold various positions with the Federal Reserve Bank.
Herb Washington had one of the strangest careers in baseball history. If not for the Oakland A’s love of pinch running specialists in the 1970s, Washington would have never seen the diamond.