One of the most interesting players of the 1970s never batted, fielded, or threw a pitch. Yet he appeared in 105 games and scored 33 runs during a brief 2 year ‘career’.
Herb Washington was a 4 time All-American sprinter at Michigan State University who had broken world records in the 50 and 60 yard dash. In mid-spring training 1974, owner Charlie Finley signed Washington on to his defending two-time champion Oakland A’s despite Herb not having played baseball since his high school junior year. The A’s sent out a press release that “Finley and (manager) Alvin Dark feel that Washington will be directly responsible for winning 10 games this year”.
The move infuriated the rebellious A’s players, and this would be far from the last time Finley and his players would clash. Veterans Gene Tenace, Joe Rudi and Sal Bando were among the more outspoken A’s who felt the move would be taking a roster spot away from a ‘real’ player, and resented being pinch run for by a man clearly lacking in baseball experience and instincts. As the season moved on, it felt as if the indulgent new manager Dark went to great lengths to utilize Finley’s new toy as often as possible. Washington did steal 29 bases in 45 attempts and scored 29 runs during the 1974 regular season as the A’s rolled to a 4th consecutive AL West title.
But Mr. October he was not – Washington appeared in two AL Playoff games against Baltimore and was thrown out stealing in both games. Oakland moved on to the World Series vs the Los Angeles Dodgers nonetheless, and Herb made his World Series debut in the 9th inning of Game 2. Oakland had trailed 3-0 before Joe Rudi’s 2 run single just made it a one-run game. With one out, the slow footed Rudi was replaced by Washington. Fellow MSU alumnus Steve Garvey held Washington on at first, while another former MSU student and professor, pitcher Mike Marshall, stepped off the rubber twice as Washington scrambled back each time. Then he stepped off a third time and Washington walked back and then took a lead again. Marshall whirled and sidearmed a throw to first before Washington had set himself, and Garvey, partially blocking off the base with his foot and knee, slapped down a hard tag well ahead of Washington’s desperate dive back, his arm aiming for the middle of the bag rather than the outside edge as base runners are taught to do. The Dodger Stadium crowd erupted while Garvey began whipping the ball around the infield as Washington punched at the dirt in disgust. Marshall finally turned his attention to pinch hitter Angel Mangual, and struck him out to end the game.
Washington did have two additional and uneventful pinch running appearances during the series, and the A’s went on to win the Series for their third straight title despite the Game 2 blunder.
Washington returned to the team in 1975, and stole 2 bases and scored 4 runs before being released a month into the season. The ‘Designated Runner’ experiment was over.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: