The Sam Rice Story is Blockbuster Material
You may not have heard of Sam Rice (lower right). He was a major league baseball player for the Washington Senators, 1915 - 1934, and became a Hall of Famer, late in life. But his tale began much earlier, and transcends a mere baseball life.
Rice's chronicle is an extraordinary sequence of adventures highlighting what Sam did with life, and what life did with him - one of the most dramatic sagas in the whole history of sports figures - becoming crystal clear by the Twilight Zone nature of this complete story; one that should have graced the movie screens years ago.
Director Steven Spielberg (lower left) is one person who can still make it all possible. It's exactly, precisely this director's type of story.
Sam Rice began by toiling on the family farm, as did so many future major league players. He was an aspiring pitcher in area sandlot baseball, where success was never simple or automatic.
Surely no one ever pegged him to be major league material. Early on, Sam played with the colorfully named Watseka Pastimes (Illinois), a semi pro team, and by age 21, he signed to play for the Class D Galesburg Pavers (Illinois).
This was his livelihood until April 1912, when at age 22, life got brutally tough for Rice - suddenly and spectacularly, with irreversible life changing events.
Sam had been 170 miles away, playing baseball and competing in Galesburg. Suddenly, he was called home, to Morocco, Indiana. There had been a terrible event and father Charles, age 50, was severely injured. Sam attended to him for almost a week, but Charles slowly died.
Gratefully, Sam had much time to say goodbye to his dad - amidst the horror and reverberating suddenness of it all. His dad was the only thing in the world that he had left.
Soon, he departed Morocco, Indiana and drifted for the balance of 1912 - a man in darkness - becoming a railroad employee, a wheat field worker in Dakota and Minnesota, as well as a whiskey bottler in Louisville, Kentucky.
Battle of Veracruz Mexico - A bungled American blunder
It was about a year later, in spring of 1913, that Rice decided to join the navy. The plan had been to get away from everything and start anew. "I had a desire to see the world and I took the first opportunity they offered", explained Sam.
He continued to play baseball, as a navy man, aboard the U.S.S New Hampshire - but soon his plans on seeing the world evaporated.
In 1914, Mexico was in the midst if a protracted civil war. Additionally, American president, Woodrow Wilson, had gotten America involved in a questionable military skirmish at the port of Veracruz.
Soon U.S. ships, including the New Hampshire, with Sam Rice, were reaching the port of Veracruz April 21-22 - with a total of 3,000 forces, including marines. The first day featured a U.S navy man being killed. The firefight was on. Three more Americans were snuffed out by day's end.
Sam Rice and a massive contingent had entered from the waters -amidst rapid fire from snipers. In turn, the new Hampshire Captain, E.A Anderson, had poorly led Rice and his crewmen into an open ambush - by forty Mexican soldiers - from approximately 400 feet away - hiding behind anything that could shield them.
Rice recalled: "Mexicans were sniping at us from the roofs of houses...it was a queer sound to hear the bullets humming around you, spatting near you". "The Mexicans got twenty of us", continued Sam. "One man died on the left of me, while another died on my right". (Three, in total, from his ship, the New Hampshire.)
The battle had ended with bullets from three ships killing approximately fifteen Mexican combatants. Americans were now in charge of Veracruz.
Restoring Veracruz back to normal was a tall order, which fell to Sam and the American forces. Injured Mexican citizens were corralled and brought to hospitals. Others were dead, lying in the streets. Soldiers had to burn many of them - while horrified city residents looked on. A few gunshots were sporadically fired, in addition.
History took a dim view of the American aggression at Veracruz. President Wilson received a virtual black eye for using excessive force, that didn't fit the crime.
Edgar "Sam" Rice reached age 24, although in the previous two years he'd been part of the inconceivable snapshot of Morocco, and the spine tingling gunfights of Veracruz.
Rescued by baseball
Sam gained freedom from the navy in the summer of 1914, signing on with the minor league team, the Petersburg Goobers, and pitched in eleven games, for the balance of the season.
A Petersburg sportswriter had mistakenly identified him as "Sam", not Edgar - his real name. Sam was a name the ballplayer readily embraced, being more than happy to "bury Edgar". It was like a welcome Hollywood role. He became Sam Rice - the unknown.
At the advanced age of 25, in 1915, Rice finally made the major leagues, with the Washington Senators - the same year that Babe Ruth was a rookie. His erratic days as a pitcher were over, and was switched to the outfield.
The converted pitcher steadily gained steam as a hitter and fielder. It was 1917, the path now being five years removed from Morocco. The 27 year old Rice was likely almost fully in love with baseball. Could the same passion apply to a woman? Could he take a chance?
A rocky World War One fire drill
Nineteen eighteen meant that all plans, baseball and otherwise, would go on hold. Rice's career got derailed once again. Uncle Sam came calling - for World War One. This time the beleaguered outfielder would be in the army.
