The best outfield ever to play in the big leagues was a remarkable trio that spent five seasons together, a long time as outfields go, on the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1890s, way back in baseball's Dark Ages. Before you dismiss that best-outfield claim as the raving of a hidebound antiquarian, consider the exploits of Del. Big Sam and Sliding Billy.
Del was Ed Delahanty, the leftfielder, who was named to the Hall of Fame in 1945. Delahanty, 6'1", 170 pounds, was an accomplished outfielder graceful enough to play the infield when he was needed there. He was a remarkable hitter whose lifetime average of .346 is the fourth highest of all time; only Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Shoeless Joe Jackson have surpassed it. Delahanty was a righthanded power hitter, a crowd pleaser. In 1893 he excited the Philadelphia fans one day by hitting two long "foul home runs" to left in the ninth before clouting a bases-clearing triple off the centerfield fence. "The tumult was kept up for such a length of time as to make it absolutely necessary for Umpire Gaffney to stop the game for a while," reported the Philadelphia Public Ledger. "The spectators acted like maniacs; they jumped and danced around, threw straw hats, coats, canes and umbrellas in the air and yelled at the top of their voices..."
One day in Chicago in 1896 Delahanty hit a home run in the first inning, singled in the third, hit another homer in the fifth and another in the seventh. When he came to bat in the ninth, the Chicago fans were shouting, "Line it out. Del! Make it four!" He responded by hitting one onto the clubhouse roof in left for his fourth home run of the game.
Big Sam was Sam Thompson, the rightfielder, who was named to the Hall of Fame in 1974. He was 6'2" and weighed 207 pounds, huge for his day. Thompson, a lefthanded hitter (lifetime average: .331), was a slugger who in the 12 seasons from 1885 through 1896 finished first, second or third in the National League 37 times in such batting categories as average, hits, doubles, triples, homers, slugging percentage, total bases and RBIs. His career total of 129 home runs was a league record that stood for 25 years. In 1887, he led Detroit to its only National League pennant, batting in 166 runs; the second man in the league had 104. Thompson had more RBIs per game in his career than any other player in big league history, including Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron—.92 per game for Big Sam, compared to .88 for the Babe and .70 for Hank. Thompson led the league's outfielders in assists one year and is credited with popularizing the one-bounce throw to home plate. Previously, outfielders had depended on infielders to relay the ball. Thompson didn't play big league baseball until he was 25 and was 31 when the great outfield came together.
Sliding Billy was Billy Hamilton, the centerfielder, who was named to the Hall of Fame in 1961. He was built like a tree stump: 5'6", 165 pounds, with thick legs. He was a lefthanded singles hitter, and his lifetime average of .344 is seventh on the alltime list. Hamilton was the fastest man in baseball in the 1890s, an outfielder with great range and a base runner who earned his nickname by making headfirst slides 70 years before Pete Rose came on the scene. He led the National League in bases on balls five times, in stolen bases seven times and seemed always to be racing across home plate. He scored 1.06 runs per game during his career, still the major league record. In 1894 he had 192 runs, another enduring record.
The outfield coalesced in the spring of 1891. In 1888 the Phils had bought the 20-year-old Delahanty from the minors for the then astonishing price of $1,900, but in 1890, the year of the great player revolt, he jumped to the newly formed Players' League. So did Thompson, who had come to Philadelphia in 1889 after the Detroit club was disbanded and its players sold. Hamilton, meanwhile, had joined the Phils in 1890 at the age of 24 after playing two seasons in Kansas City.
Before the Players' League had even staged a game, the Phils went after Delahanty and Thompson with more money, and the two jumped back. Thompson stayed in Philadelphia thereafter, but Delahanty, doing what the sportswriters called "the double somersault," jumped again and played the 1890 season with Cleveland in the Players' League. The rebel league died after its one season and Delahanty adroitly leaped back again to Philadelphia, where the three stars finally became a unit.
In 1891 the outfield marked time, although Hamilton hit .340 to lead the league. Thompson did all right, too—.294, with 90 RBIs—but Delahanty, who played center that year with Hamilton in left, batted only .243. In 1892, though, Hamilton and Delahanty switched positions during the season, and Delahanty's average coincidentally climbed more than 60 points, to .306. Hamilton batted .330, Thompson .305. There were only 11 regulars in the 12-team league who hit .300 that season, and three of them played in the Philadelphia outfield.
