Born to run: Sandy Piez, baseball’s first pinch runner.

Sandy Piez. (Wikipedia).

Sandy Piez did not have a long professional career, or a long stay in the major leagues, or a long life.

But for one year, he set about establishing a role in baseball that became the calling card of men like Terrance Gore, Matt Alexander and, most famously, Herb Washington. In 1914, he became major league baseball’s first full-time pinch runner.

Suiting up for the New York Giants that year, Piez appeared in 37 games, debuting on April 14 as a pinch runner for slow-footed catcher Chief Meyers.

And it was because of the likes of Meyers that Piez stuck with the team. Manager John McGraw determined he needed someone who could run for the club’s slow-as-snails backstops (they used four) and Piez was chosen for the job. He had swiped 73 bags in the Virginia League in 1913, so it seemed like a perfect fit.

And, for all intents and purposes, it was.

He appeared in 31 games, scored 8 runs and stole 4 bases before having his first official at-bat. That came on September 16, when he was a defensive replacement for outfielder George Burns.

Earning his first and only starting opportunities in a doubleheader on the last day of the year, October 6, Piez impressed by going 2-for-4 with a triple and 3 RBI his first game and 1-for-3—as the leadoff hitter, no less!—in the latter match. Both were losing efforts against Philadelphia.

Piez’s final career line: 37 games, 8 at-bats, 9 runs, 3 hits, 4 stolen bases, .375 batting average.

How quirky.

Of course, pinch running was not invented by Piez. But he was the first to do it almost exclusively and regularly and while few players to this day have held the positional title of pinch runner (most still have a job on the diamond), many have made pinch running into an artform.

Terrance Gore, for example, spent 102 games in the major leagues from 2014 to 2020, but had just 67 at-bats. Often, he was used as a defensive replacement; and frequently, he was called on to run.

And boy could he. He stole 40 bases in his brief career and was so adept at it, the Royals, for whom he played, kept him on their postseason roster and used him exclusively in that role in the 2014 and 2015 playoffs.

If any four players could be described as consummate pinch runners, they would be Herb Washington, Matt Alexander, Don Hopkins and Allan Lewis. They were all Athletics experiments.

Washington was a world class sprinter signed by A’s owner Charlie Finley specifically to steal bases in the mid-70s. With Oakland in 1974, he appeared in 92 games, stole 29 bags (and was caught 16 times) and scored 29 runs. At-bats: Zero.

Though largely a non-factor in that year’s postseason, he did appear in a few games and took home a World Series ring. The A’s brought him back for 1975, but “Hurricane Herb” stuck around for only 13 more games.

Alexander forged a nine-year career in the 1970s and early ‘80s. With the Athletics in 1975, he became one of two “designated runners” once Washington left, appearing in 63 games, stealing 17 bags and scoring 16 runs … while managing just 11 plate appearances.

It was a role he fulfilled skillfully throughout his whole career—in 374 games, he stole 103 bases and scored 111 runs; at the dish, he had 36 hits in 168 at-bats for a .214 mark. After leaving the majors, he played in Mexico for a few years. At 36 years old in 1983, he stole 73 bases.

Hopkins spent two years in the big leagues, 1975 and 1976, and both were with Oakland. In ’75, he appeared in 82 games, had 21 stolen bases and scored 25 runs; he had only 1 hit in 6 at-bats. He played briefly the next year and that was it.

Before those three, however, there was Allan Lewis. Playing for the Athletics from 1967 to 1970 and from 1972 to 1973, Lewis appeared in 156 games, had 44 stolen bases, 47 runs scored … and just 6 hits in 29 at-bats. And he wasn’t just a novelty—his services helped the Athletics to two World Series rings.

What’s more, Lewis was the only one of the four to clobber a home run … and it wasn’t inside the park. It was a solo shot off Angels pitcher Greg Garrett on September 27, 1970.

And though those four might have been some of the best at pinch running regularly, Piez was the first.

But just like that, he was gone. After 1914, he returned to the minors, playing for the International League’s Rochester Hustlers in 1915. Following that campaign, in which he stole 17 bags, his professional career was over.

As the passenger of a car driving through Absecon, New Jersey on December 29, 1930, his life ended abruptly when the vehicle hit an ice slick on a bridge and skidded into the water. Unable to save himself, he drowned at the age of 41.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s