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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.
Del was Ed Delahanty, the leftfielder, who was named to the Hall of Fame in 1945. Delahanty, 6'1", 170 pounds, was an accomplished outfielder graceful enough to play the infield when he was needed there. He was a remarkable hitter whose lifetime average of .346 is the fourth highest of all time; only Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Shoeless Joe Jackson have surpassed it. Delahanty was a righthanded power hitter, a crowd pleaser. In 1893 he excited the Philadelphia fans one day by hitting two long "foul home runs" to left in the ninth before clouting a bases-clearing triple off the centerfield fence. "The tumult was kept up for such a length of time as to make it absolutely necessary for Umpire Gaffney to stop the game for a while," reported the Philadelphia Public Ledger. "The spectators acted like maniacs; they jumped and danced around, threw straw hats, coats, canes and umbrellas in the air and yelled at the top of their voices..."
One day in Chicago in 1896 Delahanty hit a home run in the first inning, singled in the third, hit another homer in the fifth and another in the seventh. When he came to bat in the ninth, the Chicago fans were shouting, "Line it out. Del! Make it four!" He responded by hitting one onto the clubhouse roof in left for his fourth home run of the game.
Big Sam was Sam Thompson, the rightfielder, who was named to the Hall of Fame in 1974. He was 6'2" and weighed 207 pounds, huge for his day. Thompson, a lefthanded hitter (lifetime average: .331), was a slugger who in the 12 seasons from 1885 through 1896 finished first, second or third in the National League 37 times in such batting categories as average, hits, doubles, triples, homers, slugging percentage, total bases and RBIs. His career total of 129 home runs was a league record that stood for 25 years. In 1887, he led Detroit to its only National League pennant, batting in 166 runs; the second man in the league had 104. Thompson had more RBIs per game in his career than any other player in big league history, including Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron—.92 per game for Big Sam, compared to .88 for the Babe and .70 for Hank. Thompson led the league's outfielders in assists one year and is credited with popularizing the one-bounce throw to home plate. Previously, outfielders had depended on infielders to relay the ball. Thompson didn't play big league baseball until he was 25 and was 31 when the great outfield came together.
Sliding Billy was Billy Hamilton, the centerfielder, who was named to the Hall of Fame in 1961. He was built like a tree stump: 5'6", 165 pounds, with thick legs. He was a lefthanded singles hitter, and his lifetime average of .344 is seventh on the alltime list. Hamilton was the fastest man in baseball in the 1890s, an outfielder with great range and a base runner who earned his nickname by making headfirst slides 70 years before Pete Rose came on the scene. He led the National League in bases on balls five times, in stolen bases seven times and seemed always to be racing across home plate. He scored 1.06 runs per game during his career, still the major league record. In 1894 he had 192 runs, another enduring record.
The outfield coalesced in the spring of 1891. In 1888 the Phils had bought the 20-year-old Delahanty from the minors for the then astonishing price of $1,900, but in 1890, the year of the great player revolt, he jumped to the newly formed Players' League. So did Thompson, who had come to Philadelphia in 1889 after the Detroit club was disbanded and its players sold. Hamilton, meanwhile, had joined the Phils in 1890 at the age of 24 after playing two seasons in Kansas City.
Before the Players' League had even staged a game, the Phils went after Delahanty and Thompson with more money, and the two jumped back. Thompson stayed in Philadelphia thereafter, but Delahanty, doing what the sportswriters called "the double somersault," jumped again and played the 1890 season with Cleveland in the Players' League. The rebel league died after its one season and Delahanty adroitly leaped back again to Philadelphia, where the three stars finally became a unit.
In 1891 the outfield marked time, although Hamilton hit .340 to lead the league. Thompson did all right, too—.294, with 90 RBIs—but Delahanty, who played center that year with Hamilton in left, batted only .243. In 1892, though, Hamilton and Delahanty switched positions during the season, and Delahanty's average coincidentally climbed more than 60 points, to .306. Hamilton batted .330, Thompson .305. There were only 11 regulars in the 12-team league who hit .300 that season, and three of them played in the Philadelphia outfield.
In 1893 they really took off. Hamilton was the leadoff man, with Thompson usually batting second and Delahanty third. Hamilton ripped off a 14-game hitting streak, Delahanty hit in 20 straight. Thompson hit safely in 28 of 30. At one point all three hit safely in 11 consecutive games. They had 12 hits among them in one game, 10 in another, seven or more on 14 other occasions. Hamilton had a 10-game streak in which he had two or more hits in every game. He hit .380 to win the batting championship, with Thompson (.370) second and Delahanty (.368) third. Between them Delahanty and Thompson finished first in home runs, first and third in runs batted in. first and second in hits, first and third in slugging average, first and second in total bases. The trio's hitting kept the traditionally also-ran Phillies in the pennant fight into August. Then Hamilton caught typhoid fever and was out the rest of the year. The Phils fell to fourth.
Hamilton was healthy again in 1894. He played every game and hit .404 according to the authoritative 1969 edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia, which meticulously checked and, where necessary, corrected all old batting averages. In an ill-advised bow to baseball tradition, recent editions of the Encyclopedia have been changed to reinstate certain old and inaccurate statistics; for instance, the new fifth edition of the Encyclopedia gives Hamilton's 1894 average as .399, which is incorrect.