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How To Score From First On A Sacrifice
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
We didn’t play baseball like they play in the major leagues. We played “tricky baseball.” When we played the big-leaguers after the regular season, our pitchers would curve the ball on the 3-2. They’d say, “What, are you trying to make us look bad?” We’d bunt and run and they’d say, “Why are you trying to do that in the first inning?” When we were supposed to bunt, they’d come in and we’d hit away. Oh, we played tricky baseball.
That’s why we beat the major-league teams. It’s not that we had the best men, but in a short series we could outguess them. Baseball is a guessing game. The majorleaguers would play for one big inning. They go by “written baseball.” But there’s so much “unwritten baseball.” When you use it, they say it’s unorthodox.
In our league if a guy was on first and had a chance to go to third, he’d go just fast enough to make the outfielder throw. That way the batter could take second, you see. We’d go into third standing up so the third baseman couldn’t see the throw coming and it might go through him. Jackie Robinson learned that from some old players he saw in the Negro leagues. Sometimes you can teach a guy something and he can do it better than you.
The Chicago American Giants had the smartest players you ever saw. They used to bat in a run on a base on balls. If they had a man on third and the batter walked, he’d just trot easy-like down to first and the man on third would just sort of stand there, looking at the stands. At the last minute the batter would cut out for second as fast as he could go; the coach would yell, “Heh, look at that!” The pitcher would whirl around, the guy on third would light out for home, and like as not they wouldn’t get anybody out.
I could score from second on a long fly. I’ve even scored from first on a sacrifice. And I scored from first base on singles lots of times. If the ball isn’t hit straight at the outfielder, I’d score. You have to be heads up and watch those things. Or I’d stand back from the plate and chop down on the ball. That’s something I learned from the old players. By the time the ball comes down, they can’t throw me out.
Stealing home, now that’s a dangerous job. I didn’t do that too often. You’ve got to have a good man at bat. And you have to watch the pitcher. When he’s working with a windup, as soon as he brings his arm down, that’s the time to go. By the time he can bring his arm up again to throw, he can’t get you.
You had to know how to steal signs, too. Buck Leonard, our first baseman, was a great hitter, but he didn’t hit the curve ball as well as he did the fast ball. I said, “If you knew what was coming, could you hit the ball?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, I bet I can tell you every time a curve’s coming. If it’s a curve and I’m on first, I’ll stand with my hands on my knees. If it’s a fast ball, I’ll stand straight up. And if I don’t know, I’ll sort of swing my arms to say I didn’t catch it.”
How did I do it? It’s easy. Every time a curve is coming, what would the catcher do? He’d move his right foot over a little to be ready to catch it, wouldn’t he? I remember the 1964 World Series, the Cardinals and the Yankees, I kept telling the guy next to me, “It’s a curve, it’s a fast ball.” Heck, all I did was watch the catcher.
Earl Whitehill was the toughest big-league pitcher I ever faced. In 1929 we beat the major-league all-stars six out of eight games, and Whitehill beat us both times. The other pitchers were George UhIe and Willis Hudlin. I ran the bases against them the same as I did any other time. If it was time to steal, I’d steal.
Now Pepper Martin of the Cardinals was a pretty good base runner. He ran kind of wild in the World Series in 1931, when he stole five bases. I played against him in 1930 on the Pacific coast. When we played those fellows, they’d come and ask us how we did this or that, and I told Pepper how to get a lead off the pitcher. If you have a catcher with a great arm, you have to get a bigger lead. You can’t steal on the catcher much, it’s with the pitcher you’ve got to get the jump. A lot of people don’t know this—you can’t outrun that ball.
When you get a hit, some people are satisfied if they get a single. But if you run hard, just like you’re trying to beat out a bunt, and make your turn at first, if the outfielder has to go over to get the ball, you can go to second. That’s how you take your extra base, by hustling all the time. And if you’re stealing second, don’t be satisfied. Look up, the infielder might miss the ball and you can get up and go to third. A lot of players expect the coaches to tell them, but the coach can’t think as fast as the player can.
Well, after Martin had that good year in the Series the next year, he gave all the credit to me for stealing all those bases. They asked him if colored players could play in the majors, and he told them about playing against me and how I had helped him.
The best year I ever had on the bases was 1933. I stole one hundred and seventy-five in about one hundred and eighty to two hundred ball games, all of them against other Negro league teams.