Sam Rice

Burrowing around the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame many years ago I came across an envelope marked: “Not to be opened till after the death of Sam Rice. [signed] Paul S. Kerr [longtime Hall of Fame official].” Oh, if that doesn’t set your heart a-racing, you don’t love baseball history

A baseball controversy settled from beyond the grave–this is surely one of the oddest letters in the Hall’s collection. In the eighth inning of Game 3 of the 1925 World Series, in Washington, the Senators held a 4-3 lead over the Pirates. But with two outs, Pirates catcher Earl Smith slugged a ball into deep right center. Right fielder Edgar Charles Sam” Rice ran for it, leapt, and tumbled into the temporary bleachers. He didn’t reappear for at least ten seconds, but he held the ball for all to see. Umpire Cy Rigler called Smith out; the Pirates went bonkers. How could anyone tell whether Rice had caught the ball? A fan could have handed it to him.

The play might have remained controversial had the Pirates not won the Series anyway. Forty years later Sam Rice decided to set the record straight. He composed this letter on July 27, 1965, during Induction Weekend in Cooperstown, and gave it to Kerr, at that time the Hall’s president, with instructions that it not be opened until after his death. Rice had been inducted into the Hall in 1963 for his twenty years of stellar play, nineteen of them with Washington. When Sam met his Maker on October 13, 1974, the controversy could be settled at last. What follows is a verbatim transcription:

It was a cold and windy day. The right field bleachers were crowded with people in overcoats and wrapped in blankets, the ball was a line drive headed for the bleachers towards right center. I turned slightly to my right and had the ball in view all the way, going at top speed, and about 15 feet from bleachers jumped as high as I could and back handed and the ball hit the center of pocket in glove (I had a death grip on it). I hit the ground about 5 feet from a barrier about 4 feet high in front of bleacher with all the brakes on but couldn’t stop so my feet hit the barrier about a foot from top and I toppled over on my stomach into first row of bleachers. I hit my adams apple on something which sort of knocked me out for a few seconds but Earl McNeely arrived about that time and grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me out. I remember trotting back towards the infield still carrying the ball for about half way and then tossed it towards the pitchers mound. (How I have wished many times that I had kept it.)

At no time did I lose possession of the ball.

“Sam” Rice

P.S. After this was announced at the dinner last night I approached Bill McKechnie (one of the finest men I have ever known in Baseball) and I said Bill, you were the Mgr of Pittsburgh at that time, what do you think will be in the letter. His answer was, Sam there was never any doubt in my mind but what you caught the ball. I thanked him as much as to say you were right.

Rice, curiously to observers in today’s milestone-obsessed age, retired at 44 with 2,987 hits. He didn’t see any great value in hanging on to get number 3,000. In later years he was often asked why he retired so close to the magic number. “You must remember,” he’d explain, “there wasn’t much emphasis on three thousand hits when I quit. And to tell the truth, I didn’t know how many hits I had.” Expanding upon that thought he said, “A couple of years after I quit, [Senators owner] Clark Griffith … asked me if I’d care to have a comeback with the Senators and pick up those 13 hits. But I was out of shape, and didn’t want to go through all that would have been necessary to make the effort. Nowadays, with radio and television announcers spouting records every time a player comes to bat, I would have known about my hits and probably would have stayed to make 3,000 of them.”

So when Derek Jeter attained his 3,000th hit last season, he awakened the ghosts of Cap Anson, Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins, and Tris Speaker. Rice could have been next in line, before Paul Waner. But his name was on no one’s lips, for want of 13 hits.

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