This article was written by Alexander Edelman
James Edward Rice was born on Sunday, March 8, 1953, in Anderson, South Carolina, to Roger and Julia Rice. Residents of the town say that even as a lanky teenager, “Ed,” as he was – and remains – known to his friends, showed promise. He led his 1969 American Legion team to the state finals. However, it was still a time of segregation in the South, and Rice, despite his promise, had to attend Westside High School, as opposed to the all-white T.L Hanna High. Sometime before Rice’s senior year, when integration was mandated, Anderson’s district board drew lines to decide who would attend what school. The resulting line was drawn so that the Rice household was included in the Hanna district. His engaging personality and gentle charm won over most of Hanna, he was elected co-class president, and helped ease the racial tension that accompanied integration.
Rice’s childhood hero was Westside alumnus and American Football League star George Webster, and Rice played football and basketball as well as baseball. In his senior year, Rice starred on Hanna’s football team as an all-state kick returner, defensive back, and wide receiver, and played in the North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl, leading South Carolina to victory. After some time spent deciding between the Red Sox, who had taken him in the first round of the 1971 amateur entry draft (15th overall), and football scholarship offers from Clemson, North Carolina, and the University of Nebraska, Rice eventually settled on baseball – a $45,000 offer from Mace Brown and Sam Mele of the Red Sox helped.1
After being drafted by the Red Sox, Rice played 60 games in 1971 for Williamsport in the Class-A New York-Penn League at the tender age of 18. He hit .256 with five home runs and hated it. He wasn’t used to curveballs, people calling him “Jim” instead of “Jim Ed,” and being so far from home. But things would get better. In 1972 he was sent to Winter Haven in the Florida State League, where he continued to improve his skills, hitting 17 homers in 130 games. In 1973 the Red Sox promoted Rice to Bristol in the Double-A Eastern League, where he quickly flourished, winning the league batting title with a .317 batting average. He hit 27 homers and drove in 93 runs. Later that year, he joined the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox for the International League playoffs, and helped lead them to a Junior World Series championship over the American Association Tulsa team; in 10 playoff games, he hit .378 with four homers. The next year, 1974, Rice played with the PawSox for almost the whole year, and won the International League’s Triple Crown, Rookie of the Year, MVP, and the honor of The Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the Year (.337, 25 HR, 93 RBIs). 2
The highly prized prospect joined the parent Red Sox for 24 games late in 1974, debuting on August 19. He hit his first major-league homer on October 1, off Cleveland’s Steve Kline. Rice batted .269 in 67 at-bats.
It took Rice a while to get settled in with the 1975 team. While fellow rookie Fred Lynn secured the center-field job, the comebacking Tony Conigliaro was the Opening Day designated hitter, a role earmarked for Rice. Furthermore, Rice was convinced that his difficulty fitting into the lineup wasn’t all logistics-related. It wouldn’t become public knowledge for a few years, but at the time, Rice believed that his progression with the Red Sox was being arrested by race. In an interview he’d give to Sport Magazine in 1978, Rice would cause a stir when he complained: “Race has to be a factor when Fred Lynn can hit .240 in the minors and I can hit .340 and he gets a starting job before I do.”
Whatever arrested his rise to the majors, and however unsettled he may have felt, when Conigliaro’s season fizzled a few weeks in, Rice had the job to himself. By July he took over left field and held it the rest of the season. He hit .309 with 22 home runs and 102 RBIs, ending up second to Lynn for the Rookie of the Year award. The two rookies Rice and Lynn were dubbed the “Gold Dust Twins” and formed what may have been the most productive rookie tandem of all time.
Hank Aaron was most impressed with the potential of the young slugger, and even speculated that Rice would go on to break his home-run record.3 But Rice’s season came to a premature end on September 21, in a 6-5 win over Detroit, when Tigers pitcher Vern Ruhle broke his left hand with a pitch, sidelining him for the rest of the season and forcing him to watch the Red Sox lose a grueling, seven-game World Series to Cincinnati from the bench.
Recovering from his injury, Rice regressed a bit in 1976, hitting .282 with 25 home runs. In 1977 he became a full-fledged star, leading the league in total bases (382), home runs (39), and slugging percentage (.593). On August 13, 1978, he became the first Red Sox player since Ted Williams in 1939-40 to total 20 homers, 20 doubles, and 10 triples in consecutive seasons. On August 29, 1977, in an 8-7 loss to Oakland, he had his first three-homer game (his second – and last came exactly six years later, on August 29, 1983).
