The Curious Case of Sam Rice

SportsLifer@sportsliferCorrespondent IIMay 15, 2011

As Derek Jeter climbs the all-time hit list, there is only one man that stands between the Yankee captain and the magic 3,000 hit plateau — Sam Rice.

With 2,987 hits, Rice has the most of any player not to reach 3,000. He was 44 years old when he played his last game, nearly 77 years ago.

Here is the curious tale of Edgar Charles “Sam” Rice, the man who finished 13 hits shy of 3,000.

When he retired, Rice ranked seventh the all-time hit list — behind only eventual Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Cap Anson, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins and Nap Lajoie. Rice spent nearly his entire career with the Washington Senators, before playing for the Cleveland Indians in 1934, his final year. That year he hit .293 and amassed 98 hits in 97 games.

He never returned.

Years later, Rice said, “The truth of the matter is I did not even know how many hits I had. A couple of years after I quit, [Senators owner] Clark Griffith told me about it, and 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.”

19 Years in Washington
Rice started his career as a relief pitcher, but moved to the outfield and made his debut at age 28 with Washington in 1915. He played 19 seasons for the Senators, and helped lead them to a World Championship in 1924 and American League pennants in 1925 and 1933.

Rice was regularly among the American League leaders in runs scored, hits, stolen bases and batting average. A left-hand hitter, he rarely stuck out, once completing a 616-at-bat season with nine strikeouts.

A contact man, Rice was not a home run threat (he hit just 34 in his career). But he had a .322 career batting average and stole 351 bases, including a AL best 63 in 1920. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1963, and lived to attend his induction at Cooperstown.

A tragedy early in Rice’s career had an enormous impact on him, and surely slowed his rise to the majors. In 1912, as he played with a minor-league baseball team in Galesburg, Illinois, Rice’s wife, two children, mother, father, siblings, and a farmhand were all killed in a tornado that swept through Morocco, Indiana, on the Indiana-Illinois border.

Soon after, Rice joined the US Navy. He was a seaman aboard the USS New Hampshire when the ship saw combat

at Vera Cruz, Mexico on April 15, 1914. A year later, he was in the big leagues with the Senators.

Catch for the Ages
The most storied moment in Rice’s career occurred in Game Three of the 1925 World Series. With the Senators leading 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth, the Pirates Earl Smith hit a long drive to right-center at Pittsburgh’s old Forbes Field.

Rice ran down the ball and appeared to catch it at the fence, potentially robbing Smith of a home run that would have tied the game. After the catch, Rice toppled over the top of the fence and into the stands, disappearing out of sight. When Rice reappeared, he had the ball in his glove and the umpire called the batter out.

For many years, people questioned whether Rice actually caught the ball and whether he kept possession of the ball the entire time. Rice himself would not tell, only answering: “The umpire called him out,” when asked.

The controversy became so great that Rice wrote a letter to be opened upon his death. After Rice died in 1974, the letter was opened and it contained Rice’s account of what happened. At the end of the letter, he wrote: “At no time did I lose possession of the ball.”

The Senators won the game, but the Pirates went on to win the World Series in seven game.