Fans and newspaper men felt the doom and gloom in the Washington area. The majority feeling was that "Sam may never come back"; that the war will claim him as a victim. He had become one of the fan favorites, and the team had never had many home grown stars.
Rice reluctantly became part of the Army's 68th Artillery, which quickly marched in a parade in Connecticut, then embarked for Europe the following day. Fifteen days later, they arrived in England.
The "68th" endured arduous training and travel, which took months. They were combat ready and positioned for immediate action - but the peace treaty, The Armistice, was fortunately signed November 11, 1918.
That voyage to Europe had featured storms, whales and icebergs, as the main attractions - and the twelve day trip home was no bonus, as persistent wind gusts, up to 85 M.P.H., coupled with storms, were tearing up the ship - and making the men quite sick.
Sam fortunately avoided a second helping of war, and his many Washington Senator fans could rest easy - though he had lost the entire 1918 season.
Sam finds himself a woman
October 23, 1920, at age 30, Sam Rice married Edith Owens. She was originally from Indiana also, but had relocated to the Washington D.C area. It was, of course, a secretive wedding, with only two others attending.
"She travelled with him all those years from what I heard", said Sam's old friend, broker, Bill Birely. "A lot of the players didn't take their wives, but she travelled with him a long time and was with him when he was playing".
Rice continued to sharpen his game, becoming one of the better players in baseball. He had high batting averages, played hard, was fast, stole bases, gunned down base runners, and made any number of outstanding catches in crucial situations. The baseball literature is filled with exciting stories on how Sam won ballgames.
Sam Rice's Washington Senators finally did win the World Series of 1924, which included a 12 inning game seven that was known as one of the greats in history. The Senators returned to the World series the following year, 1925 , versus the Pittsburgh Pirates (which they lost) but Sam did what he truly became famous for - he made The Catch, in game three.
He'd raced back to the wall in right field, diving up and back - and catching, as he fell into the stands, into the crowd.
A famous catch, or was it really?
The next day, the commissioner met with the acrobatic outfielder, as a major controversy was brewing. It was all over the newspapers, discussed by radio announcers and baseball aficionados. Stories were fancied or invented by fans, in the stands where Rice had tumbled.
Sam playfully prolonged the debate, by saying: "Someday I'll provide the answer". For 50 years his public answer remained "The umpire called him out".
The catch itself, was marveled at by lifetime baseball men and considered by many, to be the finest that baseball had served up - as of 1925.
Sam Rice, indeed, wrote in a letter, dated July 26, 1965 - the answer to whether he truly had held on to the ball, or had dropped it in the grand stands. The letter would be opened upon his death.
Venerable old Sam retired, after 20 seasons, in 1935, at the age of 44 - a grandfatherly age, in terms of baseball players. Three years earlier, he had been treated to "Sam Rice Day", at Griffith Stadium, in Washington.
How was Sam when there was no escape?
But how often did Rice make the "what if" return to Morocco? Or had he never left? Decades later now, it prompts questions in completing the Sam Rice portrait.
Baseball in those days meant continuous train travel. You easily picture Sam peering out those big train windows, at farms and countryside, with a prolonged gaze, among the possibilities.
What were Rice's thoughts and reactions as he periodically came face to face with teammates children, younger sisters or parents? How about graduations or birthdays? Would he succumb often to a faraway look in his eyes? How many dreams...daydreams...nightmares?
The world became Edith, golf, and chickens
Rice, early on, had loved golf also, and was one of the very best at it, among the baseball players. He and Edith had spent off seasons in warmer California, where he refined his game. Together, too, they travelled to an uncountable amount of tournaments. He was very serious about his golf, and became more so after his baseball retirement.
The new "retiree" stayed active, as you would expect. He bought 45 acres of property in Maryland, outside Washington, and established a chicken farm. While many local farmers suffered during depression era droughts, Sam was thriving, turning some big profits, and investing wisely via his stock broker. In 1943 they had a total of 20,000 chickens.
In 1957 Edith Rice died suddenly at their home. She was the one woman in Sam's life that saw his emergence to baseball stardom, his retirement, then significant success in all the rest of his business endeavors - his long time travel partner.
It had been "Sam and Edith" for a total of 37 years. There were never any kids. Was that by design? We will never know.
Then it was Mary, Christine, and pigeon racing
Sam had gotten very used to a lady 'riding shotgun", and two years later, at 69, the aging renaissance man married 54 year old Mary Kendall Adams, whose teenage daughter, Christine, also came to live with them. They sold the chicken farm. The new ch
He accumulated 300 birds, that could register 73 M.P.H. while flying. "He was one of the top breeders in the country", said Christine Rice.
Hall of Fame met yearnings of the soul
Baseball's Hall of Fame was instituted in 1936, but it took 27 long years to get Rice elected - and that was by the Veterans Committee, though the great Ty Cobb had said, for years, that Sam Rice deserved inclusion. Nothing ever came easy for Sam, except what he did with his own brain and his own hands. He would undoubtedly say: "It wasn't easy, but it wasn't life or death".
