Hall of Famer Sam Rice Spent Final Year of Career in Cleveland

After Walter Johnson, there’s probably nobody more closely associated with the original Washington Nationals than Sam Rice.

But Rice, a Hall of Famer that was part of three pennant-winning Senators teams, including the 1924 World Champions, ended his career with the Indians – largely due to the intercession of the Big Train himself.

Rice had come late to the game, sidetracked by unspeakable tragedy. In 1912, while he was trying to latch on as a pitcher with a minor-league team in nearby Galesburg, a tornado struck his family home in Morocco, Indiana, killing his wife, children, mother, and two sisters. Rice returned to Morocco in time for all the funerals, and his father died shortly thereafter as well.

Rice was adrift, and wandered unmoored through the rest of the year. After a stint in the Navy, he returned to minor league baseball and ended up with the Senators, where he became an outfielder. By 1917, he was an everyday player.

By the end of his career, Rice’s teammate Johnson had become his manager. When Johnson was fired as Washington manager after the 1932 season, there was talk Rice would succeed him. But the job went to Joe Cronin, and Goose Goslin supplanted Rice in the outfield. He ended his time in the nation’s capital as a part-time player and pinch-hitter.

In January of 1934, Rice, then nearly 44, was released by the Nationals in a move that came as a surprise even to him. “I still have a little baseball left in me, I’m sure,” he said, “And I ought to be able to make a deal for myself.”

Rice was the Indians’ opening day right fielder, and he wouldn’t be asked to cover a lot of ground. The team, which had moved to Cleveland Stadium two years earlier, was returning to League Park, which it owned, rather than pay to play at the cavernous downtown stadium. Although left and center fields had a lot of ground to cover, right field was comparatively intimate, 290 down the first-base line.

Again, he served a limited role, although greater than the one he had the year before in Washington. He played in 97 games, 78 of them in the outfield, and posted a batting average of .293 – the lowest he’d ever had in a major league season. Rice made his last major league appearance on September 18, going 3-for-5 with two runs batted in as the Indians beat the Nats in the second game of a doubleheader at League Park.

In January 1935, the Indians released Rice and he sought a job managing a minor league team in Albany, but was unable to get it. He retired to Maryland, where he operated a chicken farm (Johnson only lasted a little longer in Cleveland. He didn’t even last the 1935 season before he, too, ended up in retirement in Maryland agriculture). Rice ended his career with 2,987 hits – and had no idea he was that close to 3,000. A couple years later, he recalled that Nationals owner Clark Griffith offered to sign him back up for those last hits, but he’d declined.

In 1963, the Veterans Committee voted Rice into the Baseball Hall of Fame – along with another former Indian, Elmer Flick. Rice had been lobbied for by no less of an authority than Ty Cobb, and made the trip to Cooperstown for his induction, and returned regularly. His last trip was in 1974, ailing with cancer, to see Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford get inducted. He died two months later.

But he had one more trick up his sleeve. Rice’s most famous moment in Washington came in the 1925 World Series, when he went tumbling into temporary bleachers to catch a ball hit by Pittsburgh’s Earl Smith. Rice came up with the ball, and despite protestations by the Pirates – and a pair of fans who after the game told Commissioner Kenesaw Landis that they saw Rice drop the ball in the stands – Smith was ruled out.

In 1965, in one of his trips to Cooperstown, he wrote a letter offering his account – with the stipulation that it not be opened until after his death. The account ended with Sam saying, “At no time did I lose possession of the ball.” Although it did note that after making the out, he’d thrown the ball toward the pitcher’s mound, surrendering it to history. “How I have wished many times that I had kept it.”

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