Baseball is a timeless game.
We love it because the basic rules have changed little over the years and we can easily compare basic statistics for different players over the decades, such as batting average, earned run average, homers, and runs batted in. If we removed the outfield fences, the game itself could stretch endlessly with the only boundaries being the base paths and the three tried and true old friends of the game: three outs, two teams, and one winner.
There is no clock, no time limitation, and wristwatches are not needed. The game will end when it is ready to end.
Certainly, there have been internal changes to the game (and we’re looking specifically at the major leagues in this episode) such as the designated hitter and a runner placed on second base to start extra-inning games. And then there is the avalanche of statistics which both intrigue and confuse us at times.
We now know when the defense will pull out the shift for certain batters or when a left-handed relief pitcher will be brought in to face a successful hitter, even if it is one who struggles against lefties with a last name beginning with “Q”!
Who is the Fastest Player in Major League History?
Announcers will patiently explain a pitcher’s arsenal and the likely percentage of that hurler utilizing a split-finger pitch in a certain situation. We know fielding percentages, on-base percentages, and slugging percentages. Most of the advanced analytics used today are based on recent performances prohibiting us from comparing Kris Bryant to say, Lou Gehrig when determining a player’s success rate in hitting safely in 3-2 situations on Tuesday afternoons against right-handers born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in December.
The other day, I was watching a game when a new statistic flashed across the screen. Apparently, the runner on third was the sixth fastest in the major leagues for reaching home from third base. He was then replaced by a teammate with the fifth-fastest speed because the new runner apparently was even quicker on games played on Fridays.
But this did lead to a fascinating question: Who is the fastest player in major league history? I thought this might be difficult because, once again, how would you compare speeds from today’s players with ones who played 100 years ago? You would think there would not be any reliable measuring stick.
But there was, and it was something that I never heard about…
So, who do you think is the fastest player in big league history? Ricky Henderson? Lou Brock? Ty Cobb? Tim Raines? The correct answer would be none of the above and while we’ll share the answer with you in a moment, the person in question was actually better known as a football player with the Chicago Cardinals rather than for his solid major league baseball career…and please note the subtle way we just linked a baseball player with a football podcast!
The so-called measuring stick for this exercise—which is still listed in the Guinness Book of Records—was quite simple. Get out your stopwatch and time the guy as he sprints around the bases. Although timing devices are more sophisticated today, none of the more modern era players have been able to duplicate or surpass the record that was established nearly 100 years ago. Since that time, many have tried, but none has succeeded. The test is quite simple: run from home plate to first, to second, to third, and then back to home. 360 feet with a bunch of left turns!
While the 100-yard dash usually identifies the fastest man in the world, that race is conducted on a flat, straight surface, aided by a starting block for each contestant. On the other hand, the fastest baseball player needed to spring out of a soft batter’s box, streak to first, turn and scramble to second, turn and run for third, and then turn and race to home.
It sounds simple enough, but in this era of analytics, studies have been researched and published regarding when to begin your turning angle at each base and when to accelerate on the base paths to save time. Still—no one has been able to equal the record established in 1929 by a football player! So, who was he?
Evar Swanson and His Great Race
Evar Swanson was his name and his brush with fame occurred on September 15, 1929, when he was a rookie with the Cincinnati Reds. It was near the end of a dominant season for Swanson, who hit an even .300 for the Reds with 35 doubles, 12 triples, and 33 stolen bases. In other words, the gifted outfielder used his impressive speed to move quickly around the bases.
For Swanson, the move to major league baseball appeared to be a natural one. A native of Illinois, Swanson graduated from DeKalb High School in 1920 and then attended Lombard College in Galesburg, IL, where Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author Carl Sandburg once attended. While at Lombard, Swanson was an outstanding athlete who earned an incredible 16 letters.
He was the leading scorer on the basketball team, once pitched a no-hitter on the diamond, and during his four years on the football team, Lombard experienced only one loss—a 14-0 decision to Notre Dame and its Four Horsemen in 1923. Yes, Lombard College did play Notre Dame! Swanson was also a standout on the track team, running sprints, hurdles, and competing in the long jump. His best time in the 100-yard dash was 9.8 seconds, indicating that Swanson was indeed fast!