The Hall of Fame selection was big for Rice. We don't really know how big either - this was family - a very special family. Every year, until he died, Sam travelled to Cooperstown and was swimmingly immersed in the festivities and meeting the new inductees.
Step-daughter Christine said: "I think it kept him going for so long". Christine had always referred to Sam as "Daddy", and kept the Rice surname all her life, though her real dad was a WWI veteran.
It's hard to know the depth of their short family life together (fifteen years) - Mary, Sam and Christine - but we do know the importance of old Sam's only chance to watch, interact with, and cherish his "one and only child" - a made-to-order-daughter, as she reached adulthood.
For Sam Rice, it was always a beautiful thing, too, that there was something called "baseball" - that it was ever invented. No one in the Hall of Fame had ever needed baseball more than Sam Rice.
Welcome to Morocco, Indiana - Home of Hoosier hospitality
And so it was, that one day, probably near the time of Rice's Hall of Fame induction, (1963), Christine Rice revealed that Sam had been in an interview with a newspaper reporter, and "the writer suddenly asked him about the tragedy in Indiana. That was the first my mother (Mary) had ever heard of it".
September 17, 1908, eighteen year old Edgar Rice (born in Morocco, Indiana), had actually married the sixteen year old Beulah Stam. By 1912, the couple had a son, three year old Bernie, and a daughter, Ethel, eighteen months. They had settled in nearby Wauseka, Illinois. Rice's parents lived close by in Donovan, Illinois.
Late September, 1912, while Edgar Rice had been 170 miles away, competing in Galesburg, wife, Beulah, and the two children were staying with Edgar's parents at the farm in Donovan.
A terrible tornado ripped a swath through southeast Donovan, and on to Morocco and beyond - 70 died, with possibly 200 injured. It was commonly known as the "Morocco Tornado".
Edgar Rice's wife, two kids, mother, and two sisters - aged nine and three - were all dead. Mangled bodies were tossed as far away as 1,000 feet. Houses and buildings ended up as a piles of wood sticks. Father, Charles, survived, to carry a soon-to-die-child - and he was quickly subjected to three funerals, as was the young Edgar ("Sam") Rice.
It was written earlier that Charles Rice, 50, had also died from his injuries - but also from an extinguished human spirit.
Again, not much is on the record about Edgar Sam's prevailing state of mind, but decades long Washington Post sports writer, Mr. Shirley Povich, had observed Rice for 50 long years, and had declared: "He was a man heavy of mind...beset by a sadness that few could know".
The expression of Sam Rice, in this photo, seems to show someone that's "beyond the possibility of being fooled", or simply it's the look of a man who had been to hell and survived it.
Christine Rice had said, much later, "He always reminded me of Gregory Peck". Somehow, something in this baseball card image, gives her perception full believability.
Things came full circle on October 1974, when cancer was claiming Sam Rice, and he was in a Maryland hospital.
"Ol Sam is mighty weak, he had said. "I don't know if I'll ever get out of here, but what's an old goat like me have to worry about? All I miss is playing golf, and I don't know if I'm going to ever get out for that".
He went home to die, at age 84, October 13, 1974. Soon the famous letter of secrecy was opened. Did Sam really make that miraculous catch, and hold onto it, in the 1925 World Series? Rice's handwritten letter read "yes".
Hopelessly entangled in American history
Sam Rice had been at the scene of many American historical events - both good and bad - in a Forrest Gump kind of way. As an adult he lived thru the Morocco Tornado, the Mexican Conflict, the Babe Ruth Era, World War One, prohibition, The roaring twenties, The Great Depression, World War Two, men on the moon, the Kennedy assassinations, and the impeachment of Richard Nixon - at the very end.
Bill Birely claimed: "One of the greatest influences of my life was knowing Sam Rice. He was a wonderful human being. His down to earthiness, his dignity. He was not at all conceited. He was quite modest. He didn't throw his weight around".
In 2006 there was a mother / grandmother / 30 year art teacher, with a P.H.D. - who explained that whenever she visited the Hall of Fame she would look at Sam's plaque and the mementos from the 1925 Catch.
During these visits she intimated that the tears fell, as she would recall everything Sam was to her. Dr. Christine Rice went on to add:
"Daddy always told me that I could do anything that a man could do, and the advice helped me get through many tough times..." "To me, he was perfect, and that's how I choose to remember him"..."He was a fantastic father".
Unlike the instantaneous, worldwide communication and awareness that is commonplace now, Sam was allowed to die without the "secrecy of Morocco" extending far out of Indiana. There were sportswriters who knew - but they allowed dignity and understandable privacy to prevail.
He was one of our "quiet heroes" of the last century; do you agree, Mr. Spielberg?
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