Jim Rice played his entire professional career with the Red Sox, but none of his seasons equaled the magic of 1978. He started the season off on the right foot, hitting a game-winning single in the 10th inning of the April 14 home opener, and continued his torrid pace into October, when the Red Sox lost to the New York Yankees in a devastating one-game playoff. It was a shame that one of the finest seasons in Red Sox history was overshadowed by the feeble swing of a weedy infielder. but Rice’s accomplishments were rewarded.4 He was voted the MVP award he so richly deserved, leading the majors in slugging percentage (.600), games (163), at-bats (677), hits (213), total bases (406), triples (15), home runs (46, the most for a Red Sox player since Jimmie Foxx hit 50 in 1938), and RBIs (139). He was the first American Leaguer to accumulate 400 total bases in a season since Joe DiMaggio in 1937.
In 1979 Rice had another big year, becoming the first player to have 35 homers (he had 39) and 200 hits (he had 201) for three consecutive seasons. Fans elected him, along with teammates Carl Yastrzemski and Fred Lynn, to start the All-Star Game.5 It was an all-Red Sox outfield. Rice in particular was recognized as perhaps the best hitter in the game.
Rice had another hand injury in 1980, and suffered subpar seasons in 1981 and 1982 at least partially as a result. Nevertheless, in 1982, Rice had a day at Fenway Park worth remembering. He had a difficult relationship with the press, who presented him as a surly, unfriendly player. Jonathan Keane, from Greenland, New Hampshire, was a 4-year old boy in 1982, and he would probably disagree with this assessment. On August 7 Jonathan was attending one of his first Fenway games, sitting along the first-base line in the field boxes, and watched as his favorite player, Red Sox infielder Dave Stapleton, stepped into the batter’s box against Richard Dotson of the Chicago White Sox.
Stapleton fouled a pitch sharply to the right, and the hard-hit ball cracked Jonathan in the head, cutting open his left temple and fracturing his skull. In a 1997 article, Arthur Pappas, the Red Sox team doctor in 1982, claimed he had never seen so much blood at Fenway. Rick Miller, who was near the on-deck circle, cried for Red Sox trainer Charlie Moss, but instead Jim Rice, who didn’t see anyone moving, instinctively leaped into the stands and picked up the unconscious toddler. Cradling Jonathan, Rice ran into the clubhouse, where he brought him to Arthur Pappas in the trainer’s room.
In a 1997 article describing the incident, Pappas was quoted as saying, “Time is very much a factor once you have that kind of a head injury and the subsequent swelling of the brain. That’s why it’s so important to get him to care so it can be dealt with. [Rice] certainly helped him very considerably.”6 The supposedly unfriendly outfielder did something that many other Hall of Famers surely haven’t. He saved a young boy’s life.
Jonathan Keane returned for Opening Day in 1983 to throw the ceremonial first pitch, and Rice’s game returned as well, as he went on to lead the league in RBIs (126) and home runs (39). He won the Silver Slugger award and played spectacularly in his best year since 1979. And though the 1983 season was not Rice’s best, it provided more weight in the argument of whether he should be a Hall of Famer. SABR member Paul White of Shawnee, Kansas, who was one of Rice’s most vocal supporters for election to the Hall of Fame, wrote in 2001 that there were a few reasons offered by sportswriters for Rice not to be admitted to the Hall. Chief among them is that Rice was one-dimensional.7 In his article, White quoted Jayson Stark of ESPN.com, explaining why he did not vote for Rice in 2000. Stark’s main argument was that Rice was one-dimensional, citing his lack of Gold Gloves.8 To counter Stark’s claim, White offered baseball writer Peter Gammons, who wrote in his book Beyond the Sixth Game: “… [In 1983, Rice] probably should have won a Gold Glove for fielding excellence. Dwight Evans, who had the worst defensive year of his career, won one instead, proving clearly the value of a reputation.”9
Rice had typically fine years in 1984 (28 HR, 122 RBIs, .280) and 1985 (27, 103, .291), garnering All-Star honors each year. In 1986 the Red Sox returned to the postseason, and Rice was their primary weapon in the middle of the lineup. He hit .324, with 20 home runs and 110 RBIs, his last big season.
After missing the postseason in 1975, Rice was healthy this time. He hit just .161 with two home runs in the Red Sox League Championship Series victory over the California Angels, but one of the homers was a key three-run wallop in Game Seven. He hit .333 in the World Series loss to the New York Mets, in what was to be his only fall classic.
Bothered by an injured elbow, Rice fell off in 1987 (13 home runs, 62 RBIs, .277), and he had to have offseason knee surgery. These injuries and eyesight problems plagued Rice for the next two seasons, and hastened the rather sudden end to his career after the 1989 season. The last few unhappy at-bats of the season’s difficult twilight dropped Rice’s career average from .300 to .298, a drop that provide ammunition for critics in the Hall of Fame-eligibility years that followed.
