He was a Furman University pitching ace who rocketed from college state championship to the majors in three months. He was a fellow 1907 Washington Senators rookie pitcher with, and first major league road roommate of, Walter Johnson. Sam Lanford was even spoken of in the same conversation as Shoeless Joe Jackson as among the greatest ball players of the first half of the 20th Century to hail from the greater Greenville, South Carolina, area.
Louis Grover Lanford was born on January 8, 1886, in Woodruff, South Carolina, to Louis Ezell Lanford (1852-1925), a farmer, and Mary Elizabeth Castleberry Lanford (1851-1921). Young Louis was the fourth of seven Lanford children, two of whom tragically passed away before their first birthday. He attended Woodruff High School, and led the baseball team to the South Carolina state championship in 1903, losing but one game on the season.1 In the fall, he enrolled at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and that spring pitched a 1-0 shutout over Trinity (now Duke University).2
Heading into 1905, the preseason college baseball writeup penned by Georgia Tech manager John Heisman touted right-hander Lanford as one of a “splendid lot” of veterans returning to Furman.3 It was later claimed by the Greenville News that, at Furman circa 1905, Lanford “had as much smoke as Walter Johnson or Amos Rusie ever put on the fast ball.”4 His velocity was even more impressive considering he was only 5’ 7” and 155 pounds. Lanford beat Erskine College, Trinity, Wofford, and twice toppled Newberry, the 1904 state champions. On May 5, Lanford beat Clemson College (now University), 8-1, in a rain-soaked game, striking out 10, allowing only three hits.5 Lanford “twirled with his usual steadiness and speed.”6 Five days later, Lanford again defeated Clemon, 2-1, with a two-hitter to claim the South Carolina Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SCIAA) championship.7 The next week he beat Clemson for a third time.
In the preseason before 1906, the Atlanta Constitution observed that “Lanford’s pitching ability is a recognized fact in college baseball.”8 Lanford once again had Clemson’s number, winning 7-6 on April 7.9 Hestruck out 14 batters, but lost to future major leaguer Ed Lafitte and Heisman’s Georgia Tech team, 1-0, on April 20.10 Tech again beat him and the “Baptists” of Furman, 7-4, in a May rematch.11 Four days later, he struck out nine consecutive Clemson batters and 12 out of 15 in a 4-3 win.12 It was during his Furman years that Lanford first acquired the nickname “Sam,” a close variant in spelling to the well-known boxer of the day, Sam Langford.13
For 1907, Lanford transferred to, and pitched for, Davidson College, although the reason for the transfer is not known. Sammy beat George Washington University, 4-3, on April 9, recording 11 strikeouts.14 Davidson and Lanford beat Guilford College of Greensboro, 3-1, on four hits, for the North Carolina state championship on May 8.15 In honor of Davidson’s accomplishment, the Charlotte Observer penned an ode to the state champs:
Three cheers for dear old Davidson,
The champion of the State;
She’s best it seems
Of all the teams
At crossing the home-plate.
With Lanford, pitch, and Sherril,
And Reid upon first base;
There’s not a batch
She cannot match,
In any town or place.16
The Atlanta Constitution penned a glowing post-season writeup on Davidson and Lanford: “Sammy Lanford, Davidson’s star slabman, has pitched great ball for the North Carolina college this season, and his record places him among the best college pitchers in the South.”17
Once the Davidson season, and his storied college career, ended, Lanford quickly joined the professional ranks. He signed with the Orangeburg Edistoes of the short-season Class D South Carolina League,18 playing for manager Jack Boyle. Lanford shut out Darlington, 4-0, on three singles, on July 9.19 In mid-July, he struck out 15 for Orangeburg at Florence, most in the league on the season.20 In a season that lasted only from May 20 to August 10, 21-year-old Lanford posted an 18-5 record, leading the league. Orangeburg finished two games behind the Sumter Gamecocks for the pennant. He was named to the South Carolina State League post-season All-Star team, as selected by the Darlington (South Carolina) News.21 In mid-August, Lanford was sold to the Washington Senators and headed for the nation’s Capital.
Lanford joined the Senators as they embarked on a 16-day road trip to St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, with Lanford and Johnson assigned as bunkmates. He made his major league debut for manager Joe Cantillon against the Chicago White Sox on August 19. The Chicago Tribune wrote that as Lanford made his way out to the mound, plate umpire Billy Evans asked Owen Shannon, catching in his first game for the Senators, the identity of the new pitcher. “‘How can I tell?’ retorted Shannon.’I didn’t know the last guy they had on. Ask me something easy.’ ” Evans then inquired with the team’s coaching staff as to the rookie’s identity. “After some delay, his name was said to be Mr. Lanford of Greenville, S.C.”22
Lanford pitched three innings of mop-up duty in a 16-2 loss, allowing four hits, two earned runs, two walks, and one hit batter, with one strikeout. In the bottom of the sixth inning and the score already 14-2, “the South Carolina wizard … came in to get his pounding.”23 He “was very wild, making a wild pitch, hit a batsman, and gave two passes to first.”24 Two other Senators rookies made their debut in the same game: Clyde Milan and Doc Tonkin. The lefty-hitting Lanford also collected his first, and only, major league hit, off Doc White in the seventh inning. Sadly, after reaching second base, he was victimized by the hidden ball trick.
