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Herb Washington: Profile of an MLB ‘designated runner’

One of the oddities of baseball is the fact Herb Washington earned a World Series ring for the Oakland A’s in 1974 having never played in the field and having never stepped into the batter’s box. He was purely a “designated runner.”

He wasn’t Oakland’s first but is certainly the most celebrated since he never played professional baseball before taking on his unusual role. His previous baseball experience was his junior year in high school.

The only baseball card to list “Pinch Run.” (Pinch Runner) as a position

The only baseball card to list “Pinch Run.” (Pinch Runner) as a position

When A’s owner Charlie O. Finley approached him with the idea of being a designated runner, Washington was a world class sprinter known for breaking or tying the world record in the 50- and 60-yard dashes.

“His first words were, ‘This is Mr. Finley, the owner of the world champion Oakland A’s,’” Washington told reporters in 2014 during the team’s 40-year reunion, as reported by the Sacramento Bee. “My response was, ‘Hello, Mr. Finley. Herb Washington, world’s fastest human.’”

As the story goes, outfielder and pinch runner Allan Lewis, “The Panamian Express,” had spent parts of six seasons with the A’s, mostly as a pinch runner. In 156 games over that time (playing in the field only 10 times), he stole 44 bases, scored 47 runs, and batted .207 in only 29 at-bats.

Lewis won two World Series rings with the club before Finley, wanting someone younger, replaced him with Washington for the 1974 season.

When he first heard Finley was calling, Washington thought it was a joke. Finley told him he wanted to use him as a pinch runner; Washington told him he’d need a no-cut contract.

“`I know sometimes you just get rid of people,’” Washington recalled telling Finley, as reported by Society for American Baseball Research. “He said, ‘A no-cut contract? The only players who have those are Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson! Are you telling me you’re in the same league as those guys?’ I said, ‘No, but none of those guys can outrun me.’”

So Washington signed a one-year, no-cut contract worth $45,000, plus a $20,000 signing bonus.

In spring training, the A’s brought in legendary base runner Maury Wills to work with Washington, who needed to learn the moves of opposing pitchers and work on baserunning techniques.

“I came from track where everything was straight ahead,” he said at the reunion.

Reliever Rollie Fingers told reporters at the same reunion, “I thought it was a little crazy 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.” Added shortstop Bert Campaneris, “(If) we needed an important stolen base, he’d come through. He could fly.”

The helmet Herb Washington wore in 1974-75 as a “designated runner” is on auction with Heritage Auctions

The helmet Herb Washington wore in 1974-75 as a “designated runner” is on auction with Heritage Auctions

Washington appeared in 92 regular-season games. He stole 29 bases and scored 29 runs, getting caught stealing 16 times. But of his 29 runs scored, 13 either tied the score or put the A’s ahead. In postseason, Washington appeared in five games and did not record a stolen base, getting caught stealing twice in the ALCS and getting picked off at first base by Dodgers pitcher Mike Marshall in Game 2 of the World Series.

Washington, who was representing the tying run in the top of the ninth, remembered the pickoff well, claiming Marshall balked.

Near the end of the regular season once the A’s had clinched, manager Alvin Dark offered Washington a chance to bat, but he 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.”

Now, a part of Washington’s history comes to the forefront as his game-worn helmet from 1974-75 is up for auction with Heritage Auctions in its Spring Sports Collectibles Catalog Auction set for May 7-9. Bidding is open.

Incidentally, Washington appeared in 13 games in 1975. He stole two bases and scored four runs before the A’s released him in May.