Home - Understanding Baseball - Baseball Guide - Stories - Poems - Links

Base Runners And How They Help A Pitcher To Win

The Secret of Successful Base Running is Getting the Start--A Club
Composed of Good Base Runners Is Likely to do More to Help a Pitcher
Win Games than a Batting Order of Hard Hitters--Stealing Second Is an
Art in Taking Chances--The Giants Stole their Way to a Pennant, but
"Connie" Mack Stopped the Grand Larceny when it Came to a World's

Many times have the crowds at the Polo Grounds seen a man get on first
base in a close game, and, with the pitcher's motion, start to steal
second, only to have the catcher throw him out. The spectators groan and
criticise the manager.

"Why didn't he wait for the hitters to bat him around?" is the cry.

Then, again, a man starts for the base, times his get-away just right, and
slides into the bag in a cloud of dust while the umpire spreads out his
hands indicating that he is safe. The crowd cheers and proclaims McGraw a
great manager and the stealer a great base runner. Maybe the next batter
comes along with a hit, and the runner scores. It wins the game, and
mention is made in the newspapers the next morning of the fast base
running of the club. A man has covered ninety feet of ground while the
ball is travelling from the pitcher to the catcher and back to the fielder
who is guarding second base. It is the most important ninety feet in
baseball. From second base just one hit scores the runner. Stealing
second, one of the most picturesque plays of the game, is the gentle art
of taking a chance.

In 1911, the Giants stole more bases than any other Big League club has
had to its credit since the Pirates established the record in 1903.
Devore, Snodgrass, Murray, Merkle and Doyle, once they got on the bases
were like loose mercury. They couldn't be caught. And McGraw stole his way
to a pennant with this quintet of runners, not alone because of the number
of bases they pilfered, but because of the edge it gave the Giants on the
rest of the clubs, with the men with base-stealing reputations on the
team. I should say that holding these runners up on the bases and worrying
about what they were going to do reduced the efficiency of opposing
pitchers one-third.

It wasn't the speed of the men that accounted for the record. A sprinter
may get into the Big League and never steal a base. But it was the McGraw
system combined with their natural ability.

"Get the start," reiterates McGraw. "Half of base stealing is leaving the
bag at the right time. Know when you have a good lead and then never stop
until you have hit the dirt."

It is up to the pitcher as much as the catcher to stop base stealing, for
once a club begins running wild on another, the bats might as well be
packed up and the game conceded. Pitchers make a study of the individual
runners and their styles of getting starts. In my mind, I know just how
much of a lead every base runner in the National League can take on me
with impunity.

"Bob" Bescher of the Cincinnati club was the leading, bright, particular
base-stealing star of the National League in the season of 1911, and the
secret of his success was in his start. He tries to get as big a lead as
possible with each pitch, and then, when he intends to leave, edges a
couple of feet farther than usual, catching the pitcher unawares. With the
two extra feet, Bescher is bound to get to second base at the same time as
the ball, and no catcher in the world can stop him. Therefore, it is up to
the pitcher to keep him from getting this start--the two more feet he
seeks. I know that Bescher can take ten feet from the bag when I am
pitching and get back safely. But, I am equally sure that, if he makes his
lead twelve feet and I notice it, I can probably catch him. As a good
ribbon salesman constantly has in his mind's eye the answer to the
question, "How far is a yard?" so I know at a glance exactly how far
Bescher can lead and get back safely, when he is on first base. If I
glance over and see him twelve feet away from the bag and about to start,
I turn and throw and catch him flat-footed. The crowd laughs at him and

"Bescher asleep at the switch again!"

The real truth is that Bescher was not asleep, but trying to get that old
jump which would have meant the stolen base. Again, he takes the twelve
feet, and I don't perceive it. He gets started with my arm and goes into
the bag ahead of the ball.

"Great base runner," comments the fickle crowd.

Bescher has only accomplished what he was trying to do before, but he has
gotten away with it this time. Being a great ball-player is the gentle art
of getting away with it.

Spectators often wonder why a pitcher wearies them with throwing over to
the first base many times, when it is plain to see that he has no chance
of catching his quarry. "Bill" Dahlen used to be one of the best men in
the game for getting back in some way when on base, employing a straddle
slide and just hooking the bag with his toe, leaving "a shoe-string to
touch." The result was that he was always handing the pitcher the laugh as
he brushed himself off, for none can say Dahlen was not an immaculate

But the pitchers found out that they could tire Dahlen out by repeatedly
throwing over to the bag, and that, after five throws, which required
five dashes and slides back to the base, he was all in and could not steal
because he didn't have the physical strength left. Thus, as soon as Dahlen
got on, a pitcher began throwing over until he had him tired out, and then
he pitched to the batter. So "Bill" crossed them by living on the bag
until he thought he saw his opportunity to get the jump, and then he would
try to steal.

