In 1912 a young man named Edgar left his wife and kids at his parent’s house in Morocco, Indiana so he could seek a job playing baseball. The plan was for Edgar to be gone for a week to play with a low level minor league team in Galesburg, Illinois.
While he was away a tornado hit the small town of Morocco. Newspaper reports from the next several days told the terrible story: all of Edgar’s family was dead. His wife, both of his children, his mother and father, and all of his siblings were killed.
Edgar returned to Morocco, his boyhood home, to watch his family buried in two separate funerals. Shortly thereafter he left Morocco, never to return.
Edgar joined the merchant marines, and ultimately the US Navy. He was a seaman aboard the USS New Hampshire when the ship saw combat at Vera Cruz, Mexico on April 15, 1914.
In August of that same year, while on leave from the Navy, Edgar tried his hand again at semi-pro ball, this time in Virginia. An owner for the Portsmouth Truckers liked what he saw, and bought Edgar “Sam” Rice from the US Navy for $800.
Rice went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Washington Senators. From 1915-1934 he built up career .322/.374/.427. His skill set was similar to Ichiro in the modern game; he hit a lot of singles, had a lot of speed, and rarely struck out. Though he probably struggled with his range in right field, Rice was reported to have one of the best throwing arms of his day.
Although Rice remarried in 1929, his new wife didn’t know about the suffering of his past until well into the 1950s. As the story goes, the two were eating in a DC area cafe when a writer expressed belated sympathy to Rice for his loss in the tornado of 1912. After some questioning by his wife Mary, Rice finally came clean about his past.
Rice’s secret story of tragedy was not widely known or accepted amongst most in baseball until well after his death in 1974. In 1993, Sports Illustrated ran a story, authored by Steve Wulf, entitled “The Secrets of Sam”. It is the earliest reference to Rice’s personal tragedy I have found (save the original Chicago Tribune reports of the tornado itself from April 22 and 23, 1912).
Until that SI article, it seems that Rice was most famous for a two unrelated things.
The first was a secret of a different kind. In game 3 of the 1925 World Series, Rice made a famous catch that took him into the stands. Rice emerged with the ball and the batter was called out. There was, however, some dispute as to whether or not he actually caught the ball. Rice seemed to enjoy the intrigue surrounding the play, and was very coy when asked about it. He told Commissioner Landis that he must have caught the ball because the umpire said he did. After Rice’s death, a letter he left at the Hall of Fame was opened, explaining “at no point did I lose possession of the ball”.
Rice’s other main claim to fame revolves around his career hit total. Although it seemed inconsequential to him, he finished 13 hits shy of the magic 3,000 hits number. While he was playing, the 3,000 hit milestone was not nearly as important. Looking back, it seems clear that those 13 hits became a major barrier between Rice and induction into Cooperstown.
When he finally was inducted in 1963 (after a pretty organized campaign which included an endorsement by Ty Cobb of all people), Rice was humble as always. His reaction: “Oh it’s fine, but I can’t say I’m too thrilled about it. If it were a real Hall of Fame, you’d say Cobb, Speaker, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and a few others belonged and then you’d let your voice soften to a mere whisper.”