Born: February 16, 1866
Died: December 16, 1940
William Robert Hamilton was born February 15, 1866 in Newark to Samuel and Mary Hamilton. They were recent arrivals from Scotland—part of an influx of Scottish immigrants attracted by the area’s booming textile business. The Hamilton’s moved to another center of textile production, Clinton, Massachusetts, when Billy was a boy. Billy joined his father in the mill as a teenager.
Slight of build but with powerful legs that made him an explosive runner, Billy specialized in chasing down fly balls in the outfield and creating utter havoc on the base paths. He was playing minor-league ball in New England and putting up impressive numbers when, in 1888, his contract was sold to the Kansas City Cowboys of the American Association. In his second season with the Cowboys, Billy led all of baseball with 111 stolen bases. At the time, a stolen base was credited to a runner who stole a base, but also to a runner who went from first to third on a single, or advanced on a flyout.·
In 1890, the Philadelphia Phillies purchased Billy from Kansas City. He would become the first modern leadoff hitter, working walks at a league-leading rate, perfecting the drag bunt, stealing bases at every opportunity, and setting the table for his harder-hitting teammates. Not that Billy couldn’t handle the bat. On the contrary, he led the National League in batting in 1891 and again in 1893. He led the league in runs scored four times, with a high of 198 in 1894.
That season Billy was part of what many experts consider to be the greatest outfield in the history of baseball. The Phillies had Sam Thompson in right field, Ed Delehanty in left, and Billy in center. All three players topped the .400 mark that summer. Billy’s outfield mates combined for 280 RBIs. Incredibly, despite a record team batting average of .343, the Phillies finished in fourth place.
Billy was known to one and all as Slidin’ Billy. He spent a lot of time kicking up dust clouds, but what truly captured the fans’ imagination was the way he slid head-first on close plays. Many a time, the ball would beat him to the bag, but he was able to grab a corner of the base before the fielder could slap the tag on him. He also employed an elusive fadeaway slide.
Following the 1895 season, the Phillies traded Billy to the Boston Beaneaters for Billy Nash. He teamed with outfielders Chick Stahl and Hugh Duffy to help Boston edge the Orioles for the pennant in 1897 and again in 1898. Billy enjoyed playing close to home and continued to score runs at a remarkable pace until injuries finally slowed him down. In 1902, Billy was offered a chance to get into managing. At 36, with his playing career winding down, he decided to take it. He spent the next nine season as a player-manager and coach in the New England League. He batted .332 at the age of 43. Among the future major leaguers he helped develop were Stuffy McInnis and Shano Collins.·
When Billy hung up his spikes, he was baseball’s all-time stolen base king, with 914, and its top on-base percentage man, with a .455 mark. His 198 runs scored in 1894 remains a single-season record, and only three other players matched the seven bases he stole in a game that same season. Billy retired to Worcester, Massachusetts after his playing days and bought into a local minor-league club there. In the 1920s and 30s he worked as a foreman in a leather factory. Billy died in 1940, living long enough to see the Hall of Fame open. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could be enshrined. That honor was granted posthumously in 1961, making him the first New Jerseyan to gain entry to Cooperstown.