The art of stealing bases is a skill that’s synonymous with the Black Athlete. The Top 15 greatest bag swipers in MLB history (After Jackie Robinson integrated the game) are all African-American, with the exceptions of Cuban speedster Bert Campaneris and Brett Butler, who is an aberration — like the Larry Bird of base stealing.
Once they started letting brothers in the game, it became a skill that is dominated yearly by the African-American or Afro-Latino athlete. (There are six MLBbros in the Top 20 in stolen bases so far this season.)
The Best To Ever Do It
1. Rickey Henderson
Simply the greatest base-stealing technician that ever lived with 1,406 steals on his resume. Henderson is the only player to ever eclipse 1,000 swipes for a career. Marinate on that for a sec.
Pretty Rickey swiped 66 bases at the age of 40 and stole 31 at the age of 44, never deviating from his classic head-first slide.
He led the American League in stolen bases from 1980-1991. His combination of speed, power and bat savvy makes him hands down the greatest leadoff hitter to ever put on spikes, but also one of the deadliest multi-faceted weapons MLB has ever seen. A dynamic five-tool package with golden legs, unapologetic swag and soul.
2. Lou Brock
“Lightening” Lou Brock was the blueprint for the emergence of Rickey Henderson. In the ’60s and ’70s, the eight-time NL stolen base king played with the St. Louis Cardinals. With Brock on the move, pitchers saw nothing but streaks of red flying by them. He had 938 swipes in his career.
Brock was the standard-bearer for stolen base supremacy before Henderson obliterated his record, but due to the way the game has changed, Brock’s second-place position on the all-time list is pretty safe.
It takes a rare athlete, executing a combination of supreme athleticism and profound intellect to steal 50 bases for 12 straight seasons as Brock did from 1965-76. A Tribe Called Quest gives Brock a shout on their classic hip-hop joint Check the Rhyme.
3. Tim Raines
Nobody in the ’80s rocked a Jheri Curl better than Rock Raines, who also knew how to handle a bat as evidenced by his 2,605 hits and .294 career batting average.
As a leadoff missile, his stolen base prowess made him a lethal weapon. Raines swiped over 70 bases each season from 1981-86 and he led the NL in steals from 81-84, until Vince Coleman hit the scene.
ROCK RAINES WAS READY ALL THE TIME
Raines, a 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, was not only multi-faceted and down to pound the pavement for a bag, but he was the most precise base stealer among the sultans of swipe, finishing his big league career with the best-stolen base percentage (84.7) of any player with 400-plus steals.
4. Maury Wills
Wills is one of the most underrated players in history and egregiously still hasn’t been voted into the Hall of Fame. He won six consecutive National League stolen base crowns (1960-65). His 50 steals in 1960 marked the first time an NL player had eclipsed the half-century mark in swipes since Max Carey in 1923.
Wills is known as the principal offensive weapon of the Dodgers three championship squads between 1959 and 1965. Wills gained fame and respect as a stolen base king by swiping 104 bases in 1962, eclipsing a 47-year-old MLB record.
MAURY WILLS REFLECTS ON HOW THE SPIRIT OF JACKIE ROBINSON HELPED HIM ENDURE RACISM WHILE HE WAS A PLAYER
5. Vince Coleman
Coleman stormed the MLB scene winning NL Rookie of the Year in 1985, swiping 110 bases.
He swiped over 100 again for the next two seasons before tailing off with seasons of 81, 65 and 77 steals for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Coleman never stole more than 50 again after leaving St. Louis and he once said he didn’t know who Jackie Robinson was, but his bag-swiping omnipotence didn’t allow me to exclude him for his ignorance.
VINCE COLEMAN JOINS EXCLUSIVE 100-STEAL CLUB
Honorable Mention: Jackie Robinson (King of Stealing Home), Joe Morgan (HOF, 608 career steals), Luis Aparicio (HOF, nine-straight AL stolen base titles)
Mr. Cub is probably the greatest African-American shortstop to grace the MLB diamond. Banks not only set the standard for black shortstops, but he was the first true power-hitting shortstop in MLB. Banks was A-Rod before A-Rod, an icon who changed the game by providing uncanny power at a position previously reserved for slap hitters.
