One of baseball’s features has enabled it to withstand the test of time. Statistics have been collected from baseball games almost as soon as teams began keeping score. This allows baseball fans from different generations to compare great players from their times. One baseball statistic that has been tracked since the beginning is stolen bases. Speed on the base paths has long been a valuable asset for baseball players. The greatest base runners of all time come from dramatically different eras, but are united by common traits, their speed and cunning while running the bases.
Speed is an important element in the composition of a successful baseball team, but has at times been undervalued in baseball’s history. Rickie Henderson’s 1982 season is regarded as one of the greatest in baseball history. In baseball’s entire history, a player has only stolen 100 or more bases in a season 21 times. It is a feat that has not been accomplished since Vince Coleman stole 109 bases during the 1987 season. Stolen base totals have dwindled in recent years, with only Jose Reyes’ 78 stolen bases in 2007 even approaching the century mark.
Stealing a base requires a base runner to precisely time when a pitcher begins his move to home. Following that moment, the base runner must advance 90 feet as fast as he can, beat the catcher’s throw, and avoid the tag. The very best in the game’s history can do this in under three seconds. Moving forward 90 feet can be the difference between scoring a run on a single and being stranded at third base. Smart base running can win baseball games. For some of the players on this list, it was a skill that earned their place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
20 Ichiro Suzuki – OF
At the age of 40, Ichiro Suzuki is approaching the end of an incredible baseball career. He is the active career stolen bases leader with 483 for his career. When Ichiro arrived with the Seattle Mariners in 2001, he took the league by storm and won awards for both Rookie of the Year and American League MVP. Suzuki had a career high 56 stolen bases that season, the most of any player in the major leagues. He went on to have five 40 steal seasons and in 2006 he had the best caught-stealing percentage in the American League.
19 Barry Bonds – OF
Barry Bonds will always be known for his home run records, but he also enjoys an exclusive membership in the 40-40 club. Bonds is one of only four players in MLB history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season. Although his stolen base number dwindled as his home run totals skyrocketed, Bonds finished his career with 514 stolen bases. The seven-time MVP winner led the league in runs created nine times and is the all-time leader in runs created and power-speed.
18 Jose Reyes – SS
With 448 career stolen bases, Jose Reyes has the fourth highest total of all MLB players. At only 31 years of age, Reyes still has several years of production ahead of him, which should allow him to climb higher on the career list. He led the majors in stolen bases for three consecutive seasons, putting up totals of 60, 64, and 78. Reyes scored over 100 runs in four seasons and was selected to four All-Star Teams. Reyes has battled injuries over the last two seasons, but with 23 stolen bases so far in 2014, he looks to be getting back on track.
17 Carl Crawford – OF
Carl Crawford has stolen more than 50 bases in five seasons of his career. He led the American League in steals four times before struggling with injuries during his time with Boston and Los Angeles. With 466 career steals, he has the second most among active MLB players. Crawford has 19 steals so far this season and looks to be returning to form. If he continues on this pace, he could break the 500 stolen base milestone as soon as next season.
16 Ozzie Smith – SS
The Wizard of Oz was best known for his skills at the shortstop position. However, Ozzie Smith was an opponent to be feared on the base paths as well. Smith stole 40 or more bases during five seasons of his Hall of Fame career. He did not steal fewer than 20 stolen bases in a season until he was 39 years old. His consistency served him well, and Smith finished his career with 580 stolen bases, the 22nd most of any player in MLB history. Smith’s trademark speed helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series in 1982.
15 Maury Wills – SS
During the 1962 season, Maury Wills stole an incredible 104 bases. The feat earned him a National League MVP award, despite Commissioner Ford Frick putting an asterisk next to the record total. Three seasons later, Wills stole 94 bases in a single season. The five-time All-Star led the league in steals for six consecutive seasons from 1960 to 1965. He retired with 586 career stolen bases and ranks 20th all-time on the list. Wills went on to manage the Seattle Mariners during a notably unsuccessful period in the club’s history.
14 Juan Pierre – OF
Juan Pierre is the only player on this list to have had his name immortalized in a Jay-Z verse. Pierre’s greatest baseball trait was his blazing speed, which he used to forge a 14-year major league career. During that career, he led the league in stolen bases three times. Pierre also accomplished the feat of playing in every single game for five MLB seasons from 2003 to 2007. He stole over 40 bases in nine of his 14 seasons in the MLB. Pierre is currently 18th all-time in career stolen bases with 614.
13 Otis Nixon – OF
On June 16th, 1991, Otis Nixon made baseball history when he stole six bases in a single game against the Montreal Expos. Nixon stole more than 40 bases in nine seasons of his 17-year MLB career. Despite putting up consistent stolen base numbers, Nixon never led the league in stolen bases because of competition like Rickie Henderson and Vince Coleman. Nixon also holds the distinction of being the only player to ever make the final out of the World Series on a bunt.
12 Kenny Lofton – OF
Kenny Lofton earned only 18 votes in voting for the 2013 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is a shame that the six-time All-Star that led the American League in stolen bases five times has fallen off the ballot. Lofton currently ranks 15th among career stolen base leaders with 622. Lofton was a fixture on playoff teams throughout his career and is the record holder for stolen bases in the playoffs with 34. Thanks to his three stints with the Cleveland Indians, Kenny Lofton was inducted as a member of the Indians Hall of Fame in 2010.
