A reader recently asked me who I thought was the best leadoff hitter in the decade. He suggested Rod Carew, a good choice given Carew’s raw hitting ability (’70s best .343), on-base percentage (’70s best .408) , and speed (253 steals), if you were in fact filling out a lineup card from scratch. But in reality Carew was primarily used as a 2nd place hitter. During the 70s Carew hit leadoff in 24 games both in 1973 and 1974, his most times in a season all decade. Cesar Tovar handled leadoff duties in Minnesota during the early part of the decade, and later Steve Brye, Larry Hisle, Lymon Bostock, and even ‘Disco’ Dan Ford batted leadoff more frequently than the decade’s batting champ. In 1979, when Carew played for the Angels, he hit leadoff 39 times, the most in his career but still far less than center fielder Rick Miller (72).
We associate the leadoff position with speed, but the man who hit leadoff the most during the 1970s was not known for his speed, though he certainly was a good base runner. Big Red Machine manager Sparky Anderson liked the aggressive Pete Rose’s ability to set the tone, put the ball in play, and get on base. During the 1970s Rose batted first in 1,408 games, and led all decade leadoff men in most categories: 6575 plate appearances, 5806 at-bats, 1823 hits, 953 runs, 344 doubles, 58 triples, 511 RBI, and a .314 batting average. Rose was Cincinnati’s primary leadoff hitter ever year from 1970-78, and in that 9 year stretch the Reds won 6 division titles, 4 pennants, and 2 World Series. After moving to the Phillies in 1979, Rose hit leadoff that season only 45 times, but flourished in the spot, hitting .346 (62-179). Speedster Bake McBride led off 109 times despite hitting only .269 with a .321 on-base %. Rose’s OBP that year as a leadoff man? .443. In 1980 Rose led off 91 times, most on the club, McBride only once. But by season’s end, Lonnie Smith, a rookie speedster who hit .339 overall, took over the leadoff spot and hit .344 there with a .398 OBP. Rose settled into the 2 slot, and McBride hit cleanup, behind #3 man Mike Schmidt. The Phillies won the World Series.
So what categories did Rose NOT pace all 1970s leadoff men? In on-base percentage, likely the most important measure for the spot, Rose ranked 2nd with a .388 mark. Considering players with 1500 or more plate appearances as a leadoff hitter, only 29 qualified, and Ron Hunt ranked first with a .398 OBP. Hunt, who hit leadoff in 433 games for the Giants and Expos, batted .286 from that spot with 194 walks and 105 HBP. Hunt made getting hit with the pitch an art form, and the 105 he enjoyed(?) from the leadoff position, and 142 overall were both the most for any player in the decade by a wide margin. But Hunt was not much of a base stealer, swiping only 24 bases on 44 attempts as a leadoff hitter, and overall averaged just .577 runs per game from the spot.
When it came to foot speed and base stealing in the 1970s, no one was better than the Cardinals’ Lou Brock, the decade’s stolen base champ. Brock was the Cardinals’ primary leadoff man in 7 of 10 seasons, eventually making way for youngster Gary Templeton in 1978-79. Brock was the only other player to register more than 1000 games during the 70s as a leadoff hitter, and ranked second to Rose with 701 runs, 1309 hits, 200 doubles, and 45 triples. He hit .295 from the spot with a .353 OBP and 473 stolen bases, while averaging .656 runs per game.
Other obvious leadoff standouts include the Dodgers’ Davey Lopes, who ranked 2nd with 368 steals and 634 runs scored, and added a .356 OBP and .659 runs per game; Pirate/Phillie/Expo Dave Cash, an excellent contact hitter who hit .288 and ranked 3rd with 1163 hits and 180 doubles; Ron LeFlore, the Detroit speedster who hit .300 with 287 steals, a .351 OBP and .688 runs/game, and the Braves and White Sox’ Ralph Garr, who ranked 3rd with a .302 average, tied for 2nd with 45 triples, and ranked 2nd only to Rose with an average of 1.281 hits/game (Rose had 1.295). Oakland’s shortstop Bert Campaneris, who did not have the numbers of the others mentioned, hitting .260 with a .311 OBP, did steal 182 bases with .602 runs/game, was an excellent post-season hitter, and played a valuable role during the A’s championship seasons, wreaking havoc and making things happen in front of the fearsome Joe Rudi, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, and Gene Tenace.
The non-prototype of this group was a man so talented as both a speedster and a power threat that his managers were never quite sure how to best utilize him. Bobby Bonds came to bat 3000 times over 735 games as a leadoff hitter, mostly early in the decade as a San Francisco Giant, 7th most in the 1970s and more than half his at-bats during the decade. He swiped 207 bases, hit .282 with a fine .367 OBP, and easily led all leadoff hitters with 146 home runs and a whopping .799 runs scored/game. Baltimore’s Don Buford was 2nd with .693 runs/game, but had only 1312 at bats in the top spot. LeFlore’s .688 was next, with Rose’s .677 fourth.
In a decade that defied convention in so many ways, the game’s most productive leadoff man, by at least one critical measure, also managed to hit 3rd 449 times, and cleanup 110 times.
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: