San Francisco Chronicle

How a sprinter filled Finley’s need for speed


Baseball’s new rules give an added edge to the baserunner, so this season, could we see a new version of what some might remember from the ’70s: Finley’s Folly, the designated runner?

Maybe more than one team will keep a player on the roster just for his legs.

If so, whenever a rabbit is sent into the game to steal a base, old-timers are sure to bring up the name of Herb Washington.

To get a jump on the rest of the field, I went searching for Washington, a name from baseball’s past whose strange legacy in the game is suddenly relevant.

Firing up the flashbacks, in 1967, when the A’s were still in Kansas City, owner Charlie Finley decided that his team needed a designated runner. He tabbed a minor leaguer, Allan Lewis, the Panamanian Express.

Lewis got into 156 games, getting to the plate just 31 times, but stealing 44 bases and scoring 47 runs. After the ’73 season, the Oakland A’s finally cut Lewis and went looking for another speedster.

New manager Alvin Dark suggested Washington, a noted sprinter who had graduated from Michigan State and was about to try his hand at pro track and pro football.

Washington owned or shared world records at 50 and 60 meters, so though he might not have been the World’s Fastest Human, he might have been the fastest in baseball at 27.4 meters, the distance between bases.

I reached Washington in Ohio, where he heads up Leaf Relief, a cannabis company that also operates in New Jersey and California (California City, in Antelope Valley). Washington recounted how Finley phoned him in March 1974 to invite him to Chicago. Washington had barely dabbled in baseball in high school, but Finley told him, “I want to

talk to you about speed.”

Finley laid out his plan to make Washington the A’s second designated runner. They struck a deal — $40,000 for the season and a $20,000 bonus, plus a car allowance. But when Washington demanded that the contract be guaranteed, Finley countered that the only A’s with no-cut contracts were Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter. Did Washington think he was as good as those three?

“No,” Washington cooly countered, “but you picked me for my speed, not to pitch or hit homers.”

No deal, said Finley, and the two parted cordially. As Washington waited in Finley’s outer office for a ride to the airport, Finley buzzed his secretary, telling her to send Washington back in.

“So I walk back in and he’s still looking out his window, right?” recalled Washington, who added that Finley said, “‘Do you play poker?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’ve played a hand or two.’ He says, ‘I just folded.’ ”

Finley threw in a “but.” Washington must grow a mustache by opening day. Team mustaches were Finley’s gimmick at that time. For growing a mustache, Washington would receive an additional $2,500.

That was a problem. Washington didn’t shave. On opening day, Finley sent the team equipment manager around the clubhouse to verify each player’s mustache, and all he could find on Washington’s upper lip was some mascara scribbling. Washington described the scene:

Equipment manager: “What the hell’s that on your lip? That’s not a mustache.”

Washington: “It’s not? It looks like $500 to me. What does it look like to you?”

Equipment manager: “That’s a hell of a mustache. That’s a great one.”

“I got my $2,500, I paid the equipment manager, and we all lived happily ever after,” Washington said with a laugh. “You had to have a sense of humor back then, especially with the A’s.”

Indeed. The A’s were coming off back-to-back World Series wins, and they considered themselves the swaggering badasses of baseball. They weren’t going to let some twinkle toes rookie baseball dilettante waltz into their clubhouse and make himself at home.

Catcher Gene Tenace was among the A’s who regularly reminded Washington why one media skeptic had nicknamed him “Finley’s Folly.”

It served Washington well that he didn’t lack confidence. Remember, sprinting is a trash-talker’s event. After Yankees catcher Thurman Munson sneered at Washington before a game, “My grandmothe­r could throw you out,” Washington went out and stole a bag.

The next day at batting practice, Washington yelled across the field, “Hey, Thurman, there’s a call for you in the clubhouse. It’s your grandmothe­r. They’re bringing her up.”

It also helped that Washington was keenly intelligen­t. Example: Once the A’s clinched their division, Dark asked Washington if he wanted to start a game, get himself a couple of big-league at-bats. Washington declined.

“It was against Nolan Ryan!” Washington said. Ryan was known to drill batters for any perceived disrespect. “Hell yes, Ryan woulda thrown at me,” Washington said. “I woulda thrown at me. And you know what, if he drilled me, our bench probably wouldn’t have rushed out there.”

How well Washington did his job is open to debate. After the season, Dark said he counted nine games that Washington won with his legs, and the A’s won the AL West by five games. But as third baseman Sal Bando retorted, “Yeah, but how many games did he lose?”

Washington was sent in to run in 92 games that season. He scored 29 runs and stole 29 bases in 45 attempts. In the ALCS against Baltimore, Washington was thrown out on both of his stolenbase attempts, and in Game 2 of the World Series, he was picked off first by the Dodgers’ Mike Marshall, but the A’s won the Series 4-1.

The A’s cut Washington early in ’75 after he stole two bases in three attempts. Tenace delivered Washington’s baseball eulogy, telling an interviewe­r, “He’s a tremendous person and he has done a tremendous job for us … I really like the guy. He made up his mind it didn’t matter to him what people thought, he was going to do his job, and he did.”

Finley hadn’t given up his obsession with speed, though. He simply churned through a succession of other “designated runners” — Matt Alexander being the most successful, pinch running 271 times, stealing 91 bases and scoring 89 runs in his career (all MLB records for a pinch runner, according to the Society for American Baseball Research) — before he finally sold the team.

Washington soon entered the business world, eventually owning a string of McDonald’s franchises, 27 of them at one time. He cashed out of the burger biz last year and went to pot.

Washington is by no means defensive about his brief baseball career, but he does say, “When I look back on the ’74 season and people question what I brought to the team, there were 10 games where I scored the tying or winning run. So making the assumption that I’m the 25th man, I doubt seriously that any other team had a 25th man who played in 90 (actually 92) games and scored 33 (actually 29) runs.”

At 71, Washington no longer sprints, but does work out regularly on a treadmill and is close to his old playing weight of 170 pounds. He says he’ll be able to wear his old No. 3 jersey at next year’s 50th reunion of the ’74 club. But he still can’t grow a decent mustache.

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 ?? Associated Press file photo ?? Sprinter Herb Washington stole 29 bases and scored 29 runs in 1974 as the designated runner for the A’s.
Associated Press file photo Sprinter Herb Washington stole 29 bases and scored 29 runs in 1974 as the designated runner for the A’s.

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