Teams: Detroit Wolverines, 1885-1888; Philadelphia Quakers (Phillies), 1889-1898; Detroit Tigers, 1906
At .921 per game, Sam Thompson
was the most prolific batter
ever at knocking in runs.
Samuel Luther Thompson (1860-1922) was already 24 years old and seemingly destined to spend his life as a carpenter in his hometown of Danville, Indiana, when a scout for the Evansville club in the Northwest League suggested he give pro baseball a try. The scout was more interested in Thompson’s older brother Cy, then demurred when he discovered that Cy was past age 26.
After playing only five games with Evansville, Sam ended up out of a job when the club folded. Thompson signed with Indianapolis of the Western League in 1885. When Thompson got off to a fast start in 1885, manager Hustling Dan O’Leary, an off-season resident of Detroit, convinced Detroit owner Fredrick Stearns to purchase Big Sam.
Joining the Wolverines in early July, Thompson tallied 11 hits in his first 26 at bats and claimed the club’s right field job. He led Detroit in batting in 1886, his first full campaign in the majors.
In 1887, he paced the entire National League as he hit .372 and bagged a 19th-century-record 166 RBI. Thompson’s talents as a hitter went largely unrecognized in his time (RBI totals were kept only on an informal basis).
It was not until long after Thompson retired that historians revealed him to be the most prolific player ever at driving in runs -- .921 per game. The home run, another Thompson specialty, was regarded as a trivial accomplishment by many of the game’s authorities in the late 1800s.
Thompson was not merely a slugger. He also led the NL on three occasions in hits, twice in doubles, and once in triples. A good outfielder, he had one of the strongest arms in the game. The Detroit franchise collapsed after the 1888 season, and Sam was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies.
In the early 1890s, Big Sam was joined by Ed Delahanty and Billy Hamilton, giving Philadelphia a trio of future Hall of Fame outfielders. In 1895, Thompson hit .392 and led the NL with 18 homers and 165 RBI, coming within one marker of tying his own 19th-century record.
A bad back shelved him early in 1897. He made several unsuccessful comeback attempts, the final one with the Detroit Tigers in 1906. Then 46 years old, Thompson found himself playing beside 19-year-old Ty Cobb for a few days in Cobb’s first full season. Thompson was named to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1974.
Here are Sam Thompson's major league totals:
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