These last few winters, the story has been pretty much the same. The Baltimore Orioles need an outfielder. Preferably two, but at the very least one.
And, every January, Orioles management scoops up a still-available outfielder at a bargain price. The Orioles get the guy for a year, he has a great season – greater than anyone could have imagined – and then “poof” he’s gone the next season, to a far richer, more generous team.
This brings me, in the most meandering way, to the brief career and life of Len Sowders.
Sowders played just one season in the majors — 1886. He was a Baltimore Oriole.
He was an outfielder (who moonlighted some at first). A so-so fielder. A left-handed batter with a .263 average from his handful of at-bats in Baltimore. Not a lot of power, but still, .263 isn’t the worst you can do.
That puts him right around current O’s centerfielder Adam Jones’s .265 last season and Mark Trumbo’s .256, the Orioles’s one-season outfielder whose 47 home runs led all of baseball last year and who is now a free agent looking for much more money than the Orioles will offer.
This Trumbo homer last August was a grand slam.
Back in 1886, Sowders was picked up by Baltimore late in the season from a minor league club in Nashville. Before Nashville, he’d played in Evansville, where he was also known for running a local fish business and for making loans with interest (fitting, I guess, that a man in the fish business was also a loan shark). He was, one newspaper assured readers, a good player and a strict church-goer.
In Nashville, he was one of the team’s big hitters and fans called him “Len, the Slugger.”
He was also, The Tennessean reported, “one of the most moral men of the profession. He never touches a drop of any kind of liquor and to this largely may be attributed the steady eye with which he gauges so successfully the delivery of various pitches.”
The 1885 Nashville Americans. I can’t be sure, but I think that’s Sowders in the back row, third from the right.
He played in just 23 games in Baltimore and he played well. His .263 average was well above every single everyday player in the Orioles lineup.
The Orioles stunk that season, finishing last (48-83) in the American Association. A few years later, The Pittsburgh Daily Post remembered the team as “a sorry-looking aggregation of stiffs and guzzlers.”
Except for Sowders. He was, his hometown Indianapolis News reported, “the only man who improved after joining the Baltimore team last year, and at the end of the season was doing some tall batting and fielding.”
Len Sowders looks to me to be exactly the kind of player today’s Orioles need to fill their hole in the outfield. (I’ve read his numbers and the only negative I can find is that he’s been dead for 128 years.)
The Orioles released Sowders that off-season.
A young player, better than anyone else on the team? A decent fella who caused no trouble?
The only reason I can find is that the Orioles were carrying 19 players and they decided they needed to cut costs by cutting five. Sowders was one of them.
It’s been 130 years and I’m pretty upset to learn this. (In 2015, the Orioles chose not to re-sign veteran right fielder Nick Markakis. I’ve been steamed about this ever since. But, now I see that this cheap and short-sighted 21st-century move is just par for the 130-year course.)
In 1887, Sowders signed with the minor league Jersey City Skeeters. He rarely merits a mention in the recaps – with the exception of his occasional fielding errors that cost the Skeeters important games. Other than that, he’s buried away in the box score, hitting a single or a double or helping a run to score.
Jersey City’s team wasn’t very good that season, but Sowders played pretty well.
Len Sowders can be hard to find outside of these box scores in 1887. His brothers Bill and John are pitchers, and Bill is a star for St. Paul and will soon, with much fanfare, pitch in Boston. When you search for “Sowders,” it’s Bill and his pitching that comes up first.
Bill even has a card.
Some papers report that there are four Sowders brothers playing professionally. Some report that there are seven.
I can only tell you there was outfielder Len, the oldest, and pitchers Bill, a righty, and John, a lefty.
In 1888, Sowders – our Len – signs with the London, Ontario Tecumsehs, where he spends most of the season. And, look! He’s teammates there with the loutish Lew “Buttercup” Dickerson who has appeared here before in one of my favorite posts. (It’s where I discovered that Dickerson, enshrined in the Italian-American sports Hall of Fame for being the first Italian-American to play professional baseball, wasn’t Italian-American at all.)
By the end of the ’88 season, Sowder’s gone from Ontario and playing with the (I am not making this up) Omaha Omahogs.
On November 21, 1888, while spending the off-season at home, along with his brothers, in Indianapolis, Len Sowders dies. It is typhoid fever that does him in and the newspapers report that his young brother, John, a pitcher, has also become ill. (John recovers.)
“Declared Out By Death.”
Len was married and had a year-old daughter.
Typhoid was rampant in the 19th century and there was a spike in cases in 1888 due, it was thought, to an especially rainy summer and fall in the northern states. According to one New York report at the time, one in four cases was fatal. Typhoid’s progression can be slow and painful, with a fever often dragging out for weeks, slowly getting higher and higher, before intestinal bleeding or sepsis causes death.
A vaccine in 1896 along with improved sanitation, hygiene, and chlorinated water supplies virtually eliminated typhoid in the United States.
Len Sowders was 27.
Editor/Husband (from his broken-hip sickbed): “So? What’s your conclusion?”
I feel bad for Len Sowders. I really do. For being cut by the Orioles for no good reason other than chintziness. For being upstaged by his more talented pitching brothers. For dying so young. I wonder what he would have done – what he would have become – if he hadn’t died of typhoid. Maybe he would have had another chance in the big leagues.
And the 2017 Orioles? Spring training’s just a month away. Time to find an outfielder. Trumbo’s still available, you know. Come on. It’s time to sign someone. It’s time to find a new Len, The Slugger.