Banks played 19 years for a losing Cubs franchise and was Wrigley Field’s only bright spot for two decades as he clubbed 512 career homers. In his prime from 1957-1960, averaged a .293 batting average, 44 HR, 123 RBI and won back-to-back NL MVP awards in ’58 and ’59.
“El Capitan” is one of the greatest winners MLB has ever seen. He was the Captain and clutch catalyst for a Yankees Dynasty that won five World Series rings between 1996 and 2009 and lived in the postseason.
Jeter, a 14-time All-Star, is the Yankees all-time hits leader with a whopping 3,465. He has a .310 career batting average and has won five Gold Gloves. His stats are Hall of Fame worthy, but don’t begin to tell the story of his marketing and cultural impact as the flawless face of baseball for 20 years. He led the Yankees to the top of the sports landscape by performing at his best in the biggest moments. “Ice in the veins” should be Jeter’s middle name.
He is arguably the greatest postseason hitter of all time, with a career .308 BA, 20 HR, 61 RBI, 18 SB line in 158 postseason games, earning the name “Mr. November.”
3. Barry Larkin
He was a Black Knight in beast mode as the premier National League shortstop of the 1990s. Larkin was a consistent offensive boss and formidable glove for an inconsistent Cincinnati Reds lineup. He was elected to the All-Star team every year from 1988-2000, winning eight Silver Slugger awards during that span.
Larkin, who played every one of his 19 seasons with the Reds, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012, with a .295 career average, 2,340 hits, 1,329 runs scored and 379 stolen bases. Larkin scored at least 80 runs in a season seven times, hit 30-plus doubles in six seasons, and stole 30-or-more bases five times. He won his three Gold Glove awards at shortstop en route to a career fielding percentage of .975 and won nine Silver Slugger awards.
Larkin won a World Series in 1990 and then did something that Jeter couldn’t accomplish when he took home NL MVP honors in 1995.
The Wizard is simply the greatest defensive infielder in MLB history and his 43.4 career defensive WAR is the best by any player at the position. Even with the defensive metrics on smash, his .978 fielding percentage and 13 Gold Gloves support his claim to the title of glove king.
Smith is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime talent that you would never understand based on numbers. He was truly a magician with the glove. He was also a huge personality in the game and understood the essence of entertainment as he began each game with his patented backflip.
Smith had artistry, flair, and athletic superiority that put him in another stratosphere. His fielding was so good that people often dogged him for his hitting, which is not shabby at all. Smith had a .262 career average and 2,460 hits. He’s also among the greatest base stealers of all-time with 580 career swipes.
“J-Roll” is one of the most offensively prolific shortstops the game has ever seen. He has 2,455 hits, which includes 511 doubles (53rd all-time), 115 triples, and 231 home runs. He ranks 103rd in career total bases and 83rd in extra-base hits. He’s also stolen 470 bases, good for 46th in MLB history. His 1,421 runs are good for 86th and 936 RBI from pretty much always being in a table-setting position is pretty solid as well.
He makes the all-time Top 20 in almost every offensive statistic for a shortstop and was the centerpiece of a Phillies team that won two NL pennants and a World Series in 2008. He has four Gold Gloves and four seasons of at least 10 Defensive Runs Saved.
J-Roll was a true soul patroller. His 2007 NL MVP award was the stamp that at some point he was the best at his position. Standing a diminutive 5-foot-7, 175-pounds, Rollins defied the odds and continues to be a living example of skills over scales when it comes to the sport of baseball.
Honorable Mention: Maury Wills
Wills didn’t get his Hall of Fame props from the writers, but he was an MLB pioneer and one of the fastest players in history.
Wills was finally nominated by the Golden Era committee in 2014, which could induct managers, umpires, executives and long-retired players for possible election in 2015, but he fell three votes short.
The barn-burner made a living off of his superior wheels as he stole 586 bases in his career, good for 20th all time.
The lack of respect for his career is indicative of the lost appreciation in the modern game for the stolen base, which was a staple of black excellence in baseball ever since No. 42 broke the color barrier in ’47. In 1960, Wills won the first of six straight National League stolen base crowns.