Thanks for the great response to my post nominating Willie Davis as the fastest baseball player ever. I also got some great private e-mails with memories of Davis and the 1960s Dodgers that warmed my heart.
You guys brought up some great names, from Donnell Nixon to Dave Mann, a former Seattle Rainier. I can vouch for Nixon. I saw him before he wiped out his leg running into a wall in spring training. This guy could have been one of the great base-stealers of all time, and he belonged to the Mariners. Nixon had 144 stolen bases in 135 games for Seattle’s Class A team in Bakersfield in 1983. But in 1985, I believe, he ran into the stone wall at the Brewers’ complex in Sun City and suffered a compound fracture. He was never quite the same.
The name that seemed to come up the most often was Deion Sanders, who had lightning speed, no question about it. In 1995, I was covering the San Francisco Giants, and they picked Sanders up in a trade with the Reds. So for a couple of months, Barry Bonds and Deion Sanders patrolled the outfield together. That was an interesting clubhouse, to say the least. Sanders, Neion Deion was a pleasure to cover — funny and accessible. Every once in a while, he’d hit a gapper and you’d get to see his mind-boggling speed. I mean, he was no Willie Davis, but he was fast.
One name I’m surprised wasn’t brought up: Herb Washington. He was a world-class sprinter that the A’s eccentric onwer, Charlie Finley, brought to Oakland in the 1970s purely to be a designated runner. As you can see above, he has to be the only guy who on his baseball card is listed as “pinch-runner.” Washington had a singular career, appearing in 105 regular-season games and five post-season games without once stepping on the field with a glove or stepping to the plate with a bat.
The guy could fly (he held world records in the 50- and 60-yard dashes, won NCAA sprint titles for Michigan State and almost made an Olympic team), but he had no baseball instincts. In 1973 and ’74, Washington stole 31 bases, but was caught stealing 17 times. And Washington was famously picked off by the Dodgers’ Mike Marshall in Game 2 of the 1974 World Series after running for Joe Rudi in the ninth inning of a game Oakland trailed (and lost) 3-2.
Washington might have been technically faster than Davis if you had put them in starting blocks and staged a 100-yard dash. But home to third, or first to home, I’ll still take Willie every time.
Two recent players that could really fly — unfortunately, they couldn’t hit — were Joey Gathright and Nook Logan. Carl Crawford could do both.
As for the slowest player, I’m just as certain of this as I am that Willie Davis is the fastest. David Ortiz, Frank Thomas, Sean Casey, latter-day Edgar Martinez, Matt LeCroy — they were, or are, all painfully slow. But there has never been a slower player than Willie McCovey at the end of his career when both knees were shot.
Although Bengie Molina is close.