- Sliding Billy
- March 16, 1866
- 5' 6"
- 165 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 7-31-1888 with KC2
- Hall of Fame:
"Burkett was one of the greatest hitters I've ever seen. But Hamilton was one of the very best ball players." - Hugh Duffy
"I never saw a runner get a lead off first base like Billy." — Handsome Jack Carney
One of the greatest leadoff hitters in baseball history, Billy Hamilton was the premier base-stealer and run-scorer of the 19th century. Hamilton's mark of 914 career stolen bases stood as the major league record for another three-quarters of a century after he retired from the game in 1901, and his ratio of runs scored to games played remains the highest in baseball history. With 1,697 runs scored in only 1,594 games, Hamilton crossed the plate an average of 1.06 times per-game over the course of his career, making him one of only two players in baseball history to average more than a run per-game (Harry Stovey, the old American Association slugging and base-stealing star, is the other). Hamilton also holds the all-time single-season record for runs scored, with an astonishing total of 192 in 1894. He accomplished all this despite standing only 5'6" tall, weighing 165 pounds, and being supported by heavy legs that very much resembled tree stumps.
Born in Newark, New Jersey on February 15, 1866, William Robert Hamilton seemed to have little future in baseball during his formative years. Inordinately small, chunky, and equipped with heavy legs, it appeared that any hope he might have had of eventually playing in the major leagues would have been as a catcher. Nevertheless, Hamilton broke into baseball as an outfielder with Worchester in the New England League in 1888. He signed with Kansas City of the American Association a few months into the season, making his major league debut with the team on July 31, 1888. The diminutive Hamilton took over as Kansas City's starting centerfielder the following year, batting .301, scoring 144 runs, and leading the league with 111 stolen bases. When Kansas City folded at the end of the year, Hamilton was sold to the National League's Philadelphia Phillies.
Hamilton brought his aggressive style of play with him to the National League when he joined the Phillies in 1890. The speedy centerfielder quickly became known for his daring baserunning and head-first slides, which eventually earned him the nickname Sliding Billy. The lefthanded hitting Hamilton also perfected the art of the drag-bunt, and he knew how to use his size, or lack thereof, to his advantage, frequently reaching base via the base on balls. Hamilton's combination of speed, baserunning skills, exceptional hitting ability, and knack for reaching base by whatever means necessary made him the league's top leadoff hitter and foremost scorer of runs.
Hamilton teamed up with fellow outfielder Sam Thompson in Philadelphia to give the Phillies baseball's most dynamic one-two punch. While Thompson typically finished among the National League leaders in home runs and runs batted in, Hamilton annually placed near the top of the league rankings in batting average, runs scored, and stolen bases. The centerfielder batted well over .300 in each of the next six seasons, while averaging 146 runs scored and 92 stolen bases per-year. After batting .325, scoring 133 runs, and leading the league with 102 stolen bases in 1890, Hamilton topped the circuit with a .340 batting average, 141 runs scored, 111 stolen bases, 179 hits, 102 walks, and a .453 on-base percentage the following season. He had another solid year in 1892, placing among the league leaders with a .330 batting average, 132 runs scored, 183 hits, and 57 stolen bases.
Like those of just about every other player in baseball, Hamilton's numbers jumped dramatically after the pitcher's mound was moved back to 60-feet, 6 inches at the end of the 1892 season. He led the National League with a .380 batting average and a .490 on-base percentage in 1893, while also scoring 110 runs and stealing 43 bases. The centerfielder had the greatest season of his career the following year, joining rightfielder Thompson and leftfielder Ed Delahanty to form the only all-.400 hitting outfield in baseball history. In addition to placing among the league leaders with a .404 batting average and 220 hits, Hamilton topped the circuit with 126 walks, 98 stolen bases, a .523 on-base percentage, and an all-time single-season record 192 runs scored. He followed that up in 1895 by batting .389, accumulating 201 hits, and leading the league with 96 walks, 97 steals, and 166 runs scored.
More than just a tremendous offensive player, Hamilton was also an outstanding outfielder who used his exceptional running speed to track down fly balls and cut off base hits in the gaps.
Hamilton took his unique skill-set with him to Boston when the Phillies quizzically traded him to the Beaneaters at the conclusion of the 1895 campaign. He continued to perform exceptionally well in each of the next three seasons, compiling batting averages of .366, .343, and .369, stealing a combined 203 bases, leading the league in runs scored once, topping the circuit in walks and on-base percentage twice each, and helping Boston capture the National League pennant in both 1897 and 1898. However, it was during the 1898 campaign that the 32-year-old Hamilton's career began to take a downturn. A knee injury limited him to just 110 games that year, and he missed almost half of the following season as well with another leg injury. Hamilton bounced back in 1900 to bat .333 and score 103 runs as Boston's regular centerfielder once more. But the leg injuries had taken their toll on Hamilton, and he no longer possessed either the great running speed on the basepaths or the outstanding range in the outfield he had earlier in his career. He played one more year in Boston, ending his major league career at the conclusion of the 1901 campaign with a .344 batting average, a .455 on-base percentage, 914 stolen bases, 2,158 hits, and 1,697 runs scored in only 1,594 games. Hamilton's career .455 on-base percentage places him fourth on the all-time list, behind only Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and John McGraw. Meanwhile, Sliding Billy's mark of 914 stolen bases stood as the major league record until Lou Brock eventually surpassed that figure in 1978. However, it should be noted that a player was credited with a stolen base prior to 1892 if he tagged up on a fly ball, advanced from first to third on a single, or moved up on a ground ball to the right side.
Over the course of his career, Hamilton led his league in batting average twice, stolen bases, walks, and on-base percentage five times each, runs scored four times, and hits once. He surpassed 200 hits twice, batted over. 350 on five separate occasions, and scored more than 100 runs in 11 of his 14 big-league seasons, tallying as many as 130 runs eight different times.
After retiring from the major leagues in 1901, Hamilton began a long career as a player-manager in the New England and Tri-State Leagues, leading the former circuit in batting three times, the last in 1909 at age 43. Wise investments enabled Hamilton to live comfortably until he passed away at his home in Worcester, Massachusetts on December 15, 1940 at the age of 74. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1961.
Despite the disparity in the methodology used to credit stolen bases during the early stages of Hamilton's career, he remained quite proud of his stolen base marks. The former centerfielder lambasted The Sporting News in a letter he wrote to them in 1937 stating, "I was and will be the greatest base stealer of all time. I stole over 100 bases on many years, and if they ever re-count the record I will get my just reward."