Obituary: Sammy Taylor (1933-2019)

RIP to Sammy Taylor, a catcher for 6 seasons in the late ’50s and early ’60s. He died on October 8 at the age of 86 in his home town of Woodruff, S.C. Taylor played for the Chicago Cubs (1958-62), New York Mets (1962-63), Cincinnati Reds (1963) and Cleveland Indians (1963).

Samuel Taylor was born in Woodruff in February 27, 1933. His father, Ox Taylor, was a great amateur ballplayer in the South Carolina textile league. He attended Woodruff High School and eventually was inducted into that school’s Hall of Fame. Taylor got a brief taste of professional baseball after graduation when he was signed by Boston Braves scout Gil English. He reported to the High-Point/Thomasville Class-D team right about the time veteran catcher/manager Cliff Bolton suffered a finger injury. The 17-year old was put into the starting lineup and homered and drove in the winning run in the 9th with a single in his very first game. He hit .301 in 78 games with 15 doubles and 5 home runs.

Taylor left to serve in the Korean War and didn’t return to baseball until 1956. Now 23 years old, Taylor spent the majority of the season with the Topeka Hawks of the Western League, where he was an absolute sensation. He slammed 28 home runs and hit .358, with a .621 slugging percentage. He spent 1957 with the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association, and while the numbers weren’t quite as gaudy, he still had an impressive .257/.336/.379 slash line.

Taylor and pitcher Taylor Phillips were dealt to the Cubs in a trade that sent pitcher Bob Rush, outfielder Eddie Haas and pitcher Don Kaiser to the Braves. The Braves were the reigning World Champs, and the addition of Rush to a formidable pitching staff left the rest of the league pretty sore at the Cubs. “What did the Braves use on those poor Cubbies, a gun?” muttered Roy Hamey, Phillies GM.

Source: The Greenville News, April 25, 1962.

The trade wasn’t quite as lopsided as it appeared. Rush did help the Braves win another NL pennant, hit he was on the downside of a good career. Taylor, given the chance to start in the majors, made a great impression. In 96 games, he hit 6 homers and had a .259 batting average, while platooning with Cal Neeman. Neeman was the better catcher defensively, but Taylor had more pop in his bat. He helped beat the Braves 8-3 on April 30 with a 2-run blast — one of four homers the Cubs hit that day. A broken finger that sidelined him for some time was the only thing that dimmed an otherwise fine rookie season.

“We were really in the race for a while,” Taylor said of his rookie campaign. “… I sincerely believe that we have a good chance of finishing up there this year [in 1959].” Just a year into the majors, and he already had the misplaced optimism of a Cubs veteran.

Taylor appeared in more than 100 games in a season once in his career, and it happened in 1959. He slashed .269/.336/.428 with 13 homers and 43 RBIs while playing in 110 games. He ended the season with an OPS+ of 104 and set career highs in every offensive category. A sore arm sank his 1960 season; he was limited to a pinch-hitting role early on and was put in the disabled list in July. His batting average dropped to .207, and he hit just 3 home runs.

By 1961, Taylor had assumed a backup catcher role. Even though he helped the Cubs to a 3-2 win over the Braves in their home opener on April 14 with a 2-run homer, the starting catcher job was given to Dick Bertell. Taylor hit .238 in a backup role, and with no change in sight, he said in April 1962 that he would quit baseball if the Cubs didn’t trade him. He was suspended after leaving the team to rejoin his family in South Carolina.

“I’ve been thinking about it all last season,” he said of his decision. “There’s just not enough money. I wasn’t making enough to meet expenses up there [in Chicago] and keep up my wife, daughter and home back here in Woodruff. As far as I know I’m going to stay out of baseball unless I can get more money.”

Sammy Taylor with his daughter Patti, when 14 months old. Source: The Atlanta Constitution, February 6, 1959.

Within days, the Cubs traded Taylor to the Mets. While financial terms weren’t disclosed, Taylor was apparently satisfied with the situation. The Mets had three primary catchers — Taylor, Choo-Choo Coleman and Chris Cannizzaro — and four others who saw action behind the plate. Taylor hit .222 while competing for playing time and hit the final three home runs of his career.

Taylor played with a total of five teams across three different franchises in 1963. He started the 1962 season with the Mets’ Buffalo affiliate. He was brought back to the majors in late May and batted .257 in 22 games. Taylor was traded to the Cincinnati Reds on July 1 for catcher Jesse Gonder, but he appeared in just three games, going 0-for-6 at the plate. After one month with the Reds, Taylor was traded to Cleveland for catcher-outfielder-first baseman Gene Green. He had 3 hits in 10-at-bats before he was sent to the minors, finishing out his whirlwind season with the AAA Jacksonville Suns.

Taylor spent two more years in the minor leagues, with the Reds and Cubs organizations, but he never returned to the major leagues. He retired after the 1965 season. In his six seasons in the major leagues, Taylor slashed .245/.313/.375, with 309 hits in 473 games. He had 47 doubles, 9 triples and 33 home runs, driving in 147 runs while scoring 127 times.

Taylor was behind the plate for one of the odder moments in baseball history, when two baseballs were in play at the same time. The Cubs were hosting the Cardinals on June 30, 1959. Stan Musial was at bat, and the 3-1 pitch from Bob Anderson bounced off Taylor and umpire Vic Delmore and rolled to the backstop. Musial ran to first for the walk. Taylor, instead of retrieving the ball, argued that Musial had fouled it off. That ball was picked up by the Cardinals batboy who handed it to field announced Pat Pieper, who realized it was in play and dropped it. Meanwhile, Delmore took out a new ball and handed it to Anderson. Musial, seeing that nobody had retrieved the original ball, took off for second base. Anderson threw the new ball toward second but fired it into the outfield instead. Musial saw the ball headed to center field and ran to third. He was surprised to be tagged out by shortstop Ernie Banks, who had the original ball that had been tracked down by third baseman Al Dark. It was ultimately determined that since Musial was tagged with the original ball, he was out.

Taylor returned to his hometown of Woodruff, where he worked in the textile industry until his retirement. He will be buried at Chattanooga National Cemetery.

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