Memories & Dreams: Sliding Billy Hamilton

By Marty Appel

Remember the Boston Red Sox second baseman in the 1986 World Series?

Marty Barrett. Played nine seasons for Boston.

Well, a century before, there was another Marty Barrett, this one a catcher, and he also played in Boston – for the predecessors of the Boston Braves – the Boston Beaneaters.

Baseball fans love stuff like this. Love playing “the name game” with the richness of baseball history.

There is something like this going on right now in the person of Billy Hamilton.

The Cincinnati Reds have a young speedster who debuted in 2013 named Billy Hamilton. He is best known for his base running – he stole 155 bases in 2012, and 103 the year before. Everybody who follows minor league ball was talking about Billy Hamilton, and when he came up to the Reds on September 3, he promptly stole 13 bases in 13 games, including four in one game. Who knows where this career is going?

But wait – the name….Billy Hamilton, Billy Hamilton. Isn’t there a Billy Hamilton in the Hall of Fame?

There sure is!

He was “Sliding Billy” Hamilton, all 5’6″ of him, and he stole over 100 bases four times and 914 (or 912 or 937) overall. Calculations vary. He played from 1888-1901, the last six of those seasons for the Beaneaters.

And since this is shaping up as a big years for Braves baseball and the Hall of Fame, and perhaps a breakthrough year for the current Billy Hamilton, it is a good time to visit the original Sliding Billy.

Fans of modern baseball may first remember hearing Hamilton’s name in the late 1970s, when Lou Brock was stealing bases at a record pace and threatening Ty Cobb’s career mark of 897. But after Brock passed Cobb, the name of 19th century Billy emerged as yet another target. The game may have been different then – hence, recognition of Cobb’s mark – but still, there it was 912 or 914 thefts, the last of them in 1901. Some sources however, credited him with 937.

Brock was determined to put all disputes to rest, and in 1979, at age 40, he stole his 938th and last base to put all doubts to rest. Passing Hamilton was important to him at the time and the achievement was well noted.

Hamilton was not a lost archive, of course. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1961, the year people had home runs on their minds more than steals. Still, when Maury Wills stole 104 bases a year later, the stolen base was back in the discussion, and people marveled at Hamilton’s early feats. He topped 100 four times (according to modern calculations), batted .403 in 1894, and was a lifetime .344 hitter. That is tied with Ted Williams and two points better than Babe Ruth. Only five players are ahead of him – Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Jackson, Ed Delahanty and Tris Speaker.

He scored a record 198 runs and stole seven bases in one game in 1894. In 1892, he hit a leadoff homer and a walkoff homer in the same game – it was 64 years before anyone did that again.

Billy, born in Newark, New Jersey but a long time resident of Worcester, Massachusetts, broke into pro ball in 1887, and was in the Major League the following year with Kansas City of the American Association. He played for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1890-1895 in an all-Hall of Fame outfield with Sam Thompson and Delahanty. After his playing career, he managed for 10 seasons, mostly with Massachusetts-based teams, and lived to 74, passing away in 1940. By then, the modern game had very much marginalized his achievements, and it took until the 25th anniversary of the first election for the Veteran’s Committee to note his .344 and all those steals.