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The Secrets of Sam
Steve Wulf
July 19, 1993
Hall of Famer Sam Rice came out of nowhere to play rightfield for the Washington Senators. But where was nowhere?
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July 19, 1993

The Secrets Of Sam

Hall of Famer Sam Rice came out of nowhere to play rightfield for the Washington Senators. But where was nowhere?

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His is one of 215 plaques in the Hall of Fame gallery, and visitors tend to skip past him on their way to more recent or recognizable names. If they stopped, they would read:

WASHINGTON 1915-1933

At bat 600 or more times eight different seasons. Had 200 or more hits in each of six seasons. Batted .322 for 20-year career and had 2,987 hits. Set AL record with 182 singles in 1925. Led AL in number of hits (216) in 1924 and 1926. Led AL in putouts for outfielders with 454 in 1920 and 385 in 1922.

No plaque tells the whole story of a Hall of Famer, but the Rice bronze may be the most inadequate in Cooperstown. Numbers can say that he was a great hitter and a fine outfielder. The story of his life—actually two lives—is the stuff of a novel or a play or a movie. No plaque could tell of the tragedy and triumph of Sam Rice. No plaque could reveal the mystery he held on to with a death grip, as if it were a fly ball in the World Series. His plaque should just read: A MAN WHO COULD KEEP A SECRET.

One of his secrets is part of baseball lore. On Oct. 10, 1925, the Washington Senators and the Pittsburgh Pirates, having split the first two games of the World Series, met for Game 3 at Griffith Stadium. These were two splendid teams, boasting many future Hall of Famers: Rice, Goose Goslin, Walter Johnson and Stan Coveleski of the Nats; Pie Traynor, Kiki Cuyler and Max Carey of the Pirates.

It was a rotten day, really, cold and windy, but an overflow crowd of 36,495 fans, including President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, braved the elements to welcome the Senators home. The fans cheered mightily in the bottom of the seventh when Washington scored twice to take a 4-3 lead. In the top of the eighth, second baseman-manager Bucky Harris entrusted the lead to relief pitcher Firpo Marberry. The prototype of the modern-day closer, Marberry struck out Pirate shortstop Glenn (Buckshot) Wright and first baseman George (Boots) Grantham. But then catcher Earl (Oil) Smith turned on a Marberry pitch, lining the ball toward the temporary bleachers in right centerfield.

Rice, who had moved over to right from center at the start of the inning, took off after the ball. He leaped and made a backhanded catch near the fence, then tumbled over the four-foot-high barrier and disappeared into the crowd. Everyone in the stadium froze, waiting for Rice to reappear. Seconds passed. Finally, he emerged from the crowd, holding the ball in his glove. Umpire Charlie Rigler signaled that Smith was out.

Rigler was a National League ump, but that didn't stop the Pirates from storming the field in righteous indignation. Leading the charge were manager Bill McKechnie and owner Barney Dreyfuss. McKechnie maintained that Rice had dropped the ball and that a spectator had placed it back in his glove. When the umpires refused to reverse the call, McKechnie went to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, sitting in the commissioner's box along the first base line, to lodge a protest, but the Judge waved him off.

In the ninth the Pirates loaded the bases with one out, but Marberry induced a pop-up and then a fly ball, and the Senators won 4-3 to take a 2-1 lead in the Series. The next day The Washington Star reported: "Old baseball men, players and writers searched their memories for a catch that could rival Rice's, but found none. [Senators' owner] Clark Griffith, who played baseball when the game was in short trousers, declared he had never seen any catch approach it.... [Former Senator pitcher] Nick Altrock, who has been around in a baseball sense nearly as long as Griffith, was rendered speechless. All he could do in the clubhouse after the game was to murmur, 'How did he do it?' "

The more pressing question was, Did he do it? Even commissioner Landis wasn't so sure. As Rice later recalled, "The Judge called me to his hotel, the old Occidental, the next morning. I walked into his room, and he had me sit in a chair for five minutes before he even acknowledged me. Finally, he turned to me and said, 'Sam, did you catch that ball yesterday?'

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