SI Vault
Robert W. Creamer
October 18, 1982
The best outfield ever to play in the big leagues was a remarkable trio that spent five seasons together, a long time as outfields go, on the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1890s, way back in baseball's Dark Ages. Before you dismiss that best-outfield claim as the raving of a hidebound antiquarian, consider the exploits of Del. Big Sam and Sliding Billy.
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October 18, 1982

The Best Outfield Ever? Why, Del, Big Sam And Sliding Billy, For Sure

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That was the year of the batting explosion, when the league average soared to .309 and the Phillies as a team batted .349, the highest ever. Five men batted better than .400 that season. Hugh Duffy of Boston led the league with .440 (.438, according to the old guides). The other four were all Philadelphia outfielders: Hamilton .404, Delahanty .407, Thompson .407 and George (Tuck) Turner .416. Turner was a substitute outfielder the Phils had signed the previous summer when Hamilton took sick. In 1894 he filled in for Thompson when he was out for six weeks after an operation and for Delahanty when he was called on to play the infield. Turner appeared in enough games to be eligible for the batting title. Thus, the Phils had four .400-hitting outfielders the same season.

The outfield's fifth and last season together was in 1895, when Delahanty, Thompson and Hamilton finished second, fourth and sixth in the batting race. Hamilton again led in walks, steals and runs. Thompson was first in homers. RBIs, total bases and slugging average. Delahanty batted better than .400 for the second year in a row and was second to Thompson in total bases and slugging. (Turner hit .386 but didn't play as much as he had a year earlier.) Still, the Phils finished third, and in an effort to shake things up Hamilton was traded to Boston for a veteran third baseman named Billy Nash, who was made manager. With Nash and without Hamilton, the 1896 Phils slid to eighth.

The glory years were over. Thompson, aging, played only one more season as a regular. Delahanty continued as a star, but his behavior became erratic. He drank, had marital problems and became embroiled in disputes over money. The National League in 1893 had passed a rule limiting salaries to a maximum of $2,400 a year. The new American League was challenging the National, and in 1901 Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A's offered Delahanty $4,000. The Phils, breaching their league's rule, matched that offer and managed to keep him one more year, but then Delahanty jumped to Washington, where he won the American League batting title in 1902. After that season John McGraw of the New-York Giants persuaded Delahanty to return to the National League, the carrot being a $4,500 cash payment in advance. However, before the 1903 season began, the two warring leagues made peace, and under the terms of the agreement Delahanty was ordered to remain with Washington and refund the $4,500.

Outraged at what he felt was a double-cross, Delahanty swore he wouldn't play for the Senators. He did eventually rejoin Washington, but he drank heavily and was suspended. He tagged along with the club, but while in Detroit early in July he decided to go to New York City to see his estranged wife. He took a train that passed through Canada on its way to New York, did some heavy drinking along the way and became loud and belligerent. At Fort Erie, on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, he was forcibly put off the train. Angry, frustrated, drunk, he watched helplessly as the train crossed the International Bridge and disappeared into the night. He began to run after it. A guard with a lantern tried to stop him, but Delahanty shoved his way past, lost his balance and fell into the turbulent river. He was swept downstream and over Niagara Falls to his death. His mangled body was found a week later.

Thompson and Hamilton led more placid lives. Hamilton played six seasons with Boston after leaving the Phillies and nine more after that in the minor leagues. In 1909, at the age of 43, he batted .332 to lead the New England League in hitting. He saved his money, invested it well and lived comfortably until his death in 1940. Thompson retired to Detroit, where he sold real estate and was appointed a United States deputy marshal. In 1906, when the Detroit Tigers were short of men because of injuries, they signed Thompson, then 46, who had kept himself in shape playing semipro ball. He appeared in eight games for the Tigers, had seven hits, including a triple, and batted in three runs. One of his Detroit teammates during that brief stint was Cobb, then a 19-year-old kid in his second season in the majors. Thompson died in 1922, almost totally forgotten. Not until 1969, when The Baseball Encyclopedia was published, with its detailed statistics on pre-1900 players, was his extraordinary ability recalled.

They were' an odd, disparate trio, as different off the field as on it, but they were all Hall of Famers and in the five seasons they played together they did more than any other outfield before or since. You want to argue?

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