Sitting Here, Thinking About “Len, The Slugger”

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.

len-sowders

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

What?!

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-sowders-card

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.)

len-sowders-declared-out-by-death-st-paul-globe-11-23-1888

“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.

 

 

30 thoughts on “Sitting Here, Thinking About “Len, The Slugger”

  1. Your description of Len’s “numbers” made me burst out laughing. Here’s hoping your Orioles take a page from the Cubs game book and loosen the purse strings for the players they need this season. Regards to both you and the Bear.

    • Thanks Gloria … the Orioles have a long, proud tradition of cheapskatedness, with a few exceptions. I’m not sure there’s anyone left out there on the clearance shelf who deserves a big payday anyway. (But I did hear we’re sniffing around a Cubs pitcher, who used to be an Oriole. We DO have a tradition of circling back around on the ones who got away.)

  2. Do you really want to see the Trumbone stumbling around the outfield this year? I don’t! Sign him, yeah–end that 130 year string of chintzy decisions–but make him a full-time DH. Please.

    • You make an excellent point. (Len Sowders was a sloppy fielder, too.) There’s just not much left out on the market. I still stand by my earlier post that predicted that when his price starts to fall (which I think it has) Dan Duquette will suddenly become quite interested in 36-year-old Jose Bautista and he’ll no longer care that “O’s fans don’t like him.” If it comes to that, I’m all-in on 30-year-old Mark Trumbo … errors and all. Add in a breakout season from Rule 5 guy Joey Rickard, and we’ll be set.

  3. Ah, what a pleasure it is, to feel myself contentedly settle into “baseball mind”, as I read your blog. Your assertion that Spring Training starts in a month is stretching it just a little, but I can feel myself beginning to think and dream about it, as the days lengthen, slowly but surely, into spring.
    Now, though, I’m off to Googleland, to see what I can find out about the “Omahogs”. As a long-transplanted Nebraska boy, I’ve just got to know!
    Thanks, Blogess.

  4. The London, Ontario Tecumsehs?! I had no idea they’d had (and have, apparently) such a team. I don’t often get out that way, but I’ll definitely have to look them up when I do. Also, “Declared out by death”? Yeesh… But I also kinda like it.

    • “Yeesh… But I also kinda like it.” was also pretty much my reaction.

      But, here’s a story following Len’s death that didn’t make it into the post, but it’s a gift for you, because I know you will appreciate it more than most:

      “Since the death of Len Sowders, the eldest of the Sowders brothers, Johnny, the St. Paul pitcher, has been taken seriously ill with the same disease that carried off Len — typhoid malaria. John was married but a week before his brother’s death and his own illness.

      Pitcher Billy Sowders is said to be the champion oyster eater of the profession. He is also a great pie eater. All of which indicates that stomach trouble will in time knock out his pitching ability.”

      I’m not sure the takeaway from this story, except that either the pie kept Billy from getting typhoid or it’s what’s gonna ruin him the same way the typhoid ruined Len. In any event Bill lived to be 87, avoiding typhoid, the flu epidemic of 1918, the invention of cars (and car accidents), etc, so I guess the REAL takeaway is that oysters and pie are good for you.

      • Oh I love it – thank you. My grandfather would’ve loved it too. One of his strongest beliefs was that so long as you had an appetite nothing could knock you down. I don’t know how many oysters he had in his life, but pie was a biggie. He lived to be 97 – so I think you and ol’ Bill Sowders have got the right idea.

  5. Thanks Jackie. I enjoy reading these. I’m on my way back from Seattle and show that my next appointment is January 24th. See you then.

    Calvin

    • Ahhh, I know the Orioles are an acquired taste.

      As for the tag line … it’s the 4-6-3 that I love along with the serial comma. I have nothing against the 6-4-3, of course, it’s wonderful as well. But, I have a special place in my heart for those plays when the second baseman dives, throws to the shortstop who then fires to first.

      Here … Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford style …

  6. (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.)

    That right there is a money quote (no pun intended; ok maybe a little) if ever I read/saw one. Not to mention…are you a certified grudge-holder? Because if so, that is one to take to the grave!

    Well it appears that Joey Bats is going back to the finer climes of Toronto, so I think it’s time for Dust-bin Dan to get around to signing Trumbo.

    • Yup, we called the Trumbo signing, didn’t we? I’m good with it, I guess. Sure. I’d always rather have a pitcher, but sure, I’m ok with Trumbo. And, I’m on record on here saying that Duquette never lost interest in Bautista, no matter what he said about the fans not liking him — and now it comes out that Duquette was still talking to Bautista’s people all along. I knew it!

      • I agree with you, re: Bautista. If he couldn’t sign Trumbo, he would have waited until Bautista’s price was in his range. Then he would have pounced on him. And yes, I wish they would do something in regards to pitching.

      • Yeah. Yesterday my wife smiled and said, “You’re starting to talk to me about baseball. It must be getting close”. So, I tried to tell her about the Hall of Fame voting, and how it was changing, and who made it in and who didn’t- and then I noticed she was counting silently, as she was knitting, her signal that she isn’t really listening to me. A long term relationship teaches you to notice things like that.
        But, it’s sweet that my partner of 33 years notices that I start to perk up about this time of year, and sometimes, when she really wants to please me, she’ll surprise me by knowing something like who’s starting for the Giants tomorrow, or who just went on the DL. I know; I’m easy, but I love it when she does that, especially since she really doesn’t care if another baseball game ever gets played- except she knows that I would wither up and die on her, pretty quickly.
        In any case, my internal clock is ticking, too. I just entered in my calendar the Giants opening game (against the D-Backs: Sunday, April 1st), and of course Spring Training starts well before that.The time will fly. Your blog helps, more than you know.

  7. Pingback: 1890 Players League All-Star Team | Year-by-Year All Star Teams

  8. I may have married into the Sowders family. Way down the line of course, so the name has changed a few times. It’s there anyway you can contact me privately?

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