Herbert Lee Washington was born to run.
It took him almost seventeen years to figure that out. As a student at Flint, Michigan’s Central High School, he played on multiple sports teams, including baseball, basketball, and football. Track and field, though, was where he really shined. As a high school junior, he tied the Michigan State record by running the 60-yard dash in 6.3 seconds.
In his senior year, 1968, he was amazing. In March he tied the world record for the 50-yard dash by running it in 5.1 seconds. At the Mansfield Relays in April he set the meet records for the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds) and the 220 yard dash (21 seconds) — records that been set by Jesse Owens 35 years previously. In May he tied the Michigan state record for the 100-yard dash, despite running into a 14 mph headwind.
So what I’m trying to say, is, he was fast.
When colleges came calling, Herb had his pick of track and field scholarships. He picked Michigan State because it was local and because of the university’s commitment to black athletics. He was immediately rushed into service on the track team, competing in the 1969 Michigan State Relays as a freshman.
In August 1969 he tried out for Spartans football and made the team as a wide receiver. Unfortunately, he had little to offer except for speed, because he didn’t have great ball control or an ability to read defenses. In his first season he saw only 29 minutes of play and caught one pass, though he did get 49 yards on the play. When he did see play time, he was used primarily as a deep downfield decoy.
When football season ended, it was back to track. At the 1970 Maple Leaf Games he competed in a 50-yard dash against “The World’s Fastest Human” John Carlos. They both ended with an amazing 5.2 seconds, but Carlos edged him in a photo finish. In March he shattered the Big 10 record for the 60-yard dash with a 6 second run — once again breaking a record held by Jesse Owens — and then a few weeks later tied the world record with an amazing 5.9 second run.
That August he re-joined the football team but suffered a bruised leg during training. The potential for injury made him question why he was even playing football in the first place, and he quit the team in early October to focus exclusively on track. Now, he had only two goals: to compete in the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics and to be hailed as “The World’s Fastest Human.”
His 1971 performance reflected these new goals. In February he tied the American record for the 60-yard dash by running it in 5.9 seconds. In the US Olympic Invitational Track Meet, he tied the meet record for the 50-meter dash by running it in 5.7 seconds. That summer he was selected by the United States to travel Europe and compete in track meets as a “goodwill ambassador” in advance of the 1972 Summer Games.
Washington’s 1972 was even more incredible as he finally captured the coveted title of “The World’s Fastest Man.” First he tied Kirk Clayton’s world record in the 50-yard dash by running it in 5 seconds, and then he claimed the world record in the 60-yard dash by running it in 5.8 seconds. These records still stand today, nearly fifty years later. (Though that’s largely because the NCAA stopped running races in yards in 1976.)
With his collegiate career winding down, Herb needed to look to the future. He had been considering a transition to sports reporting and broadcasting, working as a correspondent on local TV and radio stations. He wanted to continue his athletic career, though there was very little money to be found in track and field. So Herb Washington entered himself in the NFL draft as a wide receiver, and was selected by the Baltimore Colts in the 13th round with the 334th overall pick.
In the end, he was at the Colts training camp for less than an hour, just to inform management that he couldn’t give up on his Olympic dreams yet. Unfortunately, his performance in the Olympic Trials was disappointing and he failed to qualify. Though he was named an alternate to the team, he ultimately did not go to Munich.
He still continued to compete in events for the Amateur Athletic Union. In February 1973 he competed against Olympic Gold Medalist Valeriy Borzov of Russia in a goodwill exhibition — and smoked the Russkie in with a 6 second 60. In March he competed with Team USA in the second Russian-American Indoor Track Meet. Though the Russians won the meet, Herb once again left Borzov in the dust.
He continued to compete with the American track team on its goodwill tour of the world. In July, though, he had a strange brain fart during a 100-meter dash in Turin, Italy when he somehow mistook a random track marking for the finish line and slowed. He quickly realized his error and turned on the juice, tying his Italian competitor’s time but losing in a photo finish. But it was a sign that maybe Herb Washington was losing his edge.
