Designated Runner

Charlie Finley was a Major League Baseball team owner — the Kansas City (and after he moved them, Oakland) A’s, specifically — from 1960 to 1981. An innovator with a flair for gimmicky brilliance, Finley was a driving force behind night baseball (now the norm) and employing the designated hitter. But one of his innovative ideas — a failure, at that — yielded an odd result: the Major League Baseball career of Herb Washington.

Washington was a world-class sprinter in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He held the world record in both the 50 yard and 60 yard dash and won an NCAA title as a track star at Michigan State University. But he hadn’t played competitive baseball since his junior year in high school. So when Finley signed Washington to a contract just days before the 1974 season, the question was immediate: what was this 22 year-old guy going to be doing? The answer: Run. And only run.

Finley brought Washington on board to be a designated runner — a guy who would substitute in, no more than once per game (per baseball’s general pinch running rules), for a slow baserunner. He’d then be pulled after the inning for another guy who could play the field. By design, Washington’s role included neither coming to bat nor playing the field. And the A’s held true to design. Over the course of a two season career, Washington appeared in 105 games, scoring 33 runs and totaling 31 stolen bases (while being caught 17 times). All 105 appearances were as a pinch runner — he ended his brief career with zero plate appearances and just as many innings in the field. Even his baseball card, pictured, noted that he was a pinch runner.

The experiment: unsuccessful. Of particularly descriptive note was how Washington fared in the 1974 World Series. He made three appearances — again, all as a pinch runner. The results: one time stranded on first base, one time forced out at second base, and, in a particularly embarrassing turn of events, one time picked off in the ninth inning — as the would-be tying run. Oops!

Bonus fact: Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rollie Fingers may be best known for his distinctive handlebar mustache. Credit Finley for Fingers’ facial hair — the eclectic owner offered his players $300 each for growing mustaches, and Fingers grew his in response to the incentive offer.

From the Archives: Bats and Hammers: Another Charlie Finley story — one with implications outside the baseball world.

Related: Somehow or another, a Herb Washington autographed baseball runs about $200. A Rollie Fingers one? Under $50.

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