One of only three players in ML history with more runs scored than games played, Hamilton was perhaps the best player of the 1890s. Seven times a stolen-base champion, he combined raw speed, daring baserunning, patience at the plate, and a .344 career average (sixth-best all-time) to become the game’s first great leadoff hitter. In a period when stolen bases were also credited when baserunners gained more bases than a batter earned on a hit, Hamilton compiled phenomenal stolen base totals.
After 35 games with Kansas City in 1888, Hamilton won a starting spot the next year and hit .301 with a league-leading 117 stolen bases. He would not fall below .300 again until his final ML season. In 1890 Hamilton brought his head-first slides to the NL’s Phillies, where he led the league with 102 steals in 1890 and 115 in 1891, the year he won his first batting title with a .340 mark. Following an off-year in 1892, he moved from left field to center in 1893 and hit .380 to edge teammate Sam Thompson for his second batting championship.
Sliding Billy continued his record-setting basepath feats in 1894 with the help of his fellow Phillies, who hit an ML-record .343 as a team that year. Playing in 131 of his club’s 132 games, Hamilton scored 196 runs, by far the best ML season total ever. He accomplished this by leading the league in walks (126) and stolen bases (99), including 7 steals in one game on August 31. He also strung together a 36-game hitting streak, the sixth-longest in NL history, and had career highs of 87 RBI, 223 hits, 15 triples, 25 doubles, and a .399 batting average. After leading the league once again in runs, walks, and stolen bases in 1895, he was traded to the Braves for third baseman Billy Nash. In Boston, he continued to terrorize opposing infields, leading the NL in stolen bases twice more in 1896 and 1898. But knee and leg injuries in 1898 and 1899 finally began to slow him down, and he retired after hitting only .287 in 1901.
In addition to his lofty batting average, Hamilton finished his career with a .455 on-base percentage, 1,187 walks, 1,692 runs scored, and 937 stolen bases. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans’ Committee in 1961.