Few good base runners watch the ball after they have once left the bag.
They look at the baseman to see how he is playing and make the slide
accordingly. If Devore sees Huggins of St. Louis behind the base, he
slides in front and pulls his body away from the bag, so that he leaves
the smallest possible area to touch. If he observes the baseman cutting
inside to block him off, he goes behind and hooks it with just one toe,
again presenting the minimum touching surface. If the ball is hit while
the runner is en route, he takes one quick glance at the coacher on the
third base line and can tell by his motions whether to turn back or to

McGraw devotes half his time and energy in the spring to teaching his men
base running and the art of sliding, which, when highly cultivated, means
being there with one toe and somewhere else with the rest of the body. But
most of all he impresses on the athletes the necessity of getting the
start before making the attempt to steal. As long as I live I shall
believe that if Snodgrass had known he had the jump in the third game of
the world's series in 1911, when he really had it, and if he had taken
advantage of it, we would have won the game and possibly the championship.
It was in the contest that Baker balanced by banging the home run into the
right field bleachers in the ninth inning, when I was pitching. That tied
the score, 1 to 1.

For nine innings I had been pitching myself out, putting everything that I
had on every ball, because the team gave me no lead to rest on. When Baker
pushed that ball into the bleachers with only two more men to get out to
win the game, I was all in. But I managed to live through the tenth with
very little on the ball, and we came to the bat. Snodgrass got a base on
balls and journeyed to second on a sacrifice. He was taking a big lead off
the middle base with the pitcher's motion, and running back before the

catcher got the ball, because a quick throw would have caught him. It was
bad baseball, but he was nervous with the intense strain and over-eager to

Then came the time when he took a longer lead than any other, and Lapp,
the Athletics' catcher, seeing him, was sure he was going to steal, and in
his hurry to get the ball away and save the game, let it past him.
Snodgrass had the jump, and probably would have made the base had he kept
on going, but he had no orders to steal and had turned and taken a step or
two back toward second when he saw Lapp lose the ball. Again he turned and
retraced his steps, and I never saw a man turn so slowly, simply because I
realized how important a turn that was going to be. Next I looked at Lapp
and saw him picking up the ball, which had rolled only about three feet
behind him. He snapped it to third and had Snodgrass by several feet.
Snodgrass realized this as he plunged down the base line, but he could not
stop and permit himself to be tagged and he could not go back, so he made
that historic slide which was heard almost around the world, cut off
several yards of Frank Baker's trousers, and more important than the
damage to the uniform, lost us the game.

Snodgrass had the jump in his first start, and if he had kept right on
going he would have made the bag without the aid of the passed ball, in my
opinion. But he did not know that he had this advantage and was on his way
back, when it looked for a minute as if the Athletics' catcher had made a
mistake. This really turned out to be the "break" in the game, for it was
on that passed ball that Snodgrass was put out. He would probably have
scored the run which would have won the game had he lived either on second
or third base, for a hit followed.

After losing the contest after watching the opportunity thrown away, some
fan called me on the telephone that night, when I was feeling in anything
but a conversational mood, and asked me:

"Was that passed ball this afternoon part of the Athletics' inside game?
Did Lapp do it on purpose?"

In passing I want to put in a word for Snodgrass, not because he is a
team-mate of mine, but on account of the criticism which he received for
spiking Baker, and which was not deserved. And in that word I do not want
to detract from Baker's reputation a scintilla, if I could, for he is a
great ball-player. But I want to say that if John Murray had ever been
called upon to slide into that bag with Baker playing it as he did, Baker
would probably have been found cut in halves, and only Murray's own style
of coasting would have been responsible for it. If Fred Clarke of
Pittsburg had been the man coming in, Baker would probably have been
neatly cut into thirds, one third with each foot.

Clarke is known as one of the most wicked sliders in the National League.
He jumps into the air and spreads his feet apart, showing his spikes as he
comes in. The Giants were playing in Pittsburg several years ago, before I
was married, and there was a friend of mine at the ball park with whom I
was particularly eager to make a hit. The game was close, as are all
contests which lend themselves readily to an anecdote, and Clarke got as
far as third base in the eighth inning, with the score tied and two out.
Warner, the Giants' catcher, let one get past him and I ran in to cover
the plate. Clarke came digging for home and, as I turned to touch him, he
slid and cut my trousers off, never touching my legs. It was small
consolation to me that my stems were still whole and that the umpire had
called Clarke out and that the game was yet saved. My love for my art is
keen, but it stops at a certain point, and that point is where I have to
send a hurry call for a barrel and the team's tailor. The players made a
sort of group around me while I did my Lady Godiva act from the plate to
the bench.