11 Willie Wilson – OF
Willie Wilson’s 19-year MLB career was a roller coaster which included a World Series loss, a drug scandal, and redemption with a World Series victory. Wilson led the league in stolen bases in 1979 and would go on to lead the league in triples five times. He holds the record for inside the park home runs since 1950 with 13. Wilson stole 668 bases during his career, the 12th most of any player in MLB history. He finished his career with over 2,000 hits, 1000 runs, and 100 triples.
10 Joe Morgan – 2B
Joe Morgan is one of the greatest second basemen of all time. His speed allowed him to excel defensively as well as on the base paths. Morgan stole at least 40 bases in nine consecutive seasons from 1969 to 1977. He racked up two World Series titles, ten All-Star game appearances, and a total of 689 stolen bases during his career. He retired with the 11th most stolen bases of any player and took up a career in broadcasting. Morgan was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990.
9 Honus Wagner – SS
Honus Wagner is considered to be among the greatest players of any era. The Flying Dutchman earned his nickname because of his prowess on the base paths, where he led the league in stolen bases five times. Wagner stole over 40 bases in eight consecutive seasons and was the eight time National League batting champion. Wagner scored over 1,700 runs in his prolific career and won a World Series in 1909 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. A statue of Wagner stands outside PNC Park where the Pittsburgh Pirates currently play.
8 Max Carey – OF
Max Carey had an impressive 20-year career in the major leagues. During 10 of his seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he led the National League in stolen bases. He also stole more than 40 bases ten times in his career. Carey managed five seasons in which he scored over 100 runs and had a batting average over .300 six times. Carey stole home 33 times, more than any other player with the exception of Ty Cobb. He finished with 738 career steals, 9th most of all time.
7 Eddie Collins – 2B
Eddie Collins holds the distinction of being one of the few players to have stolen six bases in a single game. Collins completed the feat in 1912. Eleven days later, he stole second, third, and home in the same inning. Eddie Collins was part of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal in which eight players fixed the World Series. Collins was not one of the players accused of intentionally playing poorly and avoided punishment. He won four World Series titles and still holds the record for stolen bases in the World Series with 14. Collins had a total of 741 stolen bases, which was good enough for eighth all-time.
6 Vince Coleman – OF
Vince Coleman is the last player to have stolen over 100 bases in a single season. He burst onto the scene as a rookie in 1985 with 110 steals and helped the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series appearance in his 3rd year. Coleman managed to steal 100 bases in the next two seasons and led the National League in steals from 1985 to 1990. During his 13-year career, he stole 752 bases, the sixth most of any player in baseball history. Coleman earned two All-Star game appearances and won the Rookie of the Year award.
5 Tim Raines – OF
Tim Raines’ 23 year MLB career features eleven seasons in which he stole more than 40 bases. He led the National League in stolen bases during four consecutive seasons from 1981 to 1984. Raines was the National League Batting Champion in 1986. He was a part of the New York Yankees teams that won the World Series in 1996 and 1998. Raines’ longevity allowed him to steal a total of 808 stolen bases, which puts Raines fifth all-time. His #30 has been retired by the Montreal Expos.
4 Ty Cobb – OF
Ty Cobb played the game with a ferocity that would be unacceptable in our present culture. He developed a reputation for spiking opposing players when he would slide into a base. In the 1909 World Series, he attempted to steal second base when he received a tag hard in the face by Honus Wagner that split Cobb’s lip. Cobb led the American League in stolen bases six times during his career and once stole 96 bases in a single season. He was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame as a member of its first class in 1936.
3 Billy Hamilton – OF
Billy Hamilton earned the nickname “Sliding Billy” before the turn of the 20th century. He is the only player to have stolen over 100 bases in a season four times in his career. He was a two time National League batting champion, four time leader in runs scored, and led the league in stolen bases five times. In ten of his fourteen seasons in the major leagues, he stole more than 40 bases in a season. Although he never won a World Series, Hamilton was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1961. His 914 career stolen bases are the third most of all-time
2 Lou Brock – OF
Lou Brock retired as the all-time leader in career stolen bases with 938. He has since been surpassed, but during his time, Brock was the greatest base runner in baseball. At the age of 35, Brock stole 118 bases during the 1974 season, more than any other player during the modern era up until that point. Brock led the National League in stolen bases eight times and had thirteen seasons in which he stole over 40 bases. Brock has had his #20 retired by the St. Louis Cardinals and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.
1 Rickey Henderson – OF
Rickey Henderson’s incredible speed enabled him to have a 25-year career in Major League Baseball. During that time, Henderson amassed and incredible 1,406 stolen bases, almost 500 more than any other player in baseball history. He holds the modern record for most stolen bases in a season at 130. Henderson was the twelve-time American League stolen bases leader and was named the AL MVP in 1990. Henderson won two World Series titles; in 1989 with the Oakland Athletics and in 1993 with the Toronto Blue Jays. Henderson has had his #24 retired by the Oakland Athletics and was inducted into Cooperstown in 2009.
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