Rice spent all 16 years of his big-league career with the Red Sox, playing his final game on August 3, 1989. He returned to serve the organization when he was appointed hitting coach in 1995, and young hitters from Nomar Garciaparra to Trot Nixon to Mo Vaughn benefited from his tutelage. Rice continued as Red Sox hitting coach until 2000.
Rice and his wife, Corine, settled in 1975 in Andover, Massachusetts, where they raised their children, Carissa and Chancey. Rice would prefer to be in a warmer climate, being from South Carolina, but his family preferred New England.10
Ironically, Rice joined the ranks of the Boston sports media as a baseball analyst for the New England Sports Network (NESN), and became a colleague of some of those he used to war with.
Honors followed the slugger out of baseball. On November 1, 1995, he was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in its inaugural class. His plaque can be viewed in the Red Sox Hall of Fame at Fenway Park. The Red Sox also put on display a row of silver bats, replicas of all the Silver Slugger awards won by Red Sox players. Two of those belong to Jim Rice. In 1999 Sports Illustrated rated him South Carolina’s ninth best athlete of the 20th century. On February 18, 2001, Rice was inducted into the Ted Williams Hitters Hall of Fame. A community center in his hometown of Anderson is named in his honor, the Jim Ed Rice Center.
But despite all of the accolades, for years an argument like no other postcareer argument raged about whether Rice’s statistics merited him Hall of Fame recognition. The late Dick Bresciani, the Red Sox’ avuncular historian, was one of his fiercest advocates, and kept Rice’s superior statistics available and showcased to anyone interested. His case for Rice’s inclusion in Cooperstown focused on the fact that in his 16 seasons Rice led the AL in homers and RBIs, and that the only players with career averages and home run totals as high as his were baseball Olympians Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Stan Musial, and Babe Ruth. In 2005 Bresciani started sending a report – a case for Rice’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame – to voters, and the voting percentages started a steady climb. On January 12, 2009, the day the vote of his final year of eligibility was announced, Rice was sitting at home watching soap operas when he received a call from Jack O’Connell of the Baseball Writers Association of America. With 76.4 percent of the ballots naming him, he was finally in.11
In his Cooperstown speech in July of that year, Rice was in a reflective mood. He thanked Bresciani, “who kept my stats in the public eye,” Mitch Brown and Sam Mele for signing him, and mentors ranging from his seventh-grade Westside High coach John Moore through Johnny Pesky and Don Zimmer. And he said, in a voice that grew husky with emotion:
“I am a husband, called Rice. I am a father, called Dad. I am a brother, called Ed. I am an uncle, called Uncle Ed. I am a grandfather, called Papa. I am a friend that doesn’t call – some of my friends know that – and sometimes best not call at all. Finally, I do mean finally, I am Jim Rice, called a Baseball Hall of Famer.”
Last revised: January 7, 2015
An updated version of this biography appeared in “The 1986 Boston Red Sox: There Was More Than Game Six” (SABR, 2016), edited by Bill Nowlin and Leslie Heaphy. It was originally published in “’75: The Red Sox Team That Saved Baseball” (Rounder Books, 2005), edited by Bill Nowlin and Cecilia Tan.
2 BaseballLibrary (http://baseballlibrary.com/baseballlibrary/ballplayers/R/Rice_Jim.stm).
3 Jeff Goldberg, “The Day Rice Made Contact: One of His Memorable Moves Was to Aid an Injured Young Fan, Hartford Courant, August 7, 1997.
4 The infielder was, of course, Bucky Dent.
5 Yastrzemski was injured, however, and unable to make a start in the outfield; he was moved to first base instead, replacing also-injured Rod Carew. He was replaced in the outfield by Don Baylor.
7 Paul White, “My 2002 Hall of Fame Ballot: Slot #4, Jim Rice,” posted on Baseballlibrary.com on December 11, 2001.
8 White quotes Stark as saying, “He was a one-dimensional player whose career thundered to a halt just as he was on the verge of cementing his sure place in the Hall (only 31 homers, 162 RBIs after age 34). And you essentially have to vote on him as a hitter only, because he DH-ed extensively. He gave you no speed, no Gold Gloves, no off-field ‘character-and-integrity’ points.” This is from Stark’s (reposted) November 19, 2003 ESPN.com article “Stark: My Hall of Fame Ballot.”
9 Peter Gammons, Beyond the Sixth Game (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985).
10 Andrew Neff, “Rice Enjoys TV Analyst Stint,” Bangor Daily News, April 1, 2005.
11 Adam Kilgore, “Rice Elected to Hall of Fame,” New York Times, January 12, 2009.