On April 5, 2010, Brett Gardner of the Yankees stole home as part of a double steal, but so far this season there have been no straight steals of home. It appears to be a dying art.
In the first half of the 20th century baseball was full of daredevils, the most famous of whom was Ty Cobb. Of the 892 bases Cobb stole in a career that ended in 1928, 54 were of home. Of those, 25 were straight steals, meaning that the feat was not on the tail end of a double-steal or part of a squeeze play. Rod Carew, another speedster, stole home 17 times in his career, 7 times in 1969 alone.
But by the time Rickey Henderson, baseball’s all-time stolen base king, came into his own in the 1980s, players had begun to resist the temptation of breaking for the plate. Of Henderson’s 1,406 lifetime steals, only one was a straight steal of home. The frequency of the play is even scarcer after the year 2000. The New York Times, citing figures from MLB’s official statistician, the Elias Sports Bureau, reported that in 2004 and 2005 only one major leaguer, the Indians’ Grady Sizemore, pulled off a straight steal of home.
Still, some players are daring enough to try the play. On April 26, 2009, Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury stole home against Andy Pettitte of the Yankees. It was the first straight steal of home by a Red Sox player in 15 years and the first in the majors since the Angels’ Torii Hunter pulled it off on September 18 2008.
There were no protests when Ellsbury dove headfirst into the plate as there were when Jackie Robinson slid under Yogi Berra’s glove in one of baseball’s most memorable steals of home (during Game 1 of the 1955 World Series between the Dodgers and the Yankees). As Red Sox third base coach DeMarlo Hale pointed out in an article published on April 27, 2009 by MLB.com, the conditions were ideal for Ellsbury: “Tonight was a situation where it all came together, where the pitcher was in the windup, the third baseman was off the bag, he was able to get a very big lead and it was a left-handed batter. And it was a strike.”
Perhaps Ellsbury knew that, despite the dwindling number of players who attempt to steal home, the chances of succeeding are not as slim as one might think. The odds of a major leaguer successfully stealing home are 1 in 3.68. The odds of stealing second are 1 in 1.49 (67%); and the odds of swiping third are 1 in 1.42 (70%).
"It could be one of the worst base-running mistakes if you don't make it,” Ellsbury is quoted as saying in MLB.com. “But I was pretty confident I could get in there and make it, so that's why I went.”
Ellsbury’s teammate Jason Bay was thoroughly surprised by the steal, and summed up the feelings of many who saw it live. “I’ve never seen anyone attempt it, let alone somebody actually do it. That was something I won't forget."