On Sunday, April 21, 1912, 22-year-old Edgar Charles Rice was on a baseball diamond in Galesburg, Ill., trying out for the town’s minor league baseball team, the Pavers, in a game against the Monmouth Browns.
On that same Sunday afternoon, a powerful tornado churned across Iroquois County, uprooting trees and smashing barns and houses. One of the farmsteads struck by the tornado was the home of Edgar’s parents, Charles and Louise Rice, located just north of Donovan. Sheltering inside the large frame house were Louise and their two daughters, Edgar’s wife Beulah, their young son and infant daughter, and the farm’s “hired hand,” Martin Graves.
The Newton County Democrat and Enterprise, published just across the state line in Indiana, reported, “The timbers of the house and barn were scattered for nearly a quarter of a mile to the southeast ... when the wreck had passed, every member of the family except Mr. Charles Rice lay dead, either in the yard or adjoining fields.” Charles Rice, who was caught outside by the storm, was gravely injured and died nine days later.
A devastated Edgar Rice returned to Donovan to attend the funerals for the two families. He soon left Iroquois and wandered across the Midwest, taking temporary laboring jobs. In January 1913, Rice enlisted in the United States Navy and was assigned to the battleship USS New Hampshire, based at Hampton Roads Naval Base in Virginia. He soon found his way back into baseball.
In a lengthy biography of Rice written for the Society for American Baseball Research, author Stephen Able explained, “During this time, athletics, especially baseball, were a popular form of recreation and amusement among enlisted men and officers of the U.S. Navy. Most of the larger naval ships of the fleet fielded baseball teams that competed against one another and against civilian ball clubs while their ships were in port. ... Rice landed a spot on the USS New Hampshire’s baseball team and was back in action on the diamond within a few weeks of his enlistment.”
In mid-1914, as his ship was beginning a lengthy overhaul at Norfolk, Va., Edgar Rice signed with the Petersburg (Virginia) Goobers minor league team as a pitcher and part-time outfielder/pinch hitter. In his first eight mound appearances for the Goobers, he recorded five wins, all on full, nine-inning outings.
The young pitcher’s performance so strongly impressed the Goobers’ owner, Dr. D.H. Leigh, that he (with some political help from Virginia’s two U.S. senators) arranged for Rice’s discharge from the Navy. By the end of the 1914 season, Rice had appeared in 15 games and compiled a 9-2 record, the best winning percentage in the Virginia League.
In his second season as a full-time baseball player, Rice continued to pitch well, but had little offensive support — by mid-season, the Goobers were playing below .500 baseball.
The team was hurting at the box office as well as at the plate, and owed a debt of several hundred dollars to Clark Griffith, part-owner and manager of the American League Washington Senators.
The Goobers’ cash-strapped owner, Dr. Leigh, made a deal to send his best pitcher to the Washington team in payment of the debt. In this unusual fashion, Edgar Rice began what would be a stellar, 20-year career in baseball’s major leagues.
In addition to donning a major league uniform in late July 1915, Rice acquired the nickname “Sam,” by which he would be known the rest of his life.
Although several versions of the nickname story exist, the most common involves manager Clark Griffith being unable to recall his new player’s given name while speaking with a sportswriter. Griffith (or the sportswriter) substituted “Sam,” and the name stuck. (Rice always acknowledged that Sam was a nickname by enclosing it in quotation marks as part of his signature.)
The 25-year-old pitcher quickly made a name for himself in Washington. In only his second major-league game, he faced a formidable lineup of Detroit Tiger hitters.
“He got Ty Cobb on a sickly fly to left,” reported the Washington Post, “fanned Sam Crawford and Bobby Veach, and caused George Burns to foul out. Any time a pitcher can dispose of this quartet so easily, he must have something other than a glove and a pleasant smile.”
Despite such accolades, Rice’s pitching career was destined to end the following season. In 1916, he had a slow start, pitching mainly in relief. On June 4 of that year, in a tie game with the Detroit Tigers, he faced weak-hitting pitcher George “Hooks” Dauss. The Tiger pitcher connected for a long drive that brought in the winning run.
Rice later told reporters, “The hit ... by Dauss shaped my career. As the winning run went over the plate, I decided my days as a pitcher were ended. ... I sought Manager Griffith. ‘I am an outfielder or nothing after today’ was my greeting. He tried to argue me out of my decision, but to no avail.”
Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich reported 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.”
In 1917, Rice became the team’s right fielder, a position he would hold until 1933.
He also became one of the game’s all-time best hitters. In his first full season as an outfielder, he batted .302; for 13 of his 20 seasons in the major leagues, he posted a batting average of at least .300.
The left-handed batter compiled a lifetime total of 2,987 hits, and set the Washington franchise records for hits, runs, doubles and triples.
Edgar Charles “Sam” Rice retired from baseball on Sept. 18, 1934, after playing for a single season with the Cleveland Indians.
In 1963, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. Rice was one of four former players (along with John Clarkson, Elmer Flick and Eppa Rixey) voted into the Hall that year by the Veterans’ Committee.
He died Oct. 13, 1974, at the age of 84.