One of a Kind

Herb Washington became the first ever designated runner for a big league team

February 11, 2013
Herb Washington (Doug McWilliams/NBHOF Library)

Throughout Black History Month in February, the Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of African Americans who made historic contributions to the National Pastime.

By Adrianna Mondore

The Oakland Athletics made Major League baseball history when they signed Herb Washington as the first ever “designated runner” in 1974.

Born Nov. 16, 1950 in Belzoni, Miss., Washington later moved to Flint, Mich., when he was very young when his parents found work in the auto industry. He played baseball his sophomore year in high school, but did not earn a letter. Washington graduated from Flint Central High in 1968 where he lettered in track, football, and basketball. 

Washington is a graduate of Michigan State University with a B.S. in Education. There he lettered in track and football. During his college years, Washington was named to the All-American track team for four consecutive years.

Washington holds the indoor records for the 50-yard dash, which he ran in five seconds flat, and the 60-yard dash, which he ran in 5.8 seconds. Washington is also a seven-time Big Ten titlist and just missed qualifying for the 1972 United Sates Olympic team.

But his athletic career was far from over.

In 1974, Washington was signed by Oakland Athletics owner, Charlie Finley, as the team’s “designated runner.” Finley had toyed with the idea of “designated runners” before, signing players like Allen Lewis, whose main job was to pinch run. But Washington was the first of these players to survive a full season in the majors.

Although Washington had only played baseball one year in high school and was never a member of a professional team before he joined the A’s, he was a member of the Athletics 1974 Word Series Championship team – appearing in 92 games while stealing 29 bases and scoring 29 runs.

Washington played a total of 105 major league games without recording a plate appearance, the most in big league history among non-pitchers. He had 31 stolen bases in 48 attempts and scored 33 runs during his baseball career. Washington was released one month into the 1975 season, playing 15 months of Major League baseball. His baseball card is the only card ever released that uses the “pinch runner” position label.

Following his playing career, Washington entered the business world and worked in the banking industry. In 2005, Washington founded the Youngstown (Ohio) Steelhounds, a minor league hockey franchise, and became the first African-American to own a professional hockey league team.

Celebrate Black History Month with the Museum’s Pastime’s Pride features. Subjects include Buck O’NeilElston HowardRachel Robinsonthe Evolution of Night BaseballWelday Walker, Herb Washington, Connie MorganBill White, Sam Lacy, Octavius Catto, Willie Horton, Bob Watson, Pumpsie Green, Charlie Grant, William Matthews, Don Newcombe, Vic Power, Emmett Ashford and Hank Thompson.

Adrianna Mondore was a spring 2012 intern at the Baseball Hall of Fame