One of the greatest run-producers in baseball history, Sam Thompson rivaled fellow Hall of Famer Roger Connor as baseball’s preeminent slugger of the 19th century. A veritable RBI-machine, the strapping 6’2″, 207-pound Thompson compiled more home runs prior to 1900 (127) than anyone except Connor, and he was the only 19th century player to drive in as many as 150 runs in a season – a feat he accomplished on two separate occasions. The outfielder also compiled the best RBI-to-games played ratio in baseball history, averaging .923 runs batted in per-game played over the course of his career. Yet, it somehow wasn’t until 1974, more than 50 years after his death, that the Veterans Committee elected Thompson to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Born in Danville, Indiana on March 5, 1860, Samuel Luther Thompson didn’t make his major league debut with the Detroit Wolverines until he was 25 years of age. The fifth of eleven children, Thompson began his career in baseball playing on the Danville team, while also working in his father’s carpentry business. Spotted by a scout who offered to pay him the exhorbitant sum of $2.50 per game, the young outfielder joined Evansville of the Northwest League and subsequently posted a .391 batting average before the league folded. Thompson then signed with Indianapolis, before finally joining the National League’s Detroit Wolverines on July 2, 1885, almost four months after celebrating his 25th birthday. Thompson soon became the team’s starting rightfielder, displaying the offensive prowess he exhibited throughout most of his career. Big Sam, as he came to be known, batted .303, hit seven home runs, knocked in 44 runs, and scored 58 others in the 63 games in which he appeared the remainder of the season.
Thompson had a solid 1896 campaign, batting .310, hitting eight homers, driving in 89 runs, and scoring 101 times himself in his first full season in the majors. The big rightfielder also impressed everyone with his powerful throwing arm, leading all National League outfielders in double plays (11) for the first of two times. Said to be the originator of the one-hop throw to home plate, the lefty-throwing Thompson often employed that technique to throw out opposing baserunners when they attempted to score either on base hits or fly balls to him in the outfield.
Experiencing his breakout season the following year, Thompson helped lead the Wolverines to the National League pennant in 1887 when he established a 19th century record by driving in 166 runs in only 127 games. The lefty-hitting rightfielder also hit 11 home runs, scored 118 runs, and led the league with 23 triples, 203 hits, a .372 batting average, and a .571 slugging percentage. Thompson then posted a .362 batting average against the American Association’s St. Louis Browns during a 15-game series that the Wolverines won to capture the world championship. Thompson also homered twice, drove in seven runs, and scored eight others.
After being sidelined for much of the 1888 season with a sore arm, Thompson was sold to the Philadelphia Quakers (who became the Phillies in 1890) at the end of the year. Big Sam responded by knocking in 111 runs, scoring another 103, batting .296, and hitting a 19th century record 20 home runs during the 1889 campaign. By also stealing 24 bases, Thompson became the first major league player to surpass 20 home runs and 20 steals in the same season.
Thompson had some of his most successful seasons in Philadelphia, teaming up with fellow future Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Hamilton the next six years to give the Phillies baseball’s most dynamic one-two punch. While the speedy Hamilton typically led the league in runs scored and stolen bases, Thompson annually finished near the top of the league rankings in home runs and runs batted in. The rightfielder batted over .300 and surpassed 100 RBIs in two of the next three seasons, scored more than 100 runs each year, and topped the circuit in base hits and doubles once each.
After the pitcher’s mound was moved back to 60-feet, 6 inches at the end of the 1892 campaign, offensive numbers took a quantum leap throughout all of baseball. The figures posted by Thompson were no exception. He placed among the league leaders with 11 home runs, 126 runs batted in, 130 runs scored, and a .370 batting average in 1893, while topping the circuit with 222 hits and 37 doubles. Thompson had another sensational year in 1894, hitting 13 homers, knocking in 141 runs, scoring 108 others, amassing 27 triples, batting .407, and compiling a .686 slugging percentage. He compiled those numbers despite missing a month of the season with a finger injury that necessitated the amputation of a fingertip. Thompson joined fellow Philadelphia outfielders Billy Hamilton and Ed Delahanty that year to form the only all-.400 hitting outfield in baseball history. Thompson had perhaps his finest season in 1895, leading the National League with 18 home runs, 165 runs batted in, and a .654 slugging percentage, while also placing among the leaders with 131 runs scored, 21 triples, 45 doubles, and a .392 batting average. Thompson’s 165 RBIs placed him only one short of his own 19th century mark.
Thompson played one more full season in Philadelphia, knocking in 100 runs and scoring 103 others in 1896. Back problems then limited him to a total of only 17 games over the next two years, before finally forcing him into premature retirment at the end of the 1898 campaign. However, he did make a brief comeback with the American League’s Detroit Tigers eight years later, at the ripe old age of 46. Thompson appeared in eight games with the Tigers in 1906, batting only .226, but becoming one of the oldest players in baseball history to reach base via a triple. He played his final game on September 6 of that year, retiring from the game with a .331 career batting average, 127 home runs, 160 triples, and 1,299 runs batted in and 1,256 runs scored in only 1,407 games. His ratio of .923 RBIs to games played places him first on the all-time list, slightly ahead of both Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg. Thompson knocked in more than 100 runs eight times, scored more than 100 runs ten times, and batted over .370 four times.
Thompson lived another 16 years following his retirement, passing away in Detroit on November 7, 1922 at the age of 62.