Grave Story: Sammy Strang (1876-1932)

Here lies Sammy Strang, who could have been a world-renowned operatic singer or a decorated war hero. Instead, thanks to a love of baseball, he became one of the game’s earliest pinch-hitters. His long association with the game also led to long tenures as a coach and a minor-league team owner. He played for the Louisville Colonels (1896), Chicago Orphans (1900, 1902), New York Giants (1901, 1905-08), Chicago White Sox (1902) and Brooklyn Superbas (1903-04). He later owned the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association from 1919-27.

Samuel Strang Nicklin was born on December 16, 1876 in Chattanooga, Tenn. He would go by that name, or just Strang Nicklin, for more of his life, but when he was playing baseball, he was “Sammy Strang” so as not to cause any embarrassment to his parents, John and Lizzie Nicklin. His father, a well-respected businessman and former Chattanooga mayor, was also a baseball fan and the first president of the Southern Association in the early 1890s. But this is the era when being a professional ballplayer wasn’t socially acceptable for the son of one of Chattanooga’s leading families, so Strang dropped his last name. It wasn’t exactly a secret that Sammy Strang was Samuel Strang Nicklin, and the Chattanooga papers reported about his exploits regularly.

Strang (it’s just easier to refer to him with that name throughout) was a natural athlete. He played baseball, basketball and football in his youth, both on amateur teams and at Chattanooga High School. He was a track star and could outrun most adults in the area, too. He attended college at the University of Tennessee and starred both on the diamond and the gridiron. The University of Tennessee has produced some fine ballplayers, from Ed Bailey to Todd Helton to R.A. Dickey, but Strang was the first Tennessee Vol to ever make the major leagues. That would come later though. He would get further education overseas.

Strang, you see, was a fine singer. Better than fine, if newspaper reports are to be believed. His parents sent him to Paris for several years for musical training, and it’s said he achieved some fame in operas and concerts. But baseball still held his attention, and he put aside the music world for a time to take on the baseball world instead. He played ever so briefly for the Chattanooga Warriors in 1893 (1 game, 4 hitless at-bats, per Baseball Reference) as well as semipro teams in town. After stops with teams in Knoxville in 1894 and Asheville in 1895, his real initiation into baseball came in 1896.

“In a game at Madisonville, Ky., I was seen by an old player named Phil Reccius, who had been with Louisville away back in the seventies,” Strang recalled years later. “He took me to Louisville, to Barney Dreyfuss and Fred Clarke, then president and manager [respectively] of the Louisville team of the old National League.”

Strang made his major-league debut with a 14-game audition for the Colonels at shortstop in the summer of 1896. He hit a modest .261, with 12 hits – all singles. He also played briefly for a minor-league club in Lynchburg, Va. That fall, he broke his knee playing football and missed the entire 1897 season, though he did play some football for Tennessee at the end of the year. He also lost a year serving in the Spanish-American War in 1898 with the 3rd Tennessee Volunteers. Warfare service ran in his family. His father fought for the Union in the Civil War, and the family could trace its lineage back to Nathaniel Pendleton, who fought in the Revolutionary War.

Strang re-entered baseball in 1899 with the Cedar Rapids Bunnies and the Wheeling Stogies. The Bunnies folded around the Fourth of July, and Strang was left with just enough money to make it to Sioux Falls, S.D. There, he later recalled, he stayed for two weeks and borrowed $20 from the catcher of the local club to travel to Wheeling, W.V. There, he played well but was only given half his promised pay. “They used to pay us once in a while, in those days. I was only a boy, and the money looked big,” he said.

If nothing else, Strang’s experience shows that minor leaguers have been given unfair wages for a long, long time.

Strang joined the St. Joseph Saints in 1900, and he hit a solid .297. At the end of the Saints’ season, he and catcher Johnny Kling were acquired by the Chicago club, alternately called the Colts, Orphans or Cubs. His debut with Chicago came on September 12, as a third baseman in a doubleheader versus the New York Giants. He ended the day with 8 hits in 9 at-bats and hit .284 during his stay with the Orphans.

His successful debut against the Giants must have left quite an impression on the team, because the Giants acquired him for the 1901 season, in a trade that sent Jack Doyle to Chicago in exchange for Strang, Ned Garvin and John Ganzel. He was one of the National League’s best hitters for much of the season before cooling off in the fall. Still, he batted .282, stole 40 bases and was considered one of the best bunters in the league. He was compared favorably to Willie Keeler for his bat control, even if he was a little more erratic than Keeler.

Strang jumped to the American League and joined the White Sox in 1902. He was one of the team’s better hitters, with a .295 average, 3 home runs, 38 stolen bases and 108 runs scored. He also led the AL with 67 strikeouts, though he walked 76 times, too. He tied an MLB record on April 27 by drawing 5 walks in a game. However, it wasn’t a happy time, as he ended up getting into a fight with owner Charles Comiskey – an actual fight, which Strang said ended in a draw, though Comiskey broke his hat.