In the summer of 1924, he played for the Moline Plows minor league baseball club, and then in the fall, as a 5-9, 171 lb. end, he signed with the Milwaukee Badgers of the NFL. In 1925, Swanson moved up the baseball ranks and started a four-year career in the Pacific Coast League, regarded as one of the top minor league circuits. With the Mission Bells team in 1928, Swanson hit a robust .346 and scored an impressive 151 runs.
Swanson Field Goal Defeats Chicago Bears
Meanwhile, his NFL career continued in 1925 when he split time with Rock Island and the Chicago Cardinals. He then finished his NFL career with the Cardinals in both 1926 and 1927. In one of his biggest games, he kicked the winning field goal in a 3-0 Cardinals win over the Bears in 1927 which knocked the Bears out of title contention.
In 1929, he finally completed the climb to the major leagues when he signed with the Reds and this is where he established his remarkable speed record. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported on the unusual base running competition, which was sponsored by popular comedian Joe E. Brown:
In this event, which was conducted by certified AAU officials, in order to make the records of the players legal, Evar Swanson, fleet left-fielder of the Reds, showed his heels to all opposition and established a new mark for the journey around the paths when he was timed in 13.3 seconds for the trip of 120 yards, with a sharp turn at each of the three bases. Swanson clipped a full second off the ancient record of Honus Lobert, made here in a baseball field day about 20 years ago.
Evar was a trained sprinter at Lombard College and he knows all about getting away on the jump at the crack of a pistol. He got a fine start and held his speed all the way to the finish.
According to reporters, two other Cincinnati players attempted the challenge, but neither could crack the 14-second mark. Six members of the visiting Boston Braves club also tried to catch Swanson, but all finished in around 15 seconds. For his troubles, Swanson walked away with a $75 cash prize and a five-foot-tall trophy.
Although not one to talk about his accomplishments, Swanson once said about his record: “You’ve got to hit the bases just right and not take big turns.” If establishing a new record was not enough, Swanson lowered his own mark in 1932 by circling the bases in just 13.2 seconds.
Ricky Henderson Attempts to Break Record
Meanwhile, others have certainly attempted to break Swanson’s record over the years. The closest challenger was George Case of the Washington Senators who completed the run in 13.5 seconds in 1943. In 1971 Mickey Rivers of the California Angels, believed to be the fastest man in baseball at the time, could manage only a 14.3 mark in his attempt. The Quad City Times also mentioned that Rickey Henderson “supposedly took a shot at the record but apparently didn’t come close. His time was reported as ’14-something,’” said the newspaper.
An arm injury forced Swanson out of baseball after the 1934 season at the age of 32, but his brief five-year career was impressive. Swanson was a lifetime .303 hitter with the Reds and the Chicago White Sox while playing all three outfield positions. While base running contests and other baseball games of skill have largely diminished today, the longevity of Evar Swansons’ record is still engrossing.
In 1972, Swanson explained why he participated in the running contest: “We did it for pride. And we did it for the money, too. Seventy-five dollars was pretty good in those days. I mean, the most I ever made in one season was $8,500 in salary.”
Evar Swanson was a two-sport professional star and even played some semi-pro basketball with a team called the Galesburg Fans. Yet talking with him, one would never know of his impressive athletic exploits. In 2001, his grandson Corky Swanson, Jr. discussed his grandfather’s accomplishment with the Quad City Times: “He didn’t talk about it a lot. He didn’t like to brag. If you asked him, he would talk about it, but he never would bring it up himself. He was a very modest man.”
Thank you for sharing your time with us today on the Sports History Network for the surprising story of the fastest man in the history of baseball. Please join us next time for our behind-the-scenes look at the most unusual coach in the history of the NFL: an intellectual, chain-smoking, Coca-Cola-guzzling NFL champion with a soft spot for the piano, back When Football Was Football!
Author and Host - Joe Ziemba
Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago. Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.
Please Note – As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases