For Washington's melancholy baseball fans it is the 14th silent spring. Elsewhere in the land there is again the burst of bats against a pitch, and the joy at the big play being made. But in this unfavored territory, the sounds of America's game are stilled.
Useless have been the incriminations against the unfeeling baseball tygoons who with their act of infamy in 1971 stripped Washington of its birthright. For solace, let us then go to the archives, to fondle the memories, to count those three pennants and the 1924 world championship and to revive the names and deeds of heroes past.
Where to start with the roll call? Begin, of course, with Walter Johnson, the imperishable one, and then to the others of such remembered valor . . . Bucky Harris, Goose Goslin, Ossie Bluege, Joe Cronin, Roger Peckinpaugh, Muddy Ruel, Joe Judge and then, hah, Sam Rice.
Sam Rice. It is he on whom we choose to dwell today, in justice to the belief long held that never did Sam Rice receive his full due for all that he has been canonized at Cooperstown (he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1963).
The Sam Rice story needs more telling because more existed than the image of the consummate right fielder who played for the Senators for 19 years.
He stood as the very model of a major leaguer, from the trimness of the cut of his uniform to the beauty of the cut he took with his bat. To pitchers, he was also the very model of malevolence aforethought. The Senators never won a pennant without him.
In an era when the game's true giants, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, George Sisler, Harry Heilmann and Lou Gehrig were also swinging bats, Rice delivered more hits in two different seasons than any of them. Once every 33.7 times at bat, he struck out. Physically, his numbers were a mere 5 feet 9 and 155 pounds.
His career batting average? A lusty .322, a figure that would earn him a $5 million contract today, a tad more than the $18,000 that was his salary high. And could he steal a base? In 1920 he led the league.
There is more to be related about the man, Sam Rice, who stood at the plate 9,269 times. During all of those 20 years in the majors, he was a man heavy of mind, beset by a sadness that few could know.
April 21, 1912, was a day when 21-year-old Sam Rice, of Morocco, Ind., married and the father of two, was in nearby Galesburg, Ill., happy with his visions of being a professional ballplayer, trying to make that town's team as a right-handed pitcher.
Later that day he was told that back in Morocco, at the Rices' farm home, a tornado had struck.
"Its work was too terrible to relate," reported the Newton County Democrat and Enterprise. ". . . the house was blown away entirely . . . the dead lay either in the yard or the adjoining fields. Bodies were found as far as 60 yards from the house, nearly stripped of clothing, bruised and broken."
Dead were Sam Rice's wife, Beulah, and their two children, son Bernie, 3, and daughter Ethel, 18 months. Also his father's second wife, Louise, and their two daughters. Also Martin Graves, the hired man. Rice's father, Charles, who was outside the house and escaped the full brunt, lingered for 10 days. His was the eighth death.
When it is proper to speak of tragedy too grievous to be borne, let us harken to the sorrow of Sam Rice. He lost seven members of his family that day to the villainous visit of that tunnel of whirlwind.
As Rice, in his major league years, stood at the plate facing the great pitchers of his time, how many times was it replayed in his mind, that terror Sunday of 1912? The unknowing thousands, millions, who watched him perform for those 20 years with the grace of a big leaguer born, could hardly relate to the sadness within him.
They were the innocents. Sam Rice made his sorrow private.
Sam Rice's response was to carry on, all the way to Cooperstown.
In the beginning, his baseball life wasn't easy. And to set the record straight, his name wasn't even Sam Rice. It was Edgar Charles Rice, the "Sam" being the gratuitous contribution of the late Clark Griffith, owner and manager of the Senators, who frequently was vague about the first names of ballplayers he signed.
"Rice's start in the game was notable for its complete lack of success," according to John Yost, who has reported on Rice's early years in the Newton County, Ind., Enterprise.
After the tragedy of the tornado, baseball went out of Sam Rice's mind. He "wandered." He bottled whiskey at a Louisville distillery, worked the wheat fields of the Dakotas and Minnesota, and the railroads as a section hand.
In 1913 he enlisted in the Navy, was ashore in Vera Cruz when 19 of his shipmates were killed in the U.S. intervention in Mexico's revolt. It was the Navy that later steered Rice back to baseball. He played winter ball in Guantanamo and while on furlough in Norfolk made that city's Virginia league team as a right-handed pitcher.
In 1914 he had a 9-2 pitching record in the Virginia league. In 1915, Griffith got him for the Senators as payment of an uncollectable debt of $600 owed him by the foundering Norfolk team.
After pitching nine games for the Senators without distinction, Rice suddenly changed course. After George Dauss, a Detroit pitcher who was a notorious patsy with the bat, doubled into the left-field corner off him, Rice strode to the dugout declaring, "I'm no pitcher if Dauss can hit me for two." He asked for a knife, cut the pitcher's toe plate off his shoe and announced, "Give me another glove because now I'm an outfielder."
Manager Griffith was not loath to try Rice in the outfield. They knew he could run. As a pitcher he had stolen bases and even delivered some pinch hits. And that pitcher's arm gave him zing on throws from the outfield. For most of the next 19 years he was the Senators' treasure in right field.
The specialty of the left-handed hitting Rice was the blue-darter single that singed the pitchers' ears; that straightaway slap swing put him in the record books as the top singles hitter in the first 79 years of major league history, with the 182 he hit in 1925.
Customarily, he spurned the first pitch as unworthy of his interest, and often the second, and he was the embodiment of the aphorism, "take two and hit to right," or center as suited his choice. This was his rebuke to pitchers trying to bait him with a bad ball.
That Rice could manage a bat was to be attested to and witnessed by me one day in Cleveland. A Cleveland pitcher knocked him down in retaliation for the two hits Rice had earlier in the game. Rice got up and on the next pitch leveled the pitcher with a shot to his shins that knocked him out of the game. When a new pitcher tried the same stuff, Rice hit a low screamer off the fellow's knee. The Indians' next pitcher was wary of Sam's excellent bat control.
Ty Cobb, his old adversary, who plumped hard for voting Rice into the Hall of Fame, said, "You couldn't appreciate Sam Rice enough unless you played against him."
Rice carried with him another secret in addition to the personal tragedy of that day in 1912. He was for years the center of baseball's greatest debate. Did he or did he not catch that smash hit by Earl Smith of the Pirates in Griffith Stadium in the 1925 World Series? The Pirates and Pittsburgh fans declared that when Rice tumbled into the low right-center bleachers with the ball in his glove, it came loose and was no catch.
There were charges that loyal Washington fans had retrieved the ball for Rice and replaced it in his glove. For years, Rice would only comment, "The umpire called him out, didn't he?"
Years later Rice announced that the true story of the catch would be told in a letter to be opened at Cooperstown after his death. It was, in 1974, and from beyond the grave, Rice ended his 49-year tease -- vowing that he had held the ball.
Sam Rice fans have sometimes speculated how much he would hit against modern pitching. When one suggested that Rice would probably hit "around .300" against today's pitching, another voiced doubt. He was sternly reminded not to forget that Sam Rice today would be 95 years old. That tale, if apocryphal, is apt.