What he did: Thompson was a great 19th century hitter, batting above .370 four times, just missing the Triple Crown in 1895, and finishing with a .331 career batting average, good for an eventual spot in the Hall of Fame. He came up this week in a forum on Rob Neyer’s site, Imagine Sports. A member linked to my piece on Roberto Clemente, and a brief discussion ensued. One person remarked:
frank howard and sam thompson could have used different eras
I mentioned Howard in a column on Harmon Killebrew. Like Killebrew, Howard did some of his best work in the 1960s when pitchers ruled. In a hitters era, Howard might have been a Hall of Famer. Using the converter on Baseball-Reference.com, I found if Howard played every season of his career on a team like the 1936 Cleveland Indians, he may have hit .325 lifetime with 469 home runs, far better than his actual totals of .273 and 382 homers (Killebrew converted to .300 with 687 homers.)
With Thompson, though, I’ll take a different approach than usual here. My thought is Thompson played in the best possible era for himself. In fact, in a different time, he might have had less of a chance at Cooperstown.
Era he might have thrived in: Thompson probably could have put up comparable numbers in two modern periods defined by hitters: The 1930s or the late 1990s. Still, he had a pretty sweet deal with the Phillies in the mid-1890s.
Why: On the 1894 Philadelphia Phillies, Billy Hamilton, Ed Delahanty, and Thompson comprised the only .400-hitting outfield in baseball history. I used to think the 1930 Phillies were the best-hitting team ever. They have nothing on their 1894 counterpart, which hit .350 as a club and still finished fourth, consequences of a 5.63 ERA as a team, I suppose.
That was part of a long run of great-hitting Phillies teams that Thompson played on. I don’t know if it was his era or his teammates, but more times than not, Thompson’s teams hit at least .280. When Thompson hit well, so did his teams generally. Here’s a chart listing how their batting averages compared:
Not many teams in baseball history hit like the clubs Thompson starred for in the mid-1890s. I found a list on Retrosheet.org of the greatest-hitting teams in the modern era. The 1930 Phillies hit .315, with Chuck Klein and Lefty O’Doul each hitting above .380– the converter shows Thompson hitting .335 lifetime for them, only a few points better than his actual average. On the 1921 Detroit Tigers, who hit .316 and boasted Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann hitting .389 and .394 respectively, Thompson’s lifetime batting average would drop to .310. Even with the 1930 Yankees who hit a modern-best .319, Thompson would hit .314 for his career.
About the only noticeable jump for Thompson’s stats was with the 1999 Rockies, who hit .288 and boasted four 30-home run hitters. Playing every year of his career on a team like them, Thompson would hit .341 lifetime with a 214 RBI season for his converted 1887 totals. But I suspect this might get him accused of steroid use. In real life, it took more than 50 years beyond Thompson’s death to get him inducted into the Hall of Fame. He might have an even harder time making it now.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Dom DiMaggio, Fritz Maisel, George Case, Harmon Killebrew, Home Run Baker, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Nate Colbert, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb