With the precision of an ace runner on the base paths, Society for America Baseball Research member Roy Kerr uncovers the life and times of a forgotten superstar through the exclusive use of primary resources in Sliding Billy Hamilton: The Life and Times of Baseball's First Great Leadoff Hitter. The recent publication is part of an ongoing series of dusting off the history of professional baseball by McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.
Credited with either 912 or 937 career stolen bases, Hamilton was essentially a footnote in baseball history prior to his 1961 posthumous induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. And even the date of his death in December 1940 at age 74 in Worcester, Mass., had been reported differently in media accounts, though it was on the 15th.
"I suggest that Hamilton's 'invisibility' in baseball lore stems not from any aspect of his playing record," writes Kerr. "Rather, it derives at least partially from the fact that the 'stories, anecdotes, and legends' that he did indeed leave behind simply would not have been considered newsworthy by most sportswriters of his era, who tended to focus more on the adventures of the game's showmen and scalawags in their columns.
"His aggressive, daring running and hitting style exhibited none of the 'hoodlum' tactics that tended to make headlines. Off the field, he was a religious family man who abstained from alcohol. Notoriously thrifty, he saved money and invested in real estate."
Born on Feb. 15, 1866, in Newark, N.J. -- which has been erroneously reported over the years as one day later -- the legend of Hamilton before turning pro with the Kansas City Cowboys of the American Association may not have been greater than his real life. He did not have time to be the incredible young athlete that was often chronicled by scribes.
"Somewhere along the winding corridors of baseball history, a legend developed that Billy Hamilton attended Newark High School, and while there, ran a 10-¾-second 100-yard dash," Kerr writes. "The 1880 U.S. census lists Hamilton, age 14, as a cotton mill worker in Clinton (Mass.).
"Sliding Billy's journey from the cotton mill to the Baseball Hall of Fame is one that few could imagine, and one that fewer could realize."
Although there are no records of his earliest teams, Kerr does examine comments made by Hamilton during and after his playing days -- along with the views of sportswriters and players -- on how he learned the game. From playing minor league ball for Waterbury in 1887 and Worcester in 1888 (61 games), to his 35 games with Kansas City to close out the 1888 season -- his contract was purchased by the Cowboys for $300 -- and 1889 season with the AA club, Hamilton saw first-hand how the dollars and cents drive the sports marketplace.
"In three years of professional baseball, Billy had seen the first two leagues he played in collapse and disappear, and the first major league team he played for resign from its league and disband," writes Kerr.
In December 1889, Hamilton's contract was purchased by the Philadelphia Phillies for $3,000. In a controversial deal in November 1895, Hamilton was traded to the Boston Beaneaters for third baseman Billy Nash. It is regarded as one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history, according to Kerr.
"Years later, in an unusual admission of 'trader's remorse,' Philadelphia co-owner Al Reach conceded that his team's decision to trade Sliding Billy had been a mistake," he writes. "'We should never have allowed him to go, had it not been for some bad advice that we got...we made a great mistake. Hamilton is without doubt one of the best players in the country.'"
Upon his retirement from the Beaneaters after the 1901 season, Hamilton stayed in the game as a minor league player-manager, bench-manager and team owner-manager. He also was hired for spring coaching stints at Dartmouth College, was a major league scout and -- from 1917 to 1935 -- held a variety of jobs with the Graton & Knight Company of Worcester.
"Could the life of a 'straight arrow' player, an abstemious family man, be of any interest to today's baseball fan? Perhaps so. Perhaps such a life, deemed 'old-fashioned' in Hamilton's day is it would be in ours, has acquired a certain resonance in the post-steroid era of the game, when fans, disheartened by deceit and scandal, may be looking for different heroes, different models of conduct," writes Kerr. "His critics accused him of being a 'record player,' more interested in his own statistics than his team's success. However, in most of his life choices, he opted for a road less-traveled -- a road, consequently, less noted by the press."
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