Complete this name: Samuel L. ______ . Was Thompson the first name that came to mind? Probably not. It was Jackson, wasn’t it. That is, unless you’re an old school Philadelphia Phillies buff. Samuel L. (Luther) Thompson is one of the best baseball players in the history of the game you’ve never heard of. He played for the Phillies in the late 1800s, and I met him today through his great nephew, Don Thompson.
When Don saw me in my throwback Phils’ V-Neck at the AFL in Mesa, Arizona this afternoon he asked me if I was a real Phillies fan. After I answered in the affirmative he whipped out a Hall of Fame postcard attesting to the fact that his great uncle had an illustrious career with the Phils, having been inducted into the Hall by the Veterans’ Committee in 1974.
I was embarrassed at first that I had never heard of Sam Thompson, particularly when Don told me that Sam had set a record by banging out extra base hits in eleven consecutive at bats. That helps explain why Sam was known as “Big Sam” Thompson. Big Sam had other tools though, according to Don. With his canon in right field, Thompson once threw out four runners at home plate in the same game! I haven’t looked it up, but I’d have to guess that’s a major league record too. Don Thompson wrote a detailed bio about Sam for SABR that you can access here. I didn’t realize until after the game that Don was probably there with Hall of Fame postcards of Sam in his back pocket because of a SABR gathering, and it was merely our good fortune to be regaled by stories of his legendary great uncle.
1894 was Big Sam’s all-around best season of his 10 played in a Philadelphia uniform. Actually it may be one of the best hitting seasons ever accomplished by a single club, with Sam’s accomplishments almost overshadowed by fellow Hall of Fame outfielders Ed Delahanty in left field and Sliding Billy Hamilton in center. Not only did each of the trio hit over .400, but so did their outfield sub, Tuck Turner. In fact, the lowest batting average among the starting eight position players was Jack Boyle, who hit a paltry .298.
Beginning in 1978 the Phillies started a tradition. Each year the Phillies add a player to their Wall of Fame in Center Field and the inaugural honor went to the immortal Robin Roberts followed by Richie Ashburn in 1979. In 1985, Ed Delahanty became the seventh Phillie, and the first of the 19th century players to join this prestigious group. Billy Hamilton joined the wall in 2004 but somehow Big Sam has not yet made it to The Wall in Citizens Bank Park – an injustice the Phillies should correct. Perhaps, with the upcoming publication of baseball historian Roy Kerr’s book due out in December (Big Sam Thompson: Baseball’s Greatest Clutch Hitter), justice will be done to Sam’s legacy.