Obituary: Orville (Sam) Woodruff (1876-1937)


Here lies Orville Woodruff, a slick fielder whose major-league career consisted of two seasons, six years apart. Woodruff played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1904 and 1910. He listed as “Sam Woodruff” on Baseball Reference and all the stat sites for reasons that I have not determined.

Orville Francis Woodruff was born in Chilo, Ohio, on December 27, 1876. That’s how he’s referred to in the newspapers during his life – “Orville Woodruff.” When he was called a nickname, it was “Woodie” or “Woodchuck” and not “Sam.” He’s not alone in being mis-named. There are several other occurrences where players from the late 19th or early 20th Centuries are listed under names they never used – Ledell Titcomb was listed incorrectly as “Cannonball” for decades, for example.

Woodruff grew up around Cincinnati, where there was a lively amateur baseball circuit that sent a good number of baseball players to the major leagues. The Cincinnati Enquirer called him “one of the cleverest all-around amateur ballplayers in this vicinity.” His younger brother, Guy Woodruff, also was a pretty talented ballplayer in his own right and had a 10-year career in the minors from 1904 to 1913.

Woodruff was a nephew of Henry “Farmer” Vaughn, a catcher who played in three different major leagues in a 13-year career. In January 1897, it was reported that Woodruff had signed with Indianapolis based on the catcher’s recommendations. “Woodruff is a clever catcher and infielder. His home position is third base. Harry thinks his nephew is another ‘Mugsy’ McGraw,” reported the Kansas City Star. Vaughn, for his part, said, “Woodruff has plenty of life and ginger. He goes after everything, and I believe he will make his mark.”

The deal with Indianapolis must not have lasted, because 21-year-old Woodruff returned to Ohio to play for a Portsmouth ballclub in 1897. The club disbanded in the summer, leaving Woodruff with a .489 batting average in 20 games. He looked for a team to join and even went to the offices of the Enquirer for a lead when the paper reported that the managers of the Ridgeville and Liberty (Ind.) teams were looking for players. “Every amateur player who has seen Woodruff work is of the opinion that he is a wonder,” the newspaper commented. “The club that is lucky enough to secure this little cracker-jack will make a ten strike.”

Source: Library of Congress

Woodruff would be called “little” or some similar term frequently in his career. Baseball Reference lists his height at 5’9” and weight at 160 pounds, but those measurements may be a little generous.

The team that ended up bringing Woodruff into professional baseball was the Mobile Blackbirds in 1898. His first season wasn’t impressive, as he batted just .231 in 29 games. He began to show his talents the following season, as he hit a combined .314 for teams in Paterson, N.J., Newark, and New Orleans. It wasn’t that teams kept getting rid of him; teams just couldn’t stay in business!

Woodruff started with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern League and hit .331 in 32 games, gaining a reputation as a capable catcher as well. The Southern League folded on June 2, 1899, so manager Abner Powell took a manager’s job with the Paterson Giants of the Atlantic League and brought his best players, including Woodruff, to New Jersey. Woodruff batted .315 and survived a scary moment on July 9 when he was accidentally kicked in the head while trying to steal second base. He was knocked unconscious and carried off the field to a nearby hospital. Not long after that, Woodruff found himself on his third team of the season, the Newark Colts. The Paterson and Newark teams merged into one ballclub, and Powell again assumed the reins of the new club. Woodruff hit .284 in 19 games to close out his whirlwind season.

After that kind of year, Woodruff was probably relieved to spend a couple of seasons in one place – Binghamton, N.Y. He spent 1900 and 1901 with the team in the New York State League. There are no statistics available for 1900, but the box scores show he was a pretty steady hitter. He also made a highlight-reel catch, if highlight reels existed in 1900. Woodruff was playing left field against Elmira when a pop fly was hit to shortstop Murphy. Woodruff gave way only to see the ball pop out of Murphy’s glove. Thinking quickly, Woodruff snagged the ball before it hit the ground, resulting in a 6-7 pop fly out.

After another fine season in Binghamton in 1901, Woodruff was a hot commodity. Several teams were after him, including the Philadelphia Quakers, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Orphans. Eventually, Woodruff signed with the Indianapolis Indians of the brand-new American Association in 1902. He started the season as a catcher, but when Charlie Babb jumped the team to play in Memphis, Woodruff replaced him at third base. By some accounts, he handled the position better than Babb did and was a solid hitter, batting .286 with 12 doubles and a home run.

Woodruff had an extreme month of August in 1902. He and his wife, Anne, got married on August 7, and Indianapolis granted him a short leave of absence. When he came back a few days later, the team presented him with a $50 check as a wedding present. A few days after that, he was involved in an on-field collision that injured his shoulder and knocked him out of action for several weeks. So much for the honeymoon.

Source: Ancestry.com

Woodruff played one more season in Indianapolis before the Cincinnati Reds bought his contract in 1904. The Reds finished in third place that season with an 88-65 record. They had a good infield of manager Joe Kelley at first base, Miller Huggins at second, Tommy Corcoran at shortstop and Harry Steinfeldt at third, and Woodruff filled in everywhere except first base. He didn’t hit particularly well, with a slash line of .190/.244/.255 in 87 games, and his fielding at second base and shortstop was suspect. But he played a better third base than Steinfeldt and ended up starting 59 games there. His .932 fielding percentage was the best among all third basemen in the National League, but he didn’t play enough innings there to qualify for the league leaders. He also showed some speed, with 9 stolen bases, and he hit 14 doubles and 3 triples while driving in 20 runs.

At the end of the season, Cincinnati dealt Woodruff to the Louisville Colonels of the American Association. He went, but he didn’t make it easy on anybody. The place where he wanted to go was Birmingham so that he could play for his uncle, Farmer Vaughn, who was the team’s manager. The two had made plans to open a saloon in town and everything. Furthermore, Louisville’s owner, George Tebeau, wasn’t exactly popular with his players.