In August it all came to a crashing halt. Washington had been nursing an injured hamstring, and decided it was better to not run at all than to run injured. He left the team and flew home from Dakar, Senegal along with fellow Spartan Marshall Dill, who wanted to return to school.
Team coach Jim Bush did not take it well. He called the two black athletes quitters, troublemakers, and liars who did not love their country and did not want to participate in an upcoming meet in Minsk. Bush flat out said Washington and Dill would never run for the United States again.
Washington did not take it lying down. He accused Bush of overreacting to his decision and ignoring his injury. More tellingly, he also mentioned incidents where Bush had supported a racist team doctor and a fellow athlete who battered a local woman. It became clear the two men just did not get along.
In the end, Bush was the one with all the power. Herb was out of track and field, possibly for good. He was working as a sportscaster for a Michigan radio station, but athletics still called to him. He was flirting with idea of joining the Toronto Northmen of the World Football League when his phone rang. It was Charley Finley, owner of the Oakland Athletics.
Enter Charley O
There are so many strange stories about Oakland A’s owner Charley Finley that he probably merits a podcast episode of his own.
Finley introduced the concept of hot pants clad ball girls to baseball in 1969. Only Finley’s ball girls also served the umpires homemade cookies and lemonade between innings in an attempt to curry their favor. It didn’t work, but one of them, Debbi Sivyak, discovered that she enjoyed baking so much that she decided to open up a bakery. She used her married name — Mrs. Debra Fields.
In 1972, in an attempt to get Reggie Jackson to shave his beard, Finley offered the team $300 bonuses if they could grow facial hair before Opening Day. He figured reverse psychology would get Jackson to shave his beard once he was no longer special. It backfired, and the team grew ever more magnificent mustaches, creating the A’s legendary “Mustache Gang” team of 1972.
Or how about the time Finley took a shine to young Stanley Burrell, a dancer hustling for change in the stadium parking lot? He hired Stanley as the club’s “Executive Vice President” and had him run clubhouse errands and spy on the dugout. Later, when Stanley was pursuing a music career, he decided to go by a nickname the players had given him because of his resemblance to “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron. And that’s how MC Hammer got his name.
But I digress.
One of Finley’s pet obsessions was with team speed. He was convinced that speed scored runs, and was obsessed with proving it. From 1968 to 1973 a regular feature of Finley’s A’s team was Allen Lewis, a zippy little man nicknamed “The Panamanian Express.” Lewis was technically a reserve outfielder, and while he had been called on to hit and field from time to time he had mostly been used as a pinch runner.
Lewis was okay, but not great. In 156 games over six seasons, he had stolen 44 bases in 61 attempts. He managed to hit one home run, and was even a component of the A’s 1973 World Series champion team, though his contributions were so minimal he was only given 1/10th of the World Series shares awarded to his teammates. The line on Lewis was that he had zip on the base paths but no other skills to speak of. Other players resented his presence in the dugout, and one local reporter even quipped that, “The Panamanian Express is a local that stops between first and second.”
With his usual perverse reasoning, Charley Finley decided that the real problem with Allen Lewis was that he wasn’t fast enough. And then some news items caught his eye. Herb Washington, the World’s Fastest Man, a four time all-American, holder of one NCAA title, seven Big Ten Titles, and two world records, was sitting at home nursing a pulled hamstring. Charley knew if anyone could prove that speed wins games, it was Herb Washington.
Herb, of course, at first thought the phone call was a joke. He hadn’t even played baseball since high school, and had no idea how to run bases, read signs, take a lead, or slide. But the more he thought about the idea the more he liked it. Baseball wasn’t a contact sport like football, which mean that there was less chance of injury. The A’s were the current world champions, which meant there was a good chance for him to make bank in the playoffs and possibly even the Word Series. And anyway, it’s not like he had anything going on right now. What did he have to lose?
