Big Sam Thompson: The First Great Clutch Hitter
Big Sam Thompson was born on March 5th, 1860, in Danville, Indiana. He was one of nine children, the 5th son of a Union Civil War veteran and his wife. Thompson’s father had learned baseball from his fellow Union soldiers, and brought the game back to central Indiana after the war. He helped to organize sandlot games, and all of the Thompson boys, who were good athletes, became fine players. In fact, the Thompson boys were equally known as good baseball players and fearsome “brawlers”–no one “messed” with the brothers.
In 1884, baseball player and enthusiast Sam O’Leary brought his Indianapolis traveling team to the Danville area for a game. He had heard about “the Thompson kid” and was eager to see him play. However, Sam had been promised $2.50 for roofing a house, and was hard at work. O’Leary, undaunted, offered to pay Thompson the $2.50 just to see him play. The kid played, and O’Leary signed him on the spot–and then sold him immediately to the National League’s Detroit Wolverine franchise.
The Dauvray CupIn 1885, Detroit’s fortunes suddenly changed for the better, thanks to Thompson. In 1887, “Big Sam” won the National League batting title with a .372 clip. He also led in on-base + slugging percentage, and the Wolverines won the pennant. They then played the St. Louis Browns, pennant winners of the rival American Association, for a “World Championship Series” The Browns were a really good team, anchored by star hurlers Silver King, Dave Foutz and Bob Caruthers (one of the best-hitting pitchers in the history of the game). They also featured first baseman Charles Comiskey and third baseman Arlie Latham, and outfielders Tip O’Neill (the AA batting champ) and Curt Welch (one of the great defensive center fielders ever). Caruthers, who played right field when not pitching finished third in the batting race that year. Detroit had the great slugger Dan Brouthers (first base) to go along with Thompson, plus superb infielders Fred Dunlap, Hardy Richardson and the clutch-hitting Deacon White. Thanks in large part to Thompson, Detroit won the series, 10 games to 5, and won the Dauvray Cup. The Cup had been donated by the famous actress, Helen Dauvray, wife of future Hall of Famer Monte Ward.
Thompson was now a star attraction, drawing a big gate anytime Detroit played. In one game, he slugged 2 bases loaded triples, a feat never since duplicated. During the 1887 season, he had also scored 118 runs, slugged 11 home runs, and hit safely 203 times. He also set an RBI record with 166 for the season, the best annual total until Babe Ruth’s 1921 year, a span of 34 years.
After 4 years in Detroit, the Wolverines owners fell on financial hard times, so Thompson was dealt to the National League’s Philadelphia Quakers (they immediately changed their name to the Phillies). There, Thompson enjoyed his greatest years, becoming the only 19th century player to achieve 2 years of knocking in over 150 RBIs. In 1894, the Phillies boasted the only line-up in baseball history with four .400 hitters, right fielder Thompson and left fielder Ed Delahanty at .407 apiece, center fielder “Sliding Billy” Hamilton at .404, and Tuck Turner at .416. Alas, during Thompson’s 10 years in Philadelphia, they were always in the hunt but did not win a pennant–due to their lack of pitching depth.
The Great Clutch HitterIn 1889, Big Sam had 20 homers and 24 stolen bases, becoming the first “20/20” player in history. In August of 1895, he drove in 65 runs, a monthly record that still stands. He also led the league with 18 home runs.
For his 15 year career, Thompson batted a lofty .331, knocked in 1,299 runs, scored 1,256 runs, and slugged 126 homers (the 2nd highest total for 19th century players next to the great Roger Connor). Between 1889 and 1896, he averaged over 100 RBIs and 100 runs per season. He led the National League 3 times each in hits, RBIs, and slugging percentage; twice in doubles and home runs, and once in triples. He also led the league twice in right field assists, and initiated 18 double plays from right field in a single season, another Major League record. One of the interesting mysteries surrounding this left-handed hitter concerns his throwing arm. While the record states that he threw left-handed, there is one reference that describes him as a right-hander. We absolutely know that he batted left-handed, and it is strongly believed that he threw left-handed, too.
Thompson’s most astounding record, unbroken to this day, is his RBIs-per-9 innings figures. His stats show a figure of .923 RBIs per 9 inning game–for his career–unbelievable!
Thompson is believed to have slipped, and fallen, while repairing his own roof, in 1896. He injured his back, and he retired from baseball in 1898 due to the injury not healing perfectly right. In 1906, after 8 years of retirement, he tried to come back. He signed with the American League’s Detroit Tigers, joining an outfield with Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford. He managed to slug a triple, but realized that at age 45 he was too old. He then retired for good. Thompson was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1974.
An interesting side note: Thompson played the fiddle, and while no evidence exists that attests to his musical proficiency, his great, great grandson, Chris Thile, is a nationally recognized mandolin master. He is a multiple Grammy Award Winner and has had highly acclaimed solo albums. Yet, he is probably best known for his song writing, playing and singing with the well-known group, Nickel Creek. On Thile’s album, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”, he composed and played the reel, “Big Sam Thompson”.
Upon Big Sam’s retirement from professional baseball, he and his wife, Ida, did a lot of civic and charity work in the Detroit area. They were well known for promoting baseball among the city’s young people. When Thompson died in 1922, the entire Detroit area mourned one of their most illustrious citizens.
“Big Sam” Thompson–The First Great Clutch Hitter.