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Maurice Archdeacon (1898-1954) was one of the fastest runners baseball has ever seen. In fact, for most of the 1920s, the outfielder was regarded as the fastest of all-time. Because of his speed, Archdeacon was nicknamed Flash, though some preferred calling him Comet.

Archdeacon staked his claim to fame in 1921 when he was with the Rochester Red Wings of the International League. Everyone knew he was fast; the question was how quickly could he circle the bases? Team officials decided to clock players during a pre-game exhibition. The time to beat was 13.5 seconds, Ty Cobb's best effort. The Detroit Tigers superstar was the base-runner all others were measured against. At least, until Archdeacon was clocked in 13.4 seconds. How well he would have fared in a footrace against Negro leagues speedster Cool Papa Bell no one knows, but it was Flash Archdeacon who was credited with the world record for running the bases.

His record stood until 1929 when Evar Swanson, a Cincinnati Reds outfielder, was timed in 13.3 seconds. Swanson, who years earlier had played in the fledgling National Football League, found himself back in the minor leagues in 1931, playing one season with Columbus (Ohio) of the American Association. There he ran against the clock again and was timed in 13.2 seconds, breaking his own record.

As for Archdeacon, he was still with Rochester when the 1923 season began. By September he'd be called up to the major leagues, something that might have cost him the International League batting title. That's because Archdeacon was caught up in a hair-splitting hitting competition, perhaps the tightest in the history of organized baseball. Both Archdeacon and Baltimore outfielder Clarence Pitts finished the season with identical .357 averages. Well, not exactly identical. The league ran those averages to five digits to break the tie – and Pitts edged Archdeacon, .35739 to .35736.

Archdeacon scored 166 runs in 1923, still the Rochester Red Wings' single-season record. He might have added to it – and won the batting title as well – except he was sold to the Chicago White Sox who summoned Archdeacon to the Windy City as soon as Rochester was eliminated from the International League pennant race (won by Baltimore).

THUS ARCHDEACON missed Rochester's last five games. But give Pitts credit – he kept playing and on the last day of the season went hitless in four at bats. Yet he won the batting title by three-thousandths of a percent, which was cutting it as close as Pitts possibly could. Either the man knew his math or didn't care about a minor league battle title (which certainly wasn't the case with Wade Boggs, who could account for every at bat and every hit when he won the International League batting championship 58 years later).

Because major leagues continue almost a month after the conclusion of the International League regular season, Archdeacon played 22 games with the White Sox in 1923. He batted .402 (35 hits in 87 at bats) and scored 23 runs, an auspicious beginning.

He played 95 games in 1924 and batted .319, which seems impressive, but his major league career fell apart in 1925 when Archdeacon played only 10 games, and had one hit in nine at bats. He was picked up by the Baltimore Orioles, then considered the best team in the minor leagues. He batted .310 for the International League Orioles, and a year later hit .328. He remained with Baltimore in 1927 and batted .338. Still he remained in the minor leagues ... and his hitting took a turn for the worse. He batted .297 in 1928, again in the International League, with Baltimore and Buffalo, but a year later had moved to another IL team, Toronto, and hit just .265, finishing the season with Atlanta of the Southern Association where he batted .234. He hit rock bottom in 1930 when his batting average was .197 with Pittsfield (MA) of the Eastern League. Archdeacon didn't play in 1931, but a year later he was back on the field, this time with Dubuque of the Mississippi Valley League. At age 33, he flashed some of his old skills and batted .338. Then he retired. Later he became a scout for the St. Louis Browns.

Archdeacon's height varies slightly by source – 5-foot-6 or 5-foot-8, take your pick. He had no power, relying on speed to leg out his hits. His overall batting average – in 127 major league games – was an eye-popping .333. I've seen no explanation why, at age 27, he abruptly dropped off the big league radar.

EVAR SWANSON, who succeeded Archdeacon as baseball's fastest player, had a similarly odd major league career, posting a .303 lifetime average in 515 games in five seasons, two with Cincinnati, three with the White Sox, sandwiched around that year in Columbus. Swanson (right) stood 5-foot-9, and, like Archdeacon, had little power. Twice he scored 100 runs or more, but after his batting average "dropped" to .298 in 1934, his major league days were over. He was 32, and perhaps felt older for the five years he spent running and returning punts in the NFL before devoting all of his time to baseball.

One other thing about Swanson. And I offer this as proof of the unusual items you can come across when you Google a baseball player's name. Turns out Swanson was involved in a play so weird that had there been ESPN at the time, we'd still be seeing replays.

It's 1929, Swanson's in left field for Cincinnati at Chicago's Wrigley Field for a game against the Cubs. The score is 5-5, it's the bottom of the eighth, bases are loaded. At bat is Norm McMillan, one of those all-purpose utility players who bounces from team to team. The Cubs are his fourth team in four major league seasons. He's a right-handed hitter, but doesn't pull the ball, which is why Swanson shades toward center field. Oh-oh! McMillan crosses up the Reds and hits a sharp line drive over third base, landing just inside fair territory. The ball takes a strange bounce to the left and . . . disappears.

Swanson assumes the ball rolled into a gutter near the Cub bullpen, but when he reaches the gutter – surprise! – there's no ball in sight. Meanwhile, Cub runners are gleefully racing home and McMillan, with only one home run prior to 1929, has himself a grand slam.

The game is momentarily delayed while umpires speculate on the whereabouts of the ball. They decide it must have bounced into the seats. Apparently there is no ground rule that covers the situation. The home run stands.

Half-an-inning later the game ends. Cubs relief pitcher Ken Penner leaves his seat in the bullpen, grabs his jacket and heads for the dressing room. The jacket doesn't feel right. No wonder. Stuck in the right sleeve is the missing baseball.

OKAY, BACK to running the bases and Cool Papa Bell (right), the Negro leagues star with legendary speed. How fast was Bell? Teammates used to say Bell could flick a hotel room light switch and be under the covers before the light went out.

So maybe Bell was the fastest baseball player of them all. There are many stories out there to support this opinion, with a few that claim Bell once circled the bases in 13.1 seconds. Perhaps he did. What's wearisome about such stories is the not-so-veiled insult that inevitably follows. In this case, it's the further claim that Bell did this on a wet field, implying (ho-hum) this wasn't even his best effort. I wouldn't be surprised if some versions say Bell ran backward, or that his left ankle was broken and in a cast, or that from second to third base he ran through quicksand.

No one is disputing that Cool Papa Bell was superfast. There's no need to embellish, or to make a claim that couldn't possibly true, like Bell himself saying he once ran the bases on a dry field in 12 seconds flat. Keep in mind bases are 30 yards apart. That would make this a 120-yard dash, except it becomes several yards longer, depending on how tight you can make the three turns that are required.

Not even Jesse Owens could have circled the bases in 12 seconds flat, especially wearing a loose-fitting, floppy baseball uniform.

Not mentioned in any of the stories about timed base-running is a starting point. Cobb and Archdeacon were left-handed hitters, Bell a switch-hitter who usually batted left-handed. Under game conditions this would give these guys a two-step advantage over the right-hand hitting Swanson.

I'm assuming that when they were timed, all four players started from approximately the same position in relation to home plate.

In any event, the widely accepted base-running speed record remains Swanson's 13.2 seconds.

But Cool Papa Bell probably was faster. It's a damn shame he never had a chance to prove it in the major leagues. And I certainly would have enjoyed that thing he did with a light switch.

— JACK MAJOR
 
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