Speed is a quality in baseball that can achieve the swiftest of the swift legendary status. From Hans Lobert racing a horse, to Cool Papa Bell allegedly being able to turn off the lights and be under the covers before the room got dark, there are scores of examples of players showcasing blinding speed. However, the fastest man the game has ever seen may well be little-known outfielder Evar Swanson, who circled the bases in 13.3 seconds between games of a double header in 1929, which is a record that still stands to this day.
Swanson was a freakishly good athlete, who grew up in Illinois, graduating from DeKalb High School around 1920. He starred at Lombard College in baseball, football, basketball and track. After he graduated, he played several years in the fledgling National Football League as a running back between 1924 and 1927.
A right-handed hitter, he was such a good baseball player that he made it to the major leagues in 1929 with the Cincinnati Reds at the age of 26 after having been largely away from the game for several years. He played a total of five years with them and the Chicago White Sox, hitting a combined .303 with 7 home runs, 170 RBIs and 69 stolen bases in 518 games. He played for some terrible teams, with his highest finish being the White Sox and their sixth-place finish in 1933. As a consequence, he is not remembered widely years after his career. However, he should be.
On September 15, 1929, Swanson’s Reds were playing two against the Boston Braves. In an effort to keep fans entertained and sticking around for the second game, the rookie was part of a race to circle the bases with several other players (including teammate Ethan Allen, himself a former track star) between contests. He started from a sprinter’s crouch by home plate and won easily, accomplishing the feat in 13.3 seconds. This not only beat Lobert’s previous record of 14.3 seconds by a full second, but it also earned him a $75 prize and a five-foot tall trophy.
Swanson was always modest about his feat, indicating that speed wasn’t the sole criteria that allowed him to set the record. “You’ve got to hit the bases just right and not take big turns,” he recollected in later years.
Although a number of players have come close over the years, the only person to break that record was Swanson himself, who circled the bases in 13.2 seconds in 1932, while he was playing for Columbus in the American Association. It’s fair to say that such time measurements may have been mire rudimentary during that time, but nobody was ever times better, including a number of players who were widely hailed for their speed. Mickey Rivers attempted to break the record for the Guinness Book of World Records in 1971, but slipped a bit approaching home and finished at 14.3 seconds.
Swanson had an interesting life post baseball. He played semi-pro basketball, ran a grocery store, served in his hometown’s (Galesburg, Illinois) government and was a postmaster. He passed away in 1973 at the age of 70. More than 20 years later his high school Alma Mater began awarding an annual scholarship in his name.
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