Source: The Boston Globe, June 22, 1902.

“I played third base, and Comiskey accused me of losing a game. He was sorry for it afterward, knowing better,” Strang said. “I quit the team and went home, but he telephoned me the next day and sent me a ticket to join the team at Detroit. I joined them. No, I don’t hold anger.”

Strang finished the season with 3 games for the Chicago Orphans. The American League season ended ahead of the NL, Orphans manager Frank Selee needed a third baseman to play in a series against the Cardinals, and Strang didn’t pass up the chance to make a little extra money. Only in the early days of baseball could a team employ a ballplayer without knowing if Strang was under another team’s contract or not.

“I don’t know whether he has left Comiskey, and if he is tied to a Brooklyn contract for 1903 I am unaware of it, for I didn’t ask him,” Selee stated. Either way, Strang signed with the Brooklyn Superbas for 1903.

Strang’s first season in Brooklyn continued the successful career he’d put together, with a .272 average and 46 stolen bases. Strang’s fortunes vanished in 1904, when he came down with rheumatism, according to the newspapers. He missed a good portion of the season, hit .192 when he was able to play and was cut before the end of the season. Strang later called the move by Brooklyn boss Ned Hanlon “coldblooded” but added that the move allowed him to get picked up by John McGraw and the New York Giants. Over the course of the next three seasons, Strang would help cement the role of the pinch-hitter into the game’s playbook.

The origins of the pinch-hitter are a little murky, and it’s complicated by the fact that statistics from the early 1900s are incomplete. This excellent primer of the history of pinch-hitting, by Steve Treder from The Hardball Times, starts with Ham Hyatt in 1909, the year after Strang left the National League. But Strang was being praised for his pinch-hitting skills back in 1905.

“[Strang] hit grandly when he was impressed into the outfield, and on the several occasions he was called to bat for other Giants, he proved to be a near relative of Johnny-on-the-Spot. The role of a pinch hitter – taking the place of some banished weakling – is one that requires nerve,” wrote The Pittsburgh Press.

Part of the problem with Strang’s place in pinch-hitting lore is that he was used in so many other roles. He averaged 116 games a year from 1905-07, and McGraw played him everywhere on the diamond, except for catcher and pitcher. Though he spent the first part of his career as a third baseman, Strang saw much more time at second base and right field with the Giants. Whenever a player was hurt, Strang got the call.

It’s worth noting that Strang had just one really great season as a pinch-hitter, and that was in 1905. He had 9 hits in 21 at-bats in the role, good for a .421 average (per Retrosheet). He hit .231 and .174 as a pinch-hitter in 1906 and ’07 before getting 2 hits in 4 chances in 1908. That left him with a .295 average as a pinch-hitter in his second go-around with the Giants, but the bulk of that success was from one season. Still, while Strang doesn’t fit the criteria that Treder used for his definition of a pinch-hitting specialist, he helped popularize the role.

Strang hit .259 in 1905 with 3 homers and 29 RBIs, and the Giants won the NL pennant. In Strang’s long postseason at-bat, he struck out against Chief Bender while pinch-hitting for Joe McGinnity in Game Two of the World Series. Still, he and the Giants won the Series 4 games to 1.

Strang’s best season came in 1906. He slashed .319/.423/.435, leading the NL in on-base percentage. He drove in a career-high 49 runs and, on one notable occasion, tried to act as umpire in order to give the Giants a 9-0 forfeit win over Chicago. It was a crazy situation that took place on August 7 in New York City. Technically, it started on August 6, when Umpire Jim Johnstone made an unfavorable call against the Giants. He had to be escorted from the field under police protection, and the Giants, purely out of the goodness of their hearts, forbid him to enter the Polo Grounds the next day.

With Johnstone kept out of the park by order of the police, umpire Bob Emslie refused to participate in the game, and Johnstone (still outside the park) declared the game a 9-0 forfeit win for the Cubs. Meanwhile, inside the park, the Giants appointed Strang to serve as an umpire and asked the Cubs to select one of their players to join him. Chicago refused to participate in the farce, and when nobody came to bat in the first inning, Umpire Strang awarded the win to the Giants.

Guess which forfeit win NL President Harry Pulliam chose to recognize? Hint: Not the Giants.

Source: The Sunday Star, November 30, 1913.

Strang wrote Pulliam an official letter stating that he followed the rules, since there was no umpire present – omitting the fact that the Giants were the ones who kept them from entering the park. Pulliam, unamused, wrote back, stating, “I am at a loss to understand how you, being a member of the New York club, should address such a communication to me… I would be strictly within my rights and entirely justified in disciplining you for this impertinence, but I propose to look upon your actions with contempt, and therefore, take no action save this letter.”

