Sam Thompson Essentials
Bats: L Throws: R
Born: Year: 1860 in Danville, IN USA
Died: 11 7 1922 in Detroit, MI USA
Last Game: 9/10/1906
Hall of Fame: Inducted as a Player in 1974 by Veterans
Full Name: Samuel Luther Thompson
Described by The Saint Paul Globe as “a physical giant [who] can hit the ball harder than a mule can kick,” Sam Thompson was one of the 19th century’s greatest sluggers. In fact, the big lefty’s numbers are downright awe-inspiring. Sam compiled his first of several epic seasons with the 1887 Detroit Wolverines. That year he batted .372 with 203 hits, 23 triples, 10 home runs, and 166 RBI in only 127 games. He became the first big leaguer to collect 200 hits, and his 166 RBI—62 more than runner-up Roger Connor—stood as the single-season record until being surpassed by Babe Ruth (171) in 1921.
Upon joining the Philadelphia Quakers in 1889, Big Sam began launching home runs at a near-record pace, finishing the year with an NL-best 20 long balls to go along with 111 RBI and only 22 strikeouts. (According to historian Bill Jenkinson, Thompson routinely hit drives that traveled over 420-feet—quite an accomplishment considering the soft, lopsided spheroids that passed for baseballs in those days.)
Already a fearsome batsman, Thompson was unstoppable after the pitching distance was lengthened in 1893. That year he amassed 222 hits—37 doubles, 13 triples, 11 homers—126 RBI, and a .370 batting average. In 1894, Big Sam hit .415 with 13 big flies, 28 triples, 27 steals, and 149 RBI in only 102 games! Amazingly, the 35-year-old was just as impressive in 1895, batting .392 with 45 doubles, 21 triples, 27 stolen bases, and NL-leading totals in home runs (18) and RBI (165).
Thompson, who retired in 1898, later returned to play eight games with the 1906 Detroit Tigers—the 46-year-old hit .226 with a triple and four RBI. All told, Big Sam slashed .331/.384/.505 with 343 doubles, 161 triples, 126 home runs, 1,308 RBI, 232 stolen bases, and only 234 strikeouts over parts of 15 big-league seasons. To put it another way, he averaged 37 doubles, 14 home runs, 18 triples, 143 RBI, 25 steals, and 26 Ks per 154 games played. The 6-foot-2-inch, 207-pound basher ranked among the NL’s top six in RBI on nine occasions; home runs and total bases eight times apiece.
Thompson’s 126 long balls remained the NL record until the 1920s (Roger Connor hit 14 of his 138 homers in the Players’ League). Sam’s career ratio of one home run per every 47.6 at-bats ranks first among 19th-century sluggers. For his career, he amassed .926 RBI per game, which still stands as the all-time mark (Lou Gehrig ranks second with .922 RBI per game). Thompson was also one of the 19th century’s top right fielders. He paced NL gardeners in fielding percentage twice and for his career, averaged an astonishing 31 assists per 154 games played. Big Sam still ranks among the all-time leaders with 283 outfield assists (12th) and 61 double plays turned (15th).
In March 1907, Thompson gave an interview in which he discussed his most memorable drives. “John Clarkson was the king pin of them all,” he declared. “I remember my introduction to him. It was in Detroit in 1887. . . . He sent in a couple that were called strikes, and I asked him why he did not put them over the plate. He walked up about half way to the plate and said he did not see any medals on me giving me a license to hit any of his balls, and, going back into the box, sent a waist-high ball straight over the plate. I hit it on the nose; it went forty feet over the fence, and as I turned third base trotting in home, I told him that was where I got one medal anyhow. When I was feeling right, I could always hit John, but many is the time he made me bite the dust.
“[Amos] Rusie was always easy for me,” continued Thompson. “The first ball he ever pitched to me was at Indianapolis, and I don’t think I ever hit a ball further. It looked like it went a mile high. Frank Foreman was the hardest man for me I ever saw. One season I only made one hit off him from May to October, and that one hit his shin and I beat it out.”
After his playing days, Thompson—who had lived in Detroit since 1888—made a small fortune in real estate and later worked as a U.S. Deputy Marshall. Among the Motor City’s most respected and well-liked citizens, Sam was known for his civic-minded good works and unassailable character (not surprising for a man who was never fined or ejected from a game).
Tales of Thompson’s long ball exploits appeared in the national press for years to come. In January 1922, sportswriter Sam Crane gushed about his former teammate in an article for The Washington Times:
“Sam Thompson, one of those heavy-hitting, big left-handed batters, who was in the same class as Dan Brouthers, Roger Connor, Mike Tiernan, and others, was outstanding as a premier slugger in his day and time. Thompson was one of those dangerous men at bat whom Pitcher ‘Crazy’ Schmidt [sic] kept tabs on in a little book he carried with him. . . . His pitching instructions for Thompson read: ‘Walk him.’ . . . The writer has the idea that if Sam Thompson had stepped up on the ball instead of shifting his left foot back, he might have been as heavy a hitter as Babe Ruth. I saw Sam hit a ball far over the right-field fence on the Cincinnati ball grounds. . . . It was a whale of a wallop—a regular Babe Ruth blow.”
On November 7, 1922, Samuel Luther Thompson, age 62, passed away at his home in Detroit after suffering a massive heart attack while volunteering as an election inspector. In its coverage of Thompson’s well-attended funeral, the Detroit Free Press wrote: “Michigan’s foremost citizens—state and city officials, judges, bankers, doctors, millionaires, laborers—paid homage . . . to their beloved friend.”
The Philadelphia Public Ledger ran a glowing obituary that read in part:
“The idol of another generation of baseball fans has made his final gesture to those who applauded him and passed into the beyond. Many wonderful hitters have held the spotlight since baseball graduated from its infancy—from the days of Cap Anson to the current ones of Babe Ruth. . . . For sheer murderous hitting power, Thompson never conceded first place to any of them. . . . Some had higher averages, but none hit more savagely. In Thompson’s day, there were no plethora of home runs, as has been common during the last few years. Yet he crashed out 127 [sic] of them during his career. Among more modern National Leaguers, only Honus Wagner and Gavvy Cravath were able to pass the 100 mark in home runs.”
Shortly after Thompson’s death, sportswriter George Chadwick interviewed Babe Ruth, who was eager to learn more about the National League home run king:
▪️Ruth: “What kind of batter was this Sam Thompson? Did he hit like me?”
▪️Chadwick: “No, he had a different swing from yours. He was a left-hander, as you are, but he did not swing from over the shoulder.”
▪️BR: “Some push, was he a big fellow?”
▪️GC: “Yes, bigger than you are—taller and not so big around but with more
▪️BR: “Could he hit as far as I have done?”
▪️GC: “Sometimes, although he may never have hit one as far as your farthest.”
▪️BR: “Some bust I gave that old apple out in Detroit once. They say it was the longest ever made. Thompson died in Detroit. Maybe he saw me hit that one.”
“Gentlemen, you all know Mr. Thompson. He is about to bat. You can kiss the ball goodbye.” — Buck Ewing
✍️ Bobby King II
☑️Sources: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov + https://www.baseball-reference.com + https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org + https://en.wikipedia.org