1974 Spring Training
On March 17 Charley Finley announced that the Oakland A’s had signed the World’s Fastest Human, “Hurricane” Herb Washington to be baseball’s first “designated runner,” claiming that his speed would win an extra ten games for the team.
The details of Washington’s contract were not disclosed at the time, but it later emerged that he had signed a $40,000 no-cut contract, which was insane for a rookie who had never played competitive baseball and was going straight to the majors. There was also a clause awarding Washington a $2,500 bonus if he grew a mustache by opening day.
Finley was also lobbying behind the scenes, trying to institute rule changes that would allow Washington to start as a pinch runner as soon as the ball was put in play, running to first for hitters like Deron Johnson with power but no speed. Needless to say, the other owners were not going for it.
On March 20 Herb arrived in training camp, though due to weather conditions the field was too soggy for him to work out with the team. The next day he got a chance to show his stuff and manager Alvin Dark was immediately impressed by his speed. “Hey, let me tell you, this guy can really fly. I’ve never seen anything like it. [Bobby Thompson of the New York Giants] was one of the fastest I’d ever seen, but Bobby couldn’t start like this kid. After six or seven yards he’s wide open.”
On March 23 the training camp received a special visitor: Maury Wills, late of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Finley had had hired Wills, who stole a record 104 bases in the 1962 season, to give Washington a six-day course in base running. Wills recognized he had a hard task ahead of him. “We’ll start from the ground up,” he said. “It will be like coaching in the Rookie League.”
Despite the intensive focus on base running, the team did try to develop Washington’s other baseball skills. He would shag flies in batting practice and take a few swings in the batting cages from time to time.
On March 26 Herb was scheduled to play in an exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs, but was benched because of a sore leg muscle. He did not dress for the game.
On March 28 Herb finally saw action in an exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians. He was put in to run for Joe Rudi in the fifth inning. Indians pitcher Milt Wilcox was so confused by what was going on that he instinctively threw to first during the switch — a balk that advanced Washington to second. Herb held his position when Sal Bando grounded out to short, and came home when Reggie Jackson singled to center. The run was not a factor in the game, because the A’s smoked the Indians, 11-5. (And spring training games don’t count.) After the game, Washington was upbeat. “Surprisingly, I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be.”
On March 30 he stole his first base in an exhibition loss to the San Francisco Giants.
On April 2 he stole his second in another exhibition game against Cleveland.
Washington’s teammates were not entirely convinced that he was going to add much to the team. After all, he was a player who would only run. He couldn’t field, he couldn’t hit, and he couldn’t pitch. No one doubted that base running was an important skill, but no one thought it was worth turning into a skill position.
Allen Lewis saw Herb’s signing as a direct attack on his livelihood. “Why you gotta do this to me? I gotta earn a living for my family. Why you want to get me tossed out of the major leagues? This is the only job I can earn so much money at. You give me a break and I try to run the bases better.” The Panamanian Express was cut during training camp and never played in the majors again.
Outfielder Reggie Jackson was impressed by Herb’s ability, but didn’t think he belonged on the team. “He’s a great athlete but he’s not a baseball player… Herb Washington has as much business playing baseball as I have running the 100-yard dash.” And Jackson was one of the players who actually liked Herb! The other A’s were not nearly so kind.
Catcher Gene Tenace thought Herb Washington’s roster slot could better used on someone who actually knew how to play the game. “It’s a joke. This is going to cost someone who should be in the major leagues a job.”
First baseman Pat Bourque reminded Herb that he’d be nothing without his teammates, “If I stop getting hits, Herbie is going to be out of a job.”
Second baseman Dick Green threatened, “If you break a leg, we’ll have to shoot you.”
Third baseman and team captain Sal Bando was the most hostile. When a line drive almost hit Herb during batting practice he just said, “I hope it kills the SOB.” (Bando had been similarly hostile to Lewis in previous seasons.)