Murray has the ideal slide for a base gatherer, but one which commands the
respect of all the guardians of the sacks in the National League. When
about eight feet from the bag, he jumps into the air, giving the fielder a
vision of two sets of nicely honed spikes aimed for the base. As Murray
hits the bag, he comes up on his feet and is in a position to start for
the next station in case of any fumble or slip. He is a great man to use
this slide to advantage against young players, who are inclined to be
timid when they see those spikes. It's all part of the game as it is
played in the large leagues.

The Boston team was trying out a young player two years ago. Murray
remarked to McGraw before the game:

"The first time I get on, I bet I can make that fellow fumble and pick up
an extra base."

"Theatre tickets for the crowd on Saturday night?" inquired McGraw.

"You've said it," answered Murray.

Along about the second or third inning John walked, and started for second
on the first ball pitched. The busher came in to cover the base, and
Murray leaped clear of the ground and yelled:

"Look out!"

The newcomer evidently thought that Murray had lost control of his legs,
got one look at those spikes, and bent all his energies toward dodging
them, paying no attention whatever to the ball, which continued its
unmolested journey to centre field. The new man proved to be one of the
best little dodgers I ever saw. John was in a perfect position to start
and went along to third at his leisure.

"Didn't I call the turn?" Murray yelled at McGraw as he came to the bench.

"What show do you want to see?" asked McGraw.

But on an old campaigner this show of spikes has no effect whatever. The
capable basemen in the League know how to cover the bag so as to get the
runner out and still give him room to come in without hurting any one. In
spite of an impression that prevails to the contrary, ball-players never
spike a man on purpose. At present, I don't believe there is a runner in
the National League who would cut down another man if he had the
opportunity. If one man does spike another accidentally, he is heartily
sorry, and often such an event affects his own playing and his base
running ability.

The feet-first slide is now more in vogue in the Big Leagues than the old
head-first coast, and I attribute this to two causes. One is that the show
of the spikes is a sort of assurance the base runner is going to have room
to come into the bag, and the second is that the great amount of armor
which a catcher wears in these latter days makes some such formidable
slide necessary when coming into the plate.

If a base runner hits a catcher squarely with his shin guards on, he is
likely to be badly injured, and he must be sure that the catcher is going
to give him a clear path. Some catchers block off the plate so that a man
has got to shoot his spikes at them to get through, and I'm not saying
that it's bad catching, because that is the way to keep a man from
scoring. Make him go around if possible.

But the game has changed in the last few years as far as intentional
spiking goes. Many a time, when I first started with the Giants, I heard a
base runner shout at a fielder:

"Get out of the way there or I'll cut you in two!"

And he would not have hesitated to do it, either. That was part of the
game. But nowadays, if a player got the reputation of cutting men down and
putting star players out of the game intentionally, he would soon be
driven out of the League, probably on a stretcher.

When John Hummel of the Brooklyn club spiked Doyle in 1908, and greatly
lessened the Giants' chances of winning the pennant, which the club
ultimately lost, he came around to our clubhouse after the game and
inquired for Larry. When he found how badly Doyle was cut, he was as
broken up as any member of our team.

"If I'd known I was goin' to cut you, Larry, I wouldn't have slid," he

"That's all right," answered Doyle. "I guess I was blockin' you."

Ball-players don't say much in a situation of that kind. But each one who
witnessed the incident knew that when Doyle doubled down, spiked, most of
our chances of the pennant went down with him, for it broke up the infield
of the team at a most important moment. It takes some time for a new part
to work into a clock so that it keeps perfect time again, no matter how
delicate is the workmanship of the new part. So the best infielder takes
time to fit into the infield of a Big League club and have it hit on all
four cylinders again.

Fred Merkle is one of the few ball-players who still prefers the
head-first slide, and he sticks to it only on certain occasions. He is the
best man to steal third base playing ball to-day. He declares that, when
he is going into the bag, he can see better by shooting his head first and
that he can swing his body away from the base and just hook it with one
finger nail, leaving just that to touch. And he keeps his nails clipped
short in the season, so that there is very little exposed to which the
ball can be applied. If he sees that the third baseman is playing inside
the bag, he goes behind it and hooks it with his finger, and if the man is
playing back, he cuts through in front, pulling his body away from the
play. But the common or garden variety of player will take the hook slide,
feet first, because he can catch the bag with one leg, and the feet aren't
as tender a portion of the anatomy to be roughly touched as the head and

A club of base runners will do more to help a pitcher win than a batting
order of hard hitters, I believe. Speed is the great thing in the baseball
of to-day. By speed I do not mean that good men must be sprinters alone.
They must be fast starters, fast runners and fast thinkers. Remember that
last one--fast thinkers.

Harry McCormick, formerly the left-fielder on the Giants, when he joined
the club before his legs began to go bad, was a sprinter, one of the
fastest men who ever broke into the League. Before he took up baseball as
a profession, he had been a runner in college. But McCormick was never a
brilliant base stealer because he could not get the start.

When a man is pitching for a club of base runners he knows that every
time a player with a stealing reputation gets on and there is an outside
chance of his scoring, the run is going to be hung up. The tallies give a
pitcher confidence to proceed. Then, when the club has the reputation of
possessing a great bunch of base runners, the other pitcher is worried all
the time and has to devote about half his energies to watching the bases.
This makes him easier to hit.

But put a hard hitter who is a slow base runner on the club, and he does
little good. There used to be a man on the Giants, named "Charley"
Hickman, who played third base and then the outfield. He was one of the
best natural hitters who ever wormed his way into baseball, but when he
got on, the bases were blocked. He could not run, and it took a hit to
advance him a base. Get a fast man on behind him and, because the rules of
the game do not permit one runner to pass another, it was like having a
freight train preceding the Twentieth Century Limited on a single track
road. Hickman was not so slow when he first started, but after a while his
legs went bad and his weight increased, so that he was built like a box
car, to carry out the railroad figure.

Hickman finally dropped back into the minor leagues and continued to bat
three hundred, but he had to lose the ball to make the journey clear
around the bases on one wallop. Once he hit the old flag pole in centre
field at the Polo Grounds on the fly, and just did nose the ball out at
the plate. It was a record hit for distance. At last, while still
maintaining the three-hundred pace, Hickman was dropped by the Toledo club
of the American Association.

"Why did you let Charley Hickman go?" I asked the manager one day.

"Because he was tyin' up traffic on the bases," he replied.

Merkle is not a particularly fast runner, but he is a great base stealer
because he has acquired the knack of "getting away." He never tries to
steal until he has his start. He is also a good arriver, as I have pointed
out. It was like getting a steamroller in motion to start Hickman.

Clever ball-players and managers are always trying to evolve new
base-running tactics that will puzzle the other team, but "there ain't no
new stuff." It is a case of digging up the old ones. Pitchers are also
earnest in their endeavors to discover improved ways to stop base
running. Merkle and I worked out a play during the spring training season
in 1911 which caught perhaps a dozen men off first base before the other
teams began to watch for the trick. And it was not original with me. I got
the idea from "Patsy" Flaherty, a Boston pitcher who has his salary wing
fastened to his left side.

Flaherty would pitch over to first base quickly, and the fielder would
shoot the ball back. Then Flaherty would pop one through to the batter,
often catching him off his guard, and sneaking a strike over besides
leaving the runner flat on the ground in the position in which he had been
when he slid back to the bag. If the batter hit the ball, the runner was
in no attitude to get a start, and, on an infield tap, it was easy to make
a double play.

The next time that the man got on base, Flaherty would shoot the ball over
to first as before, and the runner would be up on his feet and away from
the bag, expecting him to throw it to the plate. But as the first baseman
whipped it back quickly Flaherty returned the ball and the runner was
caught flat footed and made to look foolish. Ball-players do certainly
hate to appear ridiculous, and the laugh from the crowd upsets a Big
Leaguer more than anything else, even a call from McGraw, because the
crowd cannot hear that and does not know the man is looking foolish.

It was almost impossible to steal bases on "Patsy" Flaherty because he
had the men hugging the bag all the time, and if he had had other
essentials of a pitcher, he would have been a great one. He even lived in
the Big League for some time with this quick throw as his only asset. I
adopted the Flaherty movement, but it is harder for a right-hander to use,
as he is not in such a good position to whip the ball to the bag. Merkle
and I rehearsed it in spring practice. As soon as a man got on first base,
I popped the ball over to Merkle, and without even making a stab at the
runner, he shot it to me. Then back again, just as the runner had let go
of the bag and was getting up. The theoretical result: He was caught
flat-footed. Sometimes it worked. Then they began to play for me.

Another play on which the changes have often been rung is the double steal
with men on first and third bases. That is McGraw's favorite situation in
a crisis.

"Somebody's got to look foolish on the play," says "Mac," "and I don't
want to furnish any laughs."

