Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Aparicio's 1st of 506 (The AL Race, 60 Years Ago)

On May 5, 1956, Luis Aparicio stole the first base of his major league career. The highly-touted 22-year-old rookie shortstop did so as a pinch runner, however, because he had been temporarily benched by Chicago White Sox manager Marty Marion to get his head straight after struggling at the plate in his first eight major league games. As we all know, Luis Aparicio went on to become a Hall of Fame shortstop perhaps most renown for ... the art of the steal.

Aparicio's 1st of 506

Following literally in the footsteps of Chico Carrasquel, the White Sox shortstop from 1950 to 1955, Luis Aparicio was the second in a line of athletic, nimble, great-glove, dynamic arm, dazzling defensive shortstops from Venezuela. Both were in the first wave of players from the Caribbean Basin. That wave was a consequence of integration that gained momentum with the success of the White Sox' Minnie Minoso, a black Hispanic from Cuba, who was one of the game's the best players in the first half of the 1950s. And it was not just black Hispanic ballplayers who benefited from this unprecedented major league attention, but white Hispanics as well.

Baseball was popular in Venezuela too, but Cuba and Puerto Rico were the first Caribbean targets of big league scouts because their leagues were well known—including by major leaguers who played in them during the winter off-season. In 1950, Carrasquel became just the third Venezuelan to play in the big leagues; Aparicio was the seventh. The son of a legendary shortstop in Venezuelan baseball history after whom he was named, Luis Aparicio was signed by the White Sox as a 19-year-old in 1954 on the recommendation of Carrasquel.  

By 1956, after just two years in the minor leagues, Aparicio was deemed ready to take over at shortstop in Chicago. As the Sports Illustrated preview for the 1956 season put it, "he looked so good in the minors, the Sox were willing to trade away Carrasquel." His baseball attributes? "Slick defense, fair hitter, a whiz on the bases."

Aparicio was in Marty Marion's opening day line-up, batting eighth against the Cleveland Indians, to whom Carrasquel was traded so Luis could take over at short. He went 1-for-3. Aparicio went 1-for-3 the next game, too, but was hitless in his next 12 at bats before getting a single in his second at bat against the Orioles on May 1. When his turn came to lead off the ninth inning of a tie game, Marion removed him for a pinch hitter. Aparicio was batting .150, had yet to score a run, nor had he stolen any bases. There were no problems with his defense, however; he had made just one error so far in 20 chances through Chicago's first seven games.

Back in the starting line-up the next game, Chicago's eighth of the season on May 3, Aparicio was once again hitless in three at bats, although he did score his first run after reaching on an error. Once again Marion took him out for a pinch hitter in the late innings, this time with a runner on base and the White Sox trailing the Senators by three runs in the eighth. Aparicio's average now down to .130, Marion benched his rookie shortstop each of the next two games.

Aparicio did not get into the game in the White Sox' 5-2 win in Washington on May 4. The next day the Sox were trailing the Senators by a single run, 3-2, when pinch-hitter Bob Nieman led off with a single. With the tying run at first, Marion sent in the speedy Aparicio as a pinch runner. Washington pitcher Chuck Stobbs was a southpaw, and so had the advantage on being able to look directly at Aparicio as he came set. There was a fly ball out to left. Another to right. Aparicio was still sizing up Stobbs from first. Then he stole second base. A popup to third ended the scoring opportunity, and Aparicio finished the game at shortstop. But he had his first major league stolen base.

The Chicago White Sox lost that day, leaving them with a 6-4 record in third place, 2 games behind the first-place Yankees and half-a-game back of the Indians. It was 10 games down and 144 to go for the Chicago White Sox; Aparicio would be the starting shortstop in 143 of them.

Back in the starting line-up the next day, Aparicio went 2-for-4 against the Yankees. That was the start of a 10-game hitting streak that brought his batting average up to .264. On May 20, he was hitting .292.  Aparicio finished the season batting .266 with 21 steals in 25 attempts. He was named the American League's 1956 Rookie of the Year, with 22 out of a possible 24 first-place votes.

Luis Aparicio was at the leading edge of a return to prominence of the stolen base in an era where power was the name of the game. His 21 steals in 1956 were the first of 506 in his career. It was also the first of nine consecutive years he led the league in steals. That's something no other player has ever done. Not Ty Cobb; he led the league just six times in stolen bases. Not Maury Wills, the NL leader in steals six straight seasons from 1960 to 1965. Not Lou Brock—winner of eight NL stolen base titles in nine years between 1966 and 1974, four times in a row, twice. Not even Rickey Henderson, who led the AL seven straight times from 1980 to 1986, and 12 times overall.

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