Maury Wills, though, saw the competitive fire that burned in Herb and knew he could be an asset for the team, if only they would let him be one. “You can look at it negatively and say how can he replace a ballplayer who can hit, run and throw? But… look at it like this? How many times a season does a manager ever use 25 players in one game? Maybe never. Unless he gets the help from his own teammates that any ballplayer needs, all the work I’ve done with him will be in vain. I hope and pray he gets help.”
As spring training came to a close, though, Herb had more pressing problems than the scorn of his teammates. Baby-face Herb could not grow a mustache to save his life. Well, necessity is the mother of invention. On the last day of training he drew on a mustache with an eyebrow pencil, walked into the locker room, and collected his $2,500 bonus.
1974 Regular Season
Washington made his first major league appearance in the April 4 season opener vs. the Texas Rangers. In the seventh inning he was put in as a pinch runner for Joe Rudi. He made it to second on a wild pitch but was stranded when designated hitter Deron Johnson grounded out. Rudi, who had gone 3-3, was not happy. “When you get taken out for a pinch runner it makes you feel like half a ballplayer… I’m not gonna stop at first base any more.” Rangers Manager Billy Martin did not feel threatened. “[Washington] didn’t bother me, but I wouldn’t be suprised if Finley threw a jackass out there.”
In an April 14 home game, also against the Rangers, Washington made his first stolen base attempt, and he would have easily made it, too, but Reggie Jackson made contact on the pitch. Rangers pitcher Fergus Jenkins was philosophical: “I’m not sure I like the idea of a track man in baseball. He’s taking away a job from a guy who might have been trying to work his way from the minors for several years… But Finley’s a smart man. There are a lot of ways to win games and speed is one of them.”
On April 15 versus the White Sox, Washington was put in to run for Sal Bando in the eighth. Sox first baseman Dick Allen tried to distract him with his trademark patter. First, Allen asked him, “Can you run, baby?” Washington gave him the side eye and retorted, “Is your heart tickin’?” Then, Allen turned the mind games up a notch, asking if Herb was as fast as Mickey Rivers of the Angels, calling him a thoroughbred, asking to squeeze his legs. Washington eventually started to tune Allen out, so Allen tried one last jab. “You goin’?” he asked. “Bye-bye,” Washington replied, and made his break for second, stealing his first base of the season. Alas, he was left stranded.
By the end of April Washington had been used as a pinch runner nine times, scored one run, stolen one base, and had been caught stealing three times. At this rate, he would finish the season with seven or eight stolen bases. It was not an auspicious start.
Herb remained hopeful: “Every day is a school day for me. I’ve got an awful lot to learn. But even the guys who now steal 50 bases in a season didn’t do it right away when they came up to the major leagues. I just hope that someday the fans will get a kick out of my stolen bases, just like they do out of Reggie Jackson’s home runs.”
He also rejected the idea that he was a drain on the team with the following argument: “Let’s say you rank our club from 1 to 25, and you say that Reggie Jackson is number one and I’m number 25. Well, if you’re depending on your 25th player to be the kind of guy who busts up games, you’re in deep trouble.”
Manager Alvin Dark was more cautious. “He’s had 10 days of spring training with us and he’s come a long way but how far he has to go is the question. We don’t know.” He also noted Washington was having trouble learning the signs and his sliding technique was terrible. Then again, as some wag noted, he’d also been on base in every game he played.
On May 3 in a game vs. the Cleveland Indians, Washington had a spectacular brain fart when he tagged up on third instead of running back to second, forcing out Gene Tenace in the process.
On May 16 the A’s were playing the White Sox in Chicago. The Sox had a 4-3 lead at the top of the 8th, but Angel Mangual opened the inning with a single and Washington was put in to run. He made a break for second, and was sure to have been picked off, but Sox first baseman Dick Allen couldn’t get the ball out of his glove, and Washington was safe with a steal. Oakland third baseman then smashed a single to left, sending Washington home to score thee typing run… just as a torrential rain hit the stadium. The game was eventually called after 90 minutes, invalidating the eighth inning and Washington’s stolen base.
On May 25 Washington was put in to run for Reggie Jackson after Jackson reached first base on an error. Washington stole second, and was singled home by Joe Rudi. It was only his second stolen base of the season.
Finley was not happy about how his pet project was being used. He tore into Manager Alvin Dark, screaming “I’m paying him $40,000 a year to play, not sit on the bench!” Dark, unfortunately, was in an impossible situation. There was virtually no benefit to using Washington in close games, since he’d be displacing a starter who could. But if he didn’t use Washington, well, he’d be fired. He did his best to navigate that minefield, but tended to err on the side of not putting Washington in until the team had a solid lead.
Herb, while acknowledging the pressure, remained gung-ho. “It’s a final exam for me every time when I get into the game. I can’t go one for three and feel like I’ve had a good day. I can’t afford to make a mistake because everybody is watching this experiment, and it will get blown out of proportion…. My head is strong and I’m mentally tough, and I’m not worried about pressure. I’ve handled as much pressure as can be handled and I’ve always been able to rise to the occasion.”
In another blow, he lost the title of “World’s Fastest Human” to Ivory Crockett who ran the 100-yard dash in 9.0 seconds flat on June 1st. Things picked up after thaT, THOUGH.
By June 4 Washington had made 32 appearances, scored five runs, stolen four bases, and had been caught stealing four times.
On June 5 he stole Oakland’s 51st base of the year in a blowout in Detroit.
On June 15. before a game vs. the Yankees, catcher Thurman Munson tried to intimidate Washington, telling him before the game that he would be embarrassed, and, I quote, “My grandmother could throw you out.” Washington was put in for Dick Green in the 5th, stole second, advanced to third on a throwing error by Munson, and scored on a Bill North single. The next day, Washington tapped Munson on the shoulder during batting practice, and told him there was a call for him in the clubhouse. The Yankees were calling up his grandmother.
One June 17 Washington was put in to pinch run for Dick Green and scored when Angel Mangual knocked one out of the park.
On the 20 he was running for designated hitter Deron Johnson when Dick Green hit a homer.
On June 22 he ran for Sal Bando and scored when Gene Garber of the Royals loaded the bases and walked him home.
On June 24 he stole second while pinch-running for Sal Bourque, his 8th steal in his last 9 tries.
On June 25 while running for Gene Tenace, he stole a base and was sacrificed home by Dick Green.
By June 27, he had stolen ten bases and was now on pace to steal 22 bases that season, a marked improvement. Things were finally starting to look up for Herb Washington.
There were omens that all was not right. The professional International Track Association seemed to think Herb wouldn’t finish out the season and would be available to run at events in September and October. Plus, there were still issues with his teammates.
On July 8 he was put in to run for Joe Rudi after he smacked a triple in the ninth inning. Rudi was visibly upset and argued loudly with Alvin Dark in the dugout. In his defense, Washington did score on a Gene Tenace sacrifice fly to tie the game and send it into extra innings. That allowed the A’s to win it all in the bottom of the 10th, ending Gaylord Perry’s 15-game winning streak.
On August 2 in Chicago, he capped an eighth-inning rally when he was sent into run for Sal Bando and was singled home by Reggie Jackson, scoring what would eventually be the winning run in the 3-2 game. The run made Washington the only man in baseball history to have scored 20 runs without batting. Charley Finley was so excited he jumped out of the owners box and reached over the railing to shake Washington’s hands. Washington himself was humble: “When I go in there for a guy like Sal Bando, I have to steal and I have to score.”
On August 4 pinch-running for Dal Maxvill vs. the Twins, Washington stole second and forced Rod Carew to make a bad throw to third on a Bill North Grounder.
On August 11 he was caught stealing in a 2-1 loss against the Red Sox, and again on August 20th.