Strang had one more good season for the Giants in 1907, but he fell apart in 1908, with 6 hits in 53 at-bats. It could have been that his attention was wandering away from playing ball. Various reports connected him to owning a team in the Southern Association or coaching at the University of Georgia. It could be that he tried to play ball under his given name of Nicklin. It turned out that Sam Nicklin wasn’t half the player Sammy Strang was, and the Giants sold his contract to the Baltimore Orioles of the Eastern League in early June. He played well for Baltimore through the 1910 season and helped them achieve some success, but he never returned to the major leagues.

In his 10 years, Strang slashed .269/.377/.343, with an OPS+ of 113. He had 790 hits, including 112 doubles, 28 triples and 16 home runs. He stole 216 bases and scored 479 runs.

With his baseball career behind him (for now), Strang once again returned to his love of singing. He had kept up his reputation as a fine baritone during his playing days, at one point forming a quartet with Giants teammates Christy Mathewson, John Ganzel and Fred Knowles. Strang headed back to Paris and trained under world-renowned baritone Oscar Seagle – a childhood friend of Strang from Chattanooga. He then learned under Jean de Reszke, one of the most famous singers in the world at the time.

To help pay for the lessons, Strang spent time back in America coaching the West Point baseball team. He became one of the most successful baseball coaches in Army history and trained the likes of Omar Bradley, Jacob Devers, Charles Gerhardt and Leland Hobbs – all future generals during World War II. Per Strang’s SABR bio, he would have coached Dwight Eisenhower, but Eisenhower didn’t make the varsity team. Most importantly, Strang’s club regularly beat the Navy team.

“West Point wouldn’t mind being beaten by everybody else, but not by the Navy, which they haven’t,” Strang boasted in 1913. He was awarded a watch after five straight wins over Navy.

Strang coached at West Point until 1917. When the United States entered World War I, he joined the Army and earned a captain’s commission. He became an instructor at Camp Gordon. When he was discharged at the end of the year, he entered into an agreement with Fred Cantrell, owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association. Essentially, if he agreed to run the club for three years, he would be given the club outright at the end of the term, stadium and all. Even though Strang was quite the world traveler at this point, it was too good an offer to pass up.

As a baseball magnate, Nicklin did the best he could with a team that had chronically low attendance. He made trades, he booked exhibition games with major and minor-league teams, he found players in every nook and cranny of the country. He made himself manager some seasons, and he relied on veteran ballplayers as manager in other years. The Lookouts remained stuck in the Southern Association cellar for most of his ownership. He lacked the funds to upgrade or build a new stadium, and he couldn’t afford to put money into the team like the owners in larger cities like Atlanta, Birmingham or New Orleans could.

The 1926 Chattanooga Lookouts, with Strang in the black suit on the left, standing. Source: The Chattanooga Times, April 12, 1926.

“Chattanooga is my home town, and it’s a good town; but it doesn’t stand to reason that we can put as many people into a ball park regularly as can cities twice to four times as large,” he said.

The one player he wanted badly to sign, and never could, was Satchel Paige. Paige wrote in his memoir that Strang tried to recruit him while he was pitching for the Chattanooga Black Lookouts.

“One day he even came up to me and offered me five hundred dollars to pitch against the Atlanta Crackers,” Paige wrote. “I just had to let him paint me white.”

Alex Herman, his manager on the Black Lookouts, eventually talked him out of it.

“… I sure hated to pass up that five hundred dollars, and I think I would have looked good in white-face. But nobody would have been fooled. White, black, green, yellow, orange – it don’t make any difference. Only one person can pitch like me. That’s Ol’ Satch, himself,” Paige said.

Nicklin was injured in a car accident in January 1927, when his car skidded off the road. He sustained several cuts to his face from broken glass, and he lost his right eye as a result. He sold the team to a J.F. Harrison in July of that year for $75,000 – not bad for an initial investment of zero dollars.

There were rumors that Strang would return to baseball, either as the manager of the Lookouts or the owner of some other Southern Association team, but nothing came of them. Strang was hospitalized in Chattanooga on March 13, 1932 for what was diagnosed as a ruptured gastric ulcer. He died around 11:00 that evening at the age of 55. He is buried in Chattanooga National Cemetery.

“Baseball has lost one of its most brilliant scholars,” said long-time ballplayer Clyde Milan. “I used to talk baseball by the hour with Strang Nicklin and I learned much from him. He knew baseball and introduced much that was new and sound. He was a great teacher.”

There has long been a story of how John McGraw once fined Sammy Strang $25 for hitting a home run when he was supposed to bunt. The story even made it into a Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” cartoon. I never found anything to verify that story. An earlier version, told by Christy Mathewson, stated that Strang once ran the count to 3-0, and McGraw told him to hold up on the next pitch. Strang, though, swing and fouled off the next two pitches before homering to tie the game. When confronted by McGraw in the dugout, Strang replied that he never heard McGraw’s bellowing. The manager threatened to fine him, but instead he exhorted the team to go win the game, which they did.

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