The old way to work it was to have the man on first start for second, as
if he were going to make a straight steal. Then as soon as the catcher
drew his arm back to throw, the runner on third started home. No Big
League club can have a look into the pennant set without trying to
interrupt the journey of that man going to second in a tight place,
because if no play is made for him and a hit follows, it nets the club two
runs instead of one.

Most teams try to stop this play by having the shortstop or second baseman
come in and take a short throw, and if the man on third breaks for home,
the receiver of the ball whips it back. If both throws are perfect, the
runner is caught at the plate.

But the catchers found that certain clubs were making this play in routine
fashion, the runner on first starting with the pitch, and the one on third
making his break just as soon as the catcher drew back his arm. Then the
backstops began making a bluff throw to second and whipping the ball to
third, often getting the runner by several feet, as he had already
definitely started for the plate.

"Tommy" Leach of the Pittsburg club was probably caught oftener on this
bluff throw than any other man in baseball. For some time he had been
making the play against clubs which used the short throw, and starting as
the catcher drew back his arm, as that was the only chance he had to
score. One day in the season of 1908, when the Pirates were playing
against the Giants, Clarke was on first and Leach on third, with one run
required to balance the game. McGraw knew the double steal was to be
expected, as two were out. Bresnahan was aware of this, too.

McGinnity was pitching, and with his motion, Clarke got his start.
Bresnahan drew back his arm as if to throw to second, and true to form,
Leach was on his way to the plate. But Bresnahan had not let go of the
ball, and he shot it to Devlin, Leach being run down in the base line and
the Pittsburg club eventually losing the game.

Again and again Leach fell for this bluff throw, until the news spread
around the circuit that once a catcher drew back his arm with a man on
first base and "Tommy" Leach on third, there would be no holding him on
the bag. He was caught time and again--indeed as frequently as the play
came up. It was his "groove." He could not be stopped from making his
break. At last Clarke had to order him to abandon the play until he could
cure himself of this self-starting habit.

"What you want to do on that play is cross 'em," is McGraw's theory, and
he proceeded to develop the delayed steal with this intent.

Put the men back on first and third bases. Thank you. The pitcher has the
ball. The runner on first intentionally takes too large a lead. The
pitcher throws over, and he moves a few steps toward second. Then a few
more. All that time the man on third is edging off an inch, two inches, a
foot. The first baseman turns to throw to second to stop that man. The
runner on third plunges for the plate, and usually gets there. It's a hard
one to stop, but that's its purpose.

Then, again, it can be worked after the catcher gets the ball. The runner
starts from first slowly and the catcher hesitates, not knowing whether to
throw to first or second. Since the runner did not start with the pitch,
theoretically no one has come in to take a short throw, and the play
cannot be made back to the plate if the ball is thrown to second. This
form of the play is usually successful. Miller Huggins is one of the
hardest second basemen in the League to work it against successfully. With
men on first and third, he always comes in for the short throw on the
chance, and covers himself up.

After we had stolen our way to a pennant in the National League in the
season of 1911, and after our five leading base runners had been "mugged"
by the police in St. Louis so that the catchers would know them, many fans
expected to see us steal a world's championship, and we half expected it

But so did "Connie" Mack, and there lies the answer. He knew our strong
point, and his players had discussed and rehearsed ways and means to break
up our game. Mack had been watching the Giants for weeks previous to the
series and had had his spies taking notes.

"We've got to stop them running bases," he told his men before the first
game, I have learned since. And they did. Guess the St. Louis police must
have sent Thomas and Lapp copies of those pictures.

Mack's pitchers cut their motions down to nothing with men on the bases,
microscopic motions, and they watched the runners like hawks. Thomas had
been practising to get the men. The first time that Devore made a break to
steal, he was caught several feet from the bag.

"And you call yourself fast!" commented Collins as he threw the ball back
to the pitcher and jogged to his job. "You remind me of a cop on a fixed
post," he flung over his shoulder.

Pitchers have a great deal to do with the defensive efficiency of the
club. If they do not hold the runners up, the best catcher in the world
cannot stop them at their destination. That is the reason why so many
high-class catchers have been developed by the Chicago Cubs. The team has
always had a good pitching staff, and men like Overall, Brown and Reulbach
force the runners to stick to the oases of safety.

The Giants stole their way to a pennant in 1911, and it wasn't on account
of the speedy material, but because McGraw had spent days teaching his men
to slide and emphasizing the necessity of getting the jump. Then he picked
the stages of the game when the attempts to steal were to be made. But
McGraw, with his all-star cast of thieves, was stopped in the world's
series by one Cornelius McGillicuddy.

Next: Notable Instances Where The Inside Game Has Failed

Previous: Jinxes And What They Mean To A Ball-player

Add to Informational Site Network