On August 26 he stole his 22nd base of the season pinch-running for Jesus Alou, but did not score.
On August 27 he slipped rounding third and was thrown out by the Brewers as he tried to get back to base.
Alvin Dark was impressed by Washington’s improvement, noting he knew how to read the signs, take a lead and slide. He estimated Washington had won six or seven games with his speed alone, which seems generous. By the beginning of September he had scored 22 runs in his previous 49 appearances, and stolen 22 bases in his last 27 tries.
His greatest base running achievement came September 18 vs. the royals. Pinch running for Ted Kubiak in the 5th, Washington started challenging pitcher Paul Splittorff by constantly breaking for second on every motion. When Splittorff finally went to pick Washington off, he went for it. Left-handed first baseman John Mayberry overthrew second base and sent the ball sailing into left field, and Washington was eventually safe at third. He scored off a single by Bert Campaneris and wound up being the spark that ignited a four-run A’s rally in a previously scoreless game.
On September 25, running for Jesus Alou, he stole second and advanced to third on a sacrifice, but was thrown out trying to steal home when Bert Campaneris failed to make contact on a bunt.
It didn’t matter, thankfully. On September 27, the A’s clinched the pennant, and Washington joined the other players in dousing Alvin Dark in champagne.
Herb’s teammates had become resigned to him during the regular season, but had concerns about using him in the playoffs. Sal Bando, as usual, did not want Herb to be used at all. “My only question is how Alvin will use Herbie. He can help but you have to think he can also hurt by making a mistake and then replacing one of our starters. This is different than the regular season. Then if somebody screws up you have 161 games to make up for it. But here you only have four.” And then, just for good measure, he added a personal dig at Herb: “He has no baseball instinct.”
On October 6 he saw action in the second game of the American League Championship Series, pinch-running for Gene Tenace. Tenace was not happy about being pulled, kicking the bag and throwing his helmet at Alvin Dark. “I have nothing against Herb and I told him that after the game…To take out one of your best fielders in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game is stupid.” Especially since Washington was caught stealing.
In his second appearance against Baltimore, he was also caught stealing.
Still Herb remained upbeat, promising a sweep of the Dodgers in the World Series. Dodger catcher Steve Yeager was not worried: “He has outstanding speed, but you always know he’s going to try and steal.” Which sounds damning, but you can say the same for virtually any pinch runner.
Herb’s most high profile moment of the season came in Game 2 of the World Series. In the top of the 9th, with the A’s behind 3-2 and one out, he was sent in to pinch run for Joe Rudi, who had just singled in the A’s only runs. On the mound was Dodgers pitcher Mike Marshall, a screwball specialist who, oddly enough, had been a former physical education teacher at Michigan State University and one of Herb’s coaches. Marshall bluffed a few throws to first, and once Washington started to relax he took a big lead only to be picked off by a fast toss to Steve Garvey. Washington lost his cool, tossing his hat and kicking up a dirt storm, and Angel Mangual struck out swinging to end the game.
It was an embarrassing moment, made even worse by the fact that it had been seen by 60 million people on national television. Maury Wills tried to comfort Herb, telling him that Marshall wouldn’t have been able to pick off a bad baserunner and reminding him that it’s better to be picked off at first than to be thrown out at second. Washington replied that he’d usually agree, but that in this one case, he’d rather have been thrown out at second.
Herb made a few more appearances in the Series, pinch running for Gene Tenace in Game 3 and Jim Holt in Game 4, but did not steal any more bases or score. In the end, the A’s beat the Dodgers in five games for their third consecutive world championship. Unlike Allen Lewis, Washington was awarded a whole share of the team’s World Series bonus: $22,700.
During the regular season, Washington had stolen 29 bases in 45 attempts. He had been caught stealing thirteen times, picked off twice in the regular season, and once in the playoffs. That was enough to put him him in 3rd place on the A’s stolen base leaders, behind Bill North and Bert Campaneris, and just ahead of Reggie Jackson. It put him 8th in the American League, though most of the action had been going on in the National where Lou Brock broke Maury Wills’ single-season record with an astonishing 114 stolen bases.
