It's bizarre to even think about it now, but up until the sixties there was a baseball player who, having compiled 2000 hits with a lifetime .344 batting average, 1500 runs, and--a record until Lou Brock broke it--912 stolen bases, all the while holding the all time single-season runs record with 192, remained totally invisible to all but the most hardened students of baseball's encyclopedia. But this was true of "Sliding" Billy Hamilton, one of baseball's greatest 19th century ballplayers who did not reach the Hall of Fame until 1961, 20 years after his death.

Before continuing about Hamilton the player, one must wonder why he took so long to be noticed; after all, if there's one list people have taken note of since people cared about records at all, it's the all time batting champions, and he still today ranks eighth.

Part of the reason could be that, during most of his relatively short stay in the majors, he wasn't the brightest star in his own outfield; he may have been the best player, but more colorful players like Sam Thompson and Ed Delehanty got more notice than the quiet, uninspiring Hamilton.

These other 1890's stars also had anecdotes or other calling-cards which would help jog the memory of early Hall of Fame voters, who were notoriously dependent on vague recollections of a player's name--one vote was even cast for Marty Bergen, a subpar baseball player whose name was in the news for a time after he killed his wife and two children before taking his own life--but there was no "Slide, Kelly, Slide!" or dramatic death on Niagara Falls to remember Hamilton by. There is, in fact, only one modestly interesting story that gets told with any regularity about Hamilton: it's said that, back in the days before outfield fences were standard at ballparks, a particularly hard shot lodged itself into a discarded tin can. Rather than get the ball out, Hamilton just threw the can back to the infield.

There's no doubt that he's qualified to be a Hall of Famer; his career On-base percentage was a remarkable 100 points higher than the average player's during his career, and despite his reputation as the game's first premier leadoff hitter he hit for a fair amount of power.

But, as the odd story of Sliding Billy proves, the baseball universe circa 1890 was vastly different from the oversaturated, iconic one we see today, different enough that two generations of baseball fans very likely had never heard of the greatest center fielder between Harry Wright and Tris Speaker.

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