In 1893 they really took off. Hamilton was the leadoff man, with Thompson usually batting second and Delahanty third. Hamilton ripped off a 14-game hitting streak, Delahanty hit in 20 straight. Thompson hit safely in 28 of 30. At one point all three hit safely in 11 consecutive games. They had 12 hits among them in one game, 10 in another, seven or more on 14 other occasions. Hamilton had a 10-game streak in which he had two or more hits in every game. He hit .380 to win the batting championship, with Thompson (.370) second and Delahanty (.368) third. Between them Delahanty and Thompson finished first in home runs, first and third in runs batted in. first and second in hits, first and third in slugging average, first and second in total bases. The trio's hitting kept the traditionally also-ran Phillies in the pennant fight into August. Then Hamilton caught typhoid fever and was out the rest of the year. The Phils fell to fourth.
Hamilton was healthy again in 1894. He played every game and hit .404 according to the authoritative 1969 edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia, which meticulously checked and, where necessary, corrected all old batting averages. In an ill-advised bow to baseball tradition, recent editions of the Encyclopedia have been changed to reinstate certain old and inaccurate statistics; for instance, the new fifth edition of the Encyclopedia gives Hamilton's 1894 average as .399, which is incorrect.
That was the year of the batting explosion, when the league average soared to .309 and the Phillies as a team batted .349, the highest ever. Five men batted better than .400 that season. Hugh Duffy of Boston led the league with .440 (.438, according to the old guides). The other four were all Philadelphia outfielders: Hamilton .404, Delahanty .407, Thompson .407 and George (Tuck) Turner .416. Turner was a substitute outfielder the Phils had signed the previous summer when Hamilton took sick. In 1894 he filled in for Thompson when he was out for six weeks after an operation and for Delahanty when he was called on to play the infield. Turner appeared in enough games to be eligible for the batting title. Thus, the Phils had four .400-hitting outfielders the same season.
The outfield's fifth and last season together was in 1895, when Delahanty, Thompson and Hamilton finished second, fourth and sixth in the batting race. Hamilton again led in walks, steals and runs. Thompson was first in homers. RBIs, total bases and slugging average. Delahanty batted better than .400 for the second year in a row and was second to Thompson in total bases and slugging. (Turner hit .386 but didn't play as much as he had a year earlier.) Still, the Phils finished third, and in an effort to shake things up Hamilton was traded to Boston for a veteran third baseman named Billy Nash, who was made manager. With Nash and without Hamilton, the 1896 Phils slid to eighth.
The glory years were over. Thompson, aging, played only one more season as a regular. Delahanty continued as a star, but his behavior became erratic. He drank, had marital problems and became embroiled in disputes over money. The National League in 1893 had passed a rule limiting salaries to a maximum of $2,400 a year. The new American League was challenging the National, and in 1901 Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A's offered Delahanty $4,000. The Phils, breaching their league's rule, matched that offer and managed to keep him one more year, but then Delahanty jumped to Washington, where he won the American League batting title in 1902. After that season John McGraw of the New-York Giants persuaded Delahanty to return to the National League, the carrot being a $4,500 cash payment in advance. However, before the 1903 season began, the two warring leagues made peace, and under the terms of the agreement Delahanty was ordered to remain with Washington and refund the $4,500.
Outraged at what he felt was a double-cross, Delahanty swore he wouldn't play for the Senators. He did eventually rejoin Washington, but he drank heavily and was suspended. He tagged along with the club, but while in Detroit early in July he decided to go to New York City to see his estranged wife. He took a train that passed through Canada on its way to New York, did some heavy drinking along the way and became loud and belligerent. At Fort Erie, on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, he was forcibly put off the train. Angry, frustrated, drunk, he watched helplessly as the train crossed the International Bridge and disappeared into the night. He began to run after it. A guard with a lantern tried to stop him, but Delahanty shoved his way past, lost his balance and fell into the turbulent river. He was swept downstream and over Niagara Falls to his death. His mangled body was found a week later.
Thompson and Hamilton led more placid lives. Hamilton played six seasons with Boston after leaving the Phillies and nine more after that in the minor leagues. In 1909, at the age of 43, he batted .332 to lead the New England League in hitting. He saved his money, invested it well and lived comfortably until his death in 1940. Thompson retired to Detroit, where he sold real estate and was appointed a United States deputy marshal. In 1906, when the Detroit Tigers were short of men because of injuries, they signed Thompson, then 46, who had kept himself in shape playing semipro ball. He appeared in eight games for the Tigers, had seven hits, including a triple, and batted in three runs. One of his Detroit teammates during that brief stint was Cobb, then a 19-year-old kid in his second season in the majors. Thompson died in 1922, almost totally forgotten. Not until 1969, when The Baseball Encyclopedia was published, with its detailed statistics on pre-1900 players, was his extraordinary ability recalled.
They were' an odd, disparate trio, as different off the field as on it, but they were all Hall of Famers and in the five seasons they played together they did more than any other outfield before or since. You want to argue?