“I will not go to Louisville, and there is nothing in my contract can force the Cincinnati Club to send me there against my will,” he vowed.

In the end, though, he had no means to appeal. Tebeau flatly refused any offer that Vaughn made. If Woodruff refused to play, he would have been blackballed. So he went to Louisville and spent most of the next six seasons there.

Side note: George “White Wings” Tebeau didn’t have nearly the successful major-league career that his brother, Patsy Tebeau, did, but he was a tremendously important figure in the early days of minor-league baseball. He didn’t make a lot of friends in his rise to power, and this is an example of why. Woodruff was a capable ballplayer but by no means a superstar, and his addition to the Louisville team wasn’t a difference-maker. The decision to refuse Woodruff’s request to go to Birmingham seems to be purely done out of spite. No wonder many of his former ballplayers didn’t have a lot of great things to say about him.

Woodruff was welcomed to Louisville, but his 2-year-old daughter, Edna, was welcomed even more. Woodruff, said to be a devoted family man, would rush to get changed in the clubhouse and meet his family, who were waiting for him at the exit. In the mornings, he would steer Edna around in her stroller before practice. She became a good luck charm for her daddy.

Orville and Edna Woodruff. Source: The Seattle Star, August 2, 1905

“Now the players regard Edna as their mascot, and Mrs. Woodruff is entreated to attend every game with the little one,” explained the Dayton Herald.

Woodruff came to bat in a 1905 game against Toledo when Edna cried out a cheer for her father from the grandstand. He responded by knocking in the winning run with a single to right field. Later, in a July 4 game against Indianapolis, Woodruff again came to bat with the game on the line. He waved to his daughter, who blew him a kiss in return. He promptly smashed the ball into right field for a game-winning triple.

Woodruff’s best season with Louisville came in 1906, when he hit .290 and slugged .359. He hit 17 doubles, 9 triples and 2 home runs for the Colonels and was considered one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. Some reports compared him favorably to Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie in terms of his defensive talents – but his offense was the glaring weakness. Most of the time, Woodruff hit in the .250s or .260s – enough to keep him playing steadily in the American Association but not enough for a major-league team to give him a second look. Woodruff’s versatility was also a valuable asset. When Louisville needed him to play in the outfield, he played there without any letdown in his fielding. He once went 62 straight games in the outfield in 1908 without committing an error. He helped lead the Colonels to the AA pennant in 1909.

Vaughn spent much of his managerial career trying to secure the services of either of his ballplaying nephews, to no avail. Orville Woodruff did eventually get his own saloon, but it was on West Fourth Street in Cincinnati and not in Birmingham. During his offseasons, Woodruff could usually be found there, mixing drinks for his customers.

Woodruff was described by the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1910 as the team’s assistant manager. He and some of the other Colonel veterans were tasked with running the team’s spring training. To this point in his career, Woodruff had been called one of Louisville’s most popular players. However, a Kansas City Star report called Woodruff a troublemaker who caused dissension in the club and had at least one fight with a teammate. Other reports mentioned a difficult personality, too. Woodruff did seem to have a temper, as there was an incident where a stray comment about the poor play of the St. Paul Saints in a Minnesota lobby led to a fist fight between Woodruff and a Saints fan. The infielder was said to get the worst of the fight.

Controversy aside, Woodruff found himself back in the majors in the summer of 1910 when Reds manager Clark Griffith acquired him in a trade for Rabbit Robinson. Starting third baseman Hans Lobert had injured his wrist, and Woodruff was immediately installed as his replacement. His first games were a doubleheader against the Boston Braves on June 13, and he handled 13 chances with just one error. He played third base for the next three weeks or so and did well in the field. His offense was a different story. He managed 9 hits in 21 games for a .148 batting average. By the end of July, Lobert was healthy and Griffith released Woodruff to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. He never returned to the majors.

In two seasons, Woodruff appeared in a total of 108 games and had a slash line of .183/.242/.240. He stole 11 bases and walked 26 times to go with 67 hits. He had 15 doubles and 3 triples while scoring 26 runs and picking up 22 RBIs.

Woodruff re-joined the Indianapolis Indians in 1911 and spent most of the next three seasons there. He batted .278 in 1911 with a career-high 179 hits and 28 doubles. When he returned to Louisville as a visiting player, fans presented him with a watch that had a large diamond set in it. By 1913, Woodruff was 36 years old and was one of the longest-tenured players in the American Association. His hitting skills had faded, and he was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers, another AA team, at the end of June.

Source: The Sacramento Star, November 16, 1908.

Woodruff acquired a bar in Covington, Ky., in 1914 and retired from baseball to run it. The front of the building was destroyed in a gas explosion on April 17, when a porter attempted to light a gas stove in the basement of the three-story building. Nobody was killed, but two people were cut by falling glass. The following winter, his wife was badly injured in a car accident in 1915 and suffered a broken collarbone and internal injuries.

Woodruff tried to make a comeback in 1915 with the Memphis Chickasaws of the Southern Association. That year away from baseball had sapped the rest of his speed, and he called it quits after 10 games and a .237 batting average. In his career, he had 1,496 hits for a .266 batting average. He’s credited with 129 steals, though stolen bases weren’t recorded for many of his seasons. He had two seasons where he stole more than 30 bases and two more where he had 20 or more thefts.

Woodruff got back into the saloon business when he purchased a bar in Indiana in 1916. It’s uncertain just how long he owned that one. He also worked as a real estate broker around Cincinnati in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Orville Woodruff died on July 22, 1937, at his home at 1403 Ludlow Place in Cincinnati. He was 60 years old and had been suffering from rectum cancer for about a year. He is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.

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