A baseball moment that has been burnt into our heads is that of May 1st, 1991. On that day Rickey Henderson stole third base and in doing so he passed Lou Brock as the all-time leader in career stolen bases at the major league level. As a kid growing up, and even well into adulthood, I never realized quite how much of a caveat that entire sentence was when looked at beyond face value. First, it’s the major league record, not the professional baseball record. It’s also the regular-season record, it doesn’t include post-season statistics at all. However, even if we take that statement at simple face value, would it surprise you to learn that May 1st, 1991 is a sham and always has been a sham?
The reason May 1st, 1991 was a sham is that Brock was not the all-time career leader in stolen bases coming into that day. No, that honor resided with a 5’5” denizen of Flint, Michigan named Sophie Kurys. In nine major league seasons, she had put together a stolen base total that surpassed Brock’s by a healthy margin. If all we’re talking about is the regular season, Kurys ended her nine-year career with 1,114 stolen bases. Now, you know me, and you know this site, and you’re aware that at Words Above Replacement we deal in professional baseball records, not the records that exclude anything outside of Major League Baseball’s regular season. That being the case, Kurys ended her nine-year career with a grand total of 1,146 stolen bases.
The Flint Flash started her career in 1943 with the Racine Belles and she was running right out of the gate. In her rookie campaign, she stole 46 bases. Her fleet feet helped the Belles to an appearance in the Scholarship Series, the championship series for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League for the league’s first couple of seasons, where they showed their dominance by sweeping the Kenosha Comets. It was a good start for Kurys, but it was just a small taste of what was to come.
In 1944 Kurys stole 166 bases, which would be the all-time professional baseball single-season record, if not for the fact that she bested herself two years later, after a 120 stolen base season in 1945, with 219 stolen bases as she helped guide the Belles to an AAGPBL Championship Series win. Take a second and think about that, Sophie Kurys stole 219 bases in a single season and there’s a high likelihood you’ve never even heard of that accomplishment. For the 1946 season, Kurys averaged 1.7 stolen bases per game, which is an astonishing average. By comparison, in the best season of his professional career, Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases for an average of 0.87 per game.
Kurys didn’t just have a couple of monster seasons, she had a plethora of them. On the heels of her 1946 performance, she managed to steal 150, 174, 137, and 120 bases in her next four seasons. That is a level of production that has never been seen in professional baseball, at least not as far as my research has shown. Rickey Henderson never had a stretch like Kurys did from 1945 to 1950, neither did Lou Brock, or Vince Coleman, Tim Raines, Yutaka Fukumoto, Ty Cobb, or any other prolific base stealer most baseball fans can name. For this five-year stretch, no baseball player in the history of the game comes close to touching what Kurys achieved on the basepaths.
When it comes to history the real date that should matter is that of May 1st, 1990. On that day Rickey Henderson stole his 1,147th base as a professional (that we know of, playoff statistics for his minor league career are mostly unknown). That’s the day he should have torn the base out of the ground and celebrated passing Kurys’ all-time professional record. Kurys was alive then, she could have been present and she could have been honored as the all-time great that she was.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened, neither did Rickey yank a base out of its moorings on the day in 1994 that he would have passed Kurys’ all-time major league record if one wanted to ignore the playoffs and the rest of Rickey’s non-MLB career. On May 1st, 1991 Rickey yanked a base out in celebration of passing Lou Brock for a record that wasn’t even truly Brock’s. Kurys was not mentioned then and it’s a safe bet that only a small number of baseball fans are aware of her accomplishments in the present day. Sophie Kurys existed, and if not for Rickey Henderson she would be the greatest base stealer the game of baseball has ever seen.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Unknown