As Billy Hamilton approached Vince Coleman’s professional baseball record of 145 steals this year, he has been spotlighted in media around the country. Thanks to the Futures Game he has played on ESPN, and he also has been discussed on “Pardon the Interruption” and featured in Sports Illustrated.
When Coleman set the record for steals in a season in 1983, though, few people gave it any thought at all. As Coleman ran wild for the Class A Macon Redbirds in the South Atlantic League, the minor league baseball renaissance was still a “Bull Durham” movie and ballpark building boom away from blossoming.
Coleman wouldn’t make his first appearance in SI until 1985, when he won a spot on the Cardinals’ big league roster in spring training. The Miami Herald wrote about Coleman’s record because he was a Florida native who had played college baseball and football at Florida A&M. But the country’s other major newspapers paid no notice.
In 1983, the industry was different and media was different, and minor league baseball was largely in the shadows. Outside of a few diehard fans, no one paid much attention to a player until he arrived in the majors.
Nowhere was that more true than the site of the Redbirds’ final game of 1983, Greenwood, S.C. The Greenwood Pirates drew 8,345 fans—for the season, a figure that many minor league teams top on a good weekend night now. Even for the minor leagues of 1983 that lagged far behind any other team, however. And according to the game’s official box score, 135 fans came out to Greenwood’s Legion Park to see Coleman try to break the record on the final day of the season. Legion Park was a slightly larger version of an old high school ballpark, complete with old wood benches and dim lighting that left hitters squinting to see a breaking ball. It would prove to be the last time affiliated minor league baseball was ever played in the town of 22,000.
Coleman and Bakersfield’s Donnell Nixon had blown past the minor league record 123 steals, set by Jeff Stone in 1981. They had also passed Rickey Henderson’s major league record of 130 steals. Nixon had wrapped his season up earlier, finishing with 144 steals. So Coleman headed into his final game knowing that he needed two stolen bases to tie Nixon and three to stand alone.
Coleman had stolen 142 bases and been thrown out only 31 times, as Sally League pitchers and catchers found they could do little to stop him.
“I remember one night, Dennis Holmberg is the manager for Florence. He has the pitcher throw over nine times, but as soon as pitcher throws to home, Vince stole second base,” said longtime minor league manager Rocket Wheeler, who was a coach for the Florence Blue Jays that season and now manages the Braves’ team in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
Coleman had missed 32 games after breaking his thumb sliding into third base in June, but once he returned he stole bags in bushels, including 49 steals in 31 games as he tried to catch up to Nixon.
“The first few weeks of the season he didn’t steal third base, then he really got into the flow where it became automatic: when he stole second, he’d steal third as well,” said Lloyd Merritt, who managed the Macon club that season.
Coleman was set to tie the record the first time he came up, drawing a walk. But before he could steal second, the next batter was plunked. Coleman jogged to second and had to settle for a steal of third to give him 143 steals.
Later in the game Coleman walked again, and this time his teammates were able to give him time to work. He stole second, then quickly stole third as well. On his steal of third for the record-breaking 145th bag, the throw got away from the third baseman, allowing Coleman to scramble to his feet and score. As he headed home, his teammates rushed out to meet him. The rest of America may not have noticed, but for the Redbirds, it was a moment to remember.
“It was in Greenwood. I don’t know if they had an announcer, to tell you the truth,” Merritt said.
Even in Baseball America, the story of Coleman’s 145 steals was buried back on page 37 of the 40-page issue.
“(The team) all congratulated him and the Cardinals called after the game,” Merritt said. “Everything was sort of blase back then. It was nothing people paid attention to . . . To me when you’re talking about great records, that has to be one of them. How many would he have stolen if he hadn’t missed 30 games?”