In the off-season, Herb participated in meets for the professional International Track Association. He was asked by reporters if he felt like a misfit, and responded, “On the A’s, everybody is a misfit.” He was looking forward to returning to the team in the spring.
On January 27 he negotiated an undisclosed raise, though it probably wasn’t anywhere near the $100,000 he was asking for, and re-signed on February 19.
The team he was returning to was a very different one. Finley had violated the terms in Catfish Hunter’s contract, which allowed Hunter to declare himself a free agent and sign with the Yankees. It was a demoralizing blow to the As, and weakened the team considerably.
Finley finally convinced the other owners to allow him to test his proposed “designated runner” rule in his Cactus League games against the Angels. The rule allowed a team to use a pinch runner up to three times in a game, without having to remove the original player from the game. A team could only use one runner per inning.
On March 11 Herb showed up to training camp eager to please. “There are only three people in baseball I have to satisfy: Finley, myself, and Alvin Dark. As long as Finley’s happy, I’m happy.” His goal for the season? Steal 45 bases.
On March 15, testing the designated runner rule for the first time, Herb was caught stealing twice and picked off once. He was booed by the fans in attendance but shrugged it off, blaming the weather.
On March 16 he did much better, stealing three bases and scoring two runs, a feat he repeated on March 24. By the end of spring training he had stolen nine bases in seven games.
There were rumors that he’d be heading down to the minors. Alvin Dark noted, “The way our club was set up last year we could afford a man like Herb. Now I’m not so sure. He has to be an affordable luxury to make the club this year… If I had to make up my mind right now, I’d say Herb couldn’t make it.”
It didn’t help Washington’s case that Finley acquired Don Hopkins from the Expos system. Hopkins had stolen 56 bases in the minors, and 221 bases in the previous four seasons, plus he could hit and field. But Charley Finley gave Herb a vote of confidence, and he ultimately wound up on the opening day roster.
Just before the season began, Washington made baseball history yet again. His 1975 Topps baseball card is the only card in the history of the game to list “pinch runner” as a position.
In the April 8 home opener vs. the White Sox, Dark put Washington to pinch run for Sal Bando in the eighth, with the A’s holding on to a slim 2-1 lead. The fans booed Herb, but he ignored them. He took a sizable lead off first, daring Wilbur Wood to throw, beat out the toss to second by Carlos May, and scored on a Joe Rudi drive that bounced off the left field wall. It turned out to be the game-winning run in a 3-2 triumph.
On April 18 against the Minnesota Twins, Herb went to pinch-run for Angel Mangual after a double. Gene Tenace went for a sacrifice bunt, but it turned into a single when it rolled past pitcher Bill Campbell and 1st baseman Craig Cusick. Herb hesitated as he approached third, but third base coach Bobby Winkles waved him home where he was thrown out by five feet. It killed the A’s momentum, and they ultimately lost the game. Winkles took all the blame for the gaffe, but honestly, Herb’s hesitation is what killed the play.
On May 2 he scored against the White Sox while pinch-running for Larry Haney. That was Herb’s last major league appearance. After the game he was put on unconditional waivers by Charley Finley. Finley’s excuse was simple: “We hate to give him up but we have to because for one thing, the pennant race is a lot tighter this year.”
Herb brushed it off, saying he was more upset by not making the 1972 Olympics. He thought he might return to the team later in the season, or possibly in 1976.
His teammates were less sure about that. Reggie Jackson said, “I liked him but I’m not in baseball to make friends. The other two guys [Don Hopkins and Matt Alexander] can do more and besides, they’re better baserunners.”
Sal Bando was more blunt: “I’d feel sorry for him if he were a player.”
After being bounced from baseball, Herb continued to participate in International Track Association events. He still had hopes of being able to participate in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Well, delusions, really. Even without the bad blood between Herb and Olympic coach Jim Bush, his stint with the As and his participation in ITA meets had removed his amateur status. The ITA itself was unable to sign new track and field superstars after the 1976 games and folded.
Herb took a job as assistant director of personnel with Michigan Bell. In 1981, after a visit to Rochester, NY he purchased a McDonald’s franchise. He turned out to be really good at running a fast food restaurant. His competitive streak and attention to detail, along with his commitment to improving under-served and minority communities, turned out to be a recipe for success. He even became sought out by other pro athletes with an eye on their post-sports careers. At one point his company, HLW Fast Track, Inc. was the largest minority-owned McDonald’s franchisee in the United States, operating 25 restaurants in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
Thanks to his business savvy, in 1990 he was appointed director of the Buffalo branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In 1992, he was chairman of the Board of Directors, and in 1993 he became a director of the main branch. He was briefly owner of the minor-league Youngstown Steelhounds hockey team, and has also served on the board of directors on the United Negro College Fund.
In early 2021 he sued McDonald’s, alleging that the company discriminated against minority franchisees by limiting their ability to expand outside of inner city markets. Rather than let the case go to trial, McDonald’s chose to settle the lawsuit for $33.5 million and buy out Washington’s remaining franchises.
Today, Herb lives in Boardman, Ohio.
Was He Any Good?
So, let’s ask a simple question: was Herb Washington any good?
The short answer is, “Who knows?”
The long answer is that base running statistics are awful, and really don’t provide a good way to distinguish between speedy players, players with good luck, and conservative slowpokes with long careers.
In his brief career, Herb made 105 appearances, scoring 33 runs, stealing 31 bases, and getting caught stealing 17 times. That gives him a lifetime stolen base percentage of 64.5%, just below what’s considered average.
By contrast, Maury Wills has a 73% lifetime SB%, Lou Brock 75%, and Rickey Henderson and Ichiro Suzuki 80%. Even poor Allen Lewis, who everyone agrees was terrible, has an above-average 72%.
Wins Above Replacement are hard to calculate for someone who doesn’t pitch, bat or field. The best one I’ve seen for Herb gives him an estimated WAR of -0.4, which isn’t good.
Given Herb’s trajectory throughout the 1974 season, it seems likely he would have dramatically improved those statistics if given a chance. But we’ll never know. It’s hard to imagine a situation where he would get more playing time. In both his football and baseball careers, he proved his speed was a luxury that a team in a competitive division could not afford.
Gene Tenace probably had the most nuanced take on Herb and his legacy, when he was asked about Herb at the end of the 1974 season.
“The thing about Herbie is that he’s a tremendous person and he has done a tremendous job for us. You have to remember he came to us right off the track. You got 24 guys who regret he’s even on the ball club. They do know the only thing he can do is run. But I’ll say this about him: he adjusted. He certainly did, and you have to give him credit for that. I know I do. I really like the guy. He made up his mind it didn’t matter what people thought, he was going to do his job, and he did. He has gotten thrown out at times and he has been picked off at times, but he still did what he was brought here to do, and he overcame a lot of obstacles to do it.”
I think that’s lovely, and probably the best way to think about it. So give it up for Herb Washington, ladies and gentlemen. He deserves a break today.
(All corrections from the errata have been incorporated into this article, but not into the published audio.)
It’s a tenuous connection, but a connection nonetheless! The Oakland Athletics originally started out as the Philadelphia Athletics. We covered a scandal from early in their history, the signing of all-star Nap Lajoie, in “French Leave.”
For the story of another ballplayer who had speed and nothing else, check out the story of Billy Sunday in “A Month of Billys.”
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- “Herb Washington’s goal: More money – $100,000.” Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, 1 Dec 1975.
- Berkow, Ira. “A’s Herb Washington reflects: ‘Ought to give me a chance.'” Napa Valley Register, 19 Mar 1975.