One of the most remarkable athletic displays Billy North can remember witnessing occurred during an A’s rain delay in 1974.
While waiting for the skies to clear, the former center fielder recalled, the A’s set up a makeshift sprinter’s starting block and summoned new teammate Herb Washington to illustrate its use. Washington, after all, was the team’s “designated runner” – a world-class sprinter signed that year by owner Charlie Finley solely for pinch running.
“The first four steps, there was so much energy and explosion in them, it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” said North, who led the American League with 54 stolen bases that season. “When you talk about me or any of the other guys running in baseball, couldn’t nobody run like Herb. If we ran 60 yards, he’d beat us by 15 at least.”
That, anyway, was the idea behind Finley’s odd scheme, which resulted in Washington’s short-lived career with the A’s and unique place in baseball history. Washington stole 29 bases and scored 29 runs in 1974 as the A’s won their third consecutive World Series title – and he never batted. He played in 13 more games in 1975, stealing two bases and scoring four runs, before the A’s released him in May.
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Washington joined North and other members of the 1974 team for a 40-year reunion and on-field ceremony before the A’s played the Los Angeles Angels at O.co Coliseum on Saturday night. The A’s remain one of two franchises to win at least three World Series in a row, with the New York Yankees doing so three times (four consecutive in 1936-39, five straight in 1949-53 and three in a row in 1998-2000).
Friday, as the former champions met with reporters, Washington, now 62 and living in Ohio, recalled how his baseball journey began. A Michigan native, Washington had set world records in the 50- and 60-yard dash at Michigan State. But he hadn’t played baseball since high school when he received a call from Finley before the 1974 season.
“His first words were, ‘This is Mr. Finley, the owner of the world champion Oakland A’s,’ ” said Washington, who was working for a TV station in East Lansing at the time. “My response was, ‘Hello, Mr. Finley. Herb Washington, world’s fastest human.’ ”
Finley explained the designated runner idea to Washington, who traveled to Chicago and negotiated a contract with Finley in person. During spring training, the A’s brought in legendary base stealer Maury Wills to mentor Washington, who had to learn tendencies of opposing pitchers while reacquainting himself with baserunning technique.
As Washington put it, “I came from track, where everything was straight ahead.”
Washington said the notion that he came in knowing nothing about baseball is erroneous, but he acknowledged some skepticism about his role – even among teammates.
“I thought it was a little crazy,” reliever Rollie Fingers said Friday, “because he was more or less a player that wasn’t going to do anything other than run. We’d watch him take batting practice, and he couldn’t hit. He didn’t own a glove. But he could run like crazy.”
Washington appeared in 92 games in 1974, stealing 29 bases in 45 attempts. Of his 29 runs, 13 either tied the score or put the A’s ahead.
“He contributed to the team,” said shortstop Bert Campaneris. “(If) we needed an important stolen base, he’d come through. He could fly.”
While Washington helped the A’s reach the World Series, in which they defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games, arguably his most memorable moment in the Series was a dubious one. In Game 2, Washington was picked off first base by Mike Marshall while representing the tying run in the top of the ninth. On Friday, Washington recalled the play with a wry grin as: “The balk move.”
“Oh yeah, the little shoulder went, then he threw over,” Washington said. “Steve Garvey (who was playing first base) and I have had this conversation. He’s a Michigan Stater.”
How does that conversation go?
“He has selective memory,” Washington said.
Washington recalled that later that evening he spoke with Finley, who “said, ‘Keep your head up, and you’re going to play tomorrow,’ ” a reassuring message from the mercurial owner. As it happened, Washington didn’t steal a base or score in the Series and swiped just two more bases before his career ended.
As the 1974 team was introduced at the Coliseum before Saturday’s game, Washington was accompanied on the field by current outfielder Craig Gentry. One of the fastest A’s, Gentry said he had learned of Washington’s story only that afternoon.
“That’s crazy,” said Gentry, who had 24 steals in 27 attempts last year for Texas. “That’s an important thing, baserunning. But that’s pretty crazy you could play however long and not even get an at-bat.”
Washington said manager Alvin Dark approached him once about a possible at-bat late in the season, after the A’s had clinched. But Washington declined.
“If I never had a time at bat – having played in so many games, scoring runs and stealing bases – I thought that would preserve a place in history that would be quite unique,” said Washington. “I guess I had a lot of foresight.”