Team with the fewest stolen bases in a season? The 1957 Senators

For a variety of reasons, stolen-base attempts ticked up in 2022 after several years of decline. Bigger bases and restrictions on the positioning of infielders take effect in 2023, with the intent of producing more base hits and probably increasing successful stolen-base attempts. So it’s not likely steals will ever again drop to the level seen in the 1950s. 

Since 1901, when the American League entered the scene to rival the National League, 12 teams have failed to steal even 20 bases in a season. The lowest total ever, including the 60-game 2020 season, was 13 by the 1957 Washington Senators.

In just 51 attempts all season, those Nats were thrown out 38 times trying to steal. Either the opposing catchers were especially good, or the Senators were lacking in speed and/or managerial daring. Given that Washington fired manager Chuck Dressen after a 5-16 start and eventually lost 99 games, you can safely draw your own conclusion.

This futility on the bases and last-place finish was quite a comedown from the franchise that at that point had achieved the second highest total ever in the A.L, set in the dead-ball era, with 287 steals in a single season, one fewer than New York’s record 288, set in 1910.

The 1950s were the nadir in the history of stolen bases in the major leagues. The percentage of steals per game has been less than 0.3 only six times since 1901, five of those between 1950 and 1956. The other time was 1949. A May 14, 2022, New York Times article contrasted those numbers with the 1987 average of 0.85 steals per game and the percentage of the last four seasons – just under 0.5 per game.

So it’s not at all surprising that 10 of the lowest 22 team totals come from the 1950s. Add 1949 and 1960, the total is 12 of 22. The 1958 Senators’ team stole just 22 bases — tied for the 16th lowest total. That team also finished last. So did the 1960 Kansas City Athletics, second with the fewest steals after the ’57 Nats with 16. Those A’s also set the record for fewest attempted steals: 28.

Yet a near-record low total did not automatically doom a team in the standings. Playing 156 games, the 1972 Tigers stole just 17 bases in 32 attempts, tied for the third worst all time, but still won the division title. (The season’s start was delayed by a labor dispute.) More recently, the 2016 Orioles stole 19 bases in 32 attempts and made the playoffs. The 1949 St. Louis Cardinals just missed the N.L. pennant, winning 96 times and finishing a game behind the Dodgers. Like the Tigers, those Cards stole 17 bases — in just 30 attempts. (The Dodgers, in contrast, led the league with 117 steals, 69 more than any other team.)

The 1953 Cardinals won 83 games and finished in third place. They made just 40 steal attempts, making it safely18 times, tied for sixth lowest. (The 1949 and the ’53 Cards had different managers.) The 1934 Yankees has just 19 stolen bases, but won 94 games, finishing second.

The ’53 Browns, in their final season, lost 100 and finished last. They also had just 17 steals. Between them, the two St. Louis teams stole 35 bases in 1953. No Lou Brock there.   

Winning teams and bad teams, like the mid- to late-’50s Nats, are equally represented among those that stole the fewest bases — all of them since 1931.

The number of stolen bases per season – and per team — ebbs and flows. A rule change in 1920 no longer awarded steals for what today is considered “defensive indifference,” so some stolen-base totals from the dead-ball era could be slightly inflated.

Before Babe Ruth, steals were a key part of scoring. Then slugging became the more common way to generate offense. Although annual totals fluctuated a bit, the trend was down through the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

 A paucity of hitting in the mid- and late 1960s could be a factor in the resurgence of stolen base totals then. Brock’s success and that of the Oakland A’s in general surely contributed to the 1970s’ upward trends that continued through the ’80s. See Henderson, Rickey and Coleman, Vince.

Ty Cobb’s 1915 dead-ball era record of 96 steals stood until 1962 when Maury Wills stole 104 bases for the Dodgers. Brock topped Wills with 118 in 1974. Henderson’s record of 130 in 1984 still stands. Cobb’s 1915 mark has been topped nine times now, but not since 1987.

Washington’s 287 steals in 1913 wasn’t surpassed for six decades. Led by Clyde Milan’s 75 and Danny Moeller’s 62, that team finished second with 90 wins. The 1976 Athletics stole a record 341, and finished second in the west with 87 wins. Bill North (75), Bert Campaneris (54), and slugger Don Baylor (52!), led the way. Soon after, Henderson arrived.

Eddie Yost: One for 11 in steal attempts in ’57 (from my 1953 “Nationals” — yes –yearbook)

The ’50s Senators never had a major stolen base threat, but they did have two players with the worse success rates among those with 10 or more attempts: Pete Runnels was 0 for 10 in 1952, and Eddie Yost was safe just once in 11 attempts in 1957. Determining the optimum time to attempt a steal, if at all, is far less random now than it was then.

Chuck Hinton of the expansion Senators could steal. He had 28 stolen bases in 1962, finishing second to the perennial leader from that era, Luis Aparicio, who had 31. Hinton had 22 steals as a rookie in 1961 and 25 more in 1963, again finishing second behind Aparicio’s 40.

Aparicio led the league in steals for nine consecutive seasons. The first three times were emblematic of the era: His totals were 21 in 1956, 28 in ’57 and 29 in ’58.

Yet the lowest total in each league for an individual leader in steals – 16 by Stan Hack in the N.L. in 1938 and 15 in the A.L. by Dom DiMaggio in 1950 – likely will be more than the 1957 Senators paltry team total for years to come.

A version of the this appeared in the June 11, 2022, edition of Here’s the Pitch, the daily online post of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. A similar version appeared in The Squibber, the quarterly online newsletter of of the Bob Davids chapter of SABR.

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