With 232 players enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., it comes as no surprise that many of the games immortals are unknown to today’s fans. After all, how many of these 232 legendary ballplayers can you name?
Chances are it’s a lot fewer than you think; everyone knows Cal Ripken, Nolan Ryan, and Babe Ruth; but what about Gabby Hartnett, Frankie Frisch, and George Kell?
There are many great players—especially those from Hall of Fame classes inducted more than 50 years ago—that for one reason or another have fallen out of recognition as the preeminent players of their time.
This recurring article will take a one-by-one look at some of baseball’s most unknown Hall of Famers.
Up today is Sam Thompson, 19th-century slugger for the Detroit Wolverines and Philadelphia Phillies.
A carpenter until a scout convinced him to give professional baseball a try for $2.50 per game, Sam Thompson became one of the most prolific hitters to ever play the game.
Thompson smacked 11 hits in his first 26 at-bats after becoming the Detroit Wolverines’ right fielder in 1885.
In 1887, his second full season in baseball, Thompson compiled one of the most impressive hitting seasons of all-time. Not only did he lead the NL in hitting at .372, but he also drove in a 19th-century record 166 runs while also scoring 118 runs.
However, because RBI was not considered an official stat during his era, Thompson’s run producing prowess was largely unnoticed.
Following the 1888 season in which the Wolverines finished fifth, the franchise had lost so much money that the team folded and its players were sold off. Thompson landed in Philadelphia for the price of $5,000.
Joined by fellow future Hall of Famers Ed Delahanty and Billy Hamilton in the outfield, Philadelphia boasted one of the most devastating lineups of the era.
In the eight seasons from 1889 to 1896, Hamilton was a model of remarkable consistency. During those years, Hamilton missed the 100 runs scored benchmark just one time (when he scored 99 runs in 1894) and missed the 100 RBI benchmark just once (with 90 RBI in 1891).
In 1889, Thompson became the first player in history to have a 20 home run, 20 stolen base season. In 1894, he hit for the cycle while playing for Philadelphia, the same year in which he hit .399, only to see Delahanty and Hamilton both hit over .400 for the year. The next season, Thompson hit .392 while leading the NL with 18 homers and 165 RBI.
Unfortunately, injuries derailed Thompson for the next 10 seasons as he futilely attempted numerous comebacks.
In 1906, his last season, he appeared in just eight games for the Detroit Tigers, playing alongside a 19-year-old Ty Cobb.
For his career, Thompson hit 127 home runs, the second most of the 1876 to 1892 era, while also hitting .331 with 1,299 career RBI.
In fact, at a record .921 runs driven in per game, Thompson is the finest run producer in the history of baseball. More than just a slugger, Thompson led the NL three times in hits, two times in doubles, and once in triples, while also playing a top-notch outfield.
For some inexplicable reason, Thompson’s induction into the Hall of Fame did not come until his election via the Veterans’ Committee in 1974.