Lanford’s only other game for the 1907 Senators was a September 14 start against the New York Highlanders at Hilltop Park. He was “no puzzle to the Gothamites,” surrendering six runs in the first inning.25 He was so wild that he hit outfielder Frank LaPorte in the head with a pitch, threw a wild pitch, and committed a balk, all in the first inning. There were also two errors and a passed ball committed.26 Lanford allowed two more runs without recording an out in the fifth inning before finally being relieved. He ended up pitching four innings total, allowing eight runs on six hits, three walks, and two hit batsmen, with one strikeout, and took the 8-2 loss in his final major league appearance. The terrible Senators were 40-89 (.310) after the loss on September 14, a whopping 39½ games behind the Philadelphia Athletics.
In early April 1908, “Sammy Lanford, a star pitcher of the South Carolina League last year,” was released by the Senators. He returned home to Woodruff, hoping to latch on with Greenville in the new Carolina Association.27 Lanford wired both Greenville and Spartanburg (in the same league) as to what it would take to sign him; in the end, Spartanburg won out.28 Labeled “a great pitcher,” he struck out eight batters in a 2-0 shutout of Charlotte on opening day, April 30.29 His fast start produced potential suitors; Charleston was said to be making a bid for “Sammie,” considered “by odds the best pitcher in the Carolina League.”30 But after only five appearances, Lanford, “the star twirler of the Musicians, was hurt in practice”31 in late May. The belief was that he would be out for several weeks, leaving Spartanburg in the lurch.32
Lanford did not pitch the rest of 1908 nor in 1909 or 1910. As it turned out, he had suffered a “severe case of rheumatism [that] put him to the bum and his right foot rebelled against more ball playing.”33
The Charlotte Observer lamented Sammy’s plight:
Every fan in the league is sorry that it was impossible for Lanford to get into condition this year and play ball. In him the league has lost its best pitcher, a gentleman on the field as well as off, one who played the game for the sport and always did the manly thing and was one of the players who is keeping the game on the high standard that now exists.34
Lanford finally returned to the field for 1911, signing with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Class A Southern Association in February.35 Unfortunately, he was released by April.36 He caught on with Rome of the Class D Southeastern League, where he became the team’s ace; finishing off a stellar month, he “forever established himself in the hearts of Rome fans by his wonderful pitching” during a 12-inning triumph over Selma (Alabama) on May 27.37 Even though he was considered the “premier heaver for the Caesars” (AKA Romans), he didn’t want scouts to “take his measure,” since he planned on retiring from professional baseball after the season. He played in 1911 simply to “strengthen his legs,” prepping him for work on his farm back home in Woodruff.38
Apparently, Lanford had a change of heart about working full-time on the Woodruff farm, after all, in 1912. It was announced by Rome in March that “Grover Lanford, the pitcher who had the best record last year, has signed and will report on April 1.”39 By June, he had moved to Gadsden, but the league disbanded on August 2.
Lanford postponed farm life for yet one more season, signing with the Johnson City (Tennessee) Soldiers in the Class D Appalachian League, where he was 19-8. Johnson City would later be awarded the pennant by forfeit after Knoxville refused to travel to Tennessee for a playoff game due to threats by players and fans. It was said that, as the players dispersed for the off-season, Lanford, “the champion cigar smoker of the club,” was returning to Woodruff for his farming and dairy business.40 But he still wasn’t ready to hang up the spikes, pitching for the Miami Seminoles in the unaffiliated Florida East Coast league in 1914.
On February 11, 1915, Lanford married Ada Caroline Hughes (1885-1969) at the home of the bride’s mother in Laurens, South Carolina. Reports stated that Miss Hughes was “a member of one of the oldest and best families in this section, and Mr. Lanford is a prominent young farmer from Woodruff.”41 The newlyweds honeymooned in Florida. Ada attended Limestone College and taught in Graniteville public schools for a number of years.42 The Lanfords had six children: Mary, Martha, Lewis Ezell (a pilot killed in World War II), Grover J. (“Toots,”), Caroline, and Ella.
In 1915 Lanford, now a full-time farmer, began pitching for the Fountain Inn (South Carolina) semipro squad and other local semipro and amateur teams into the 1920s. In 1916 he tossed a 1-0 perfect game for Fountain Inn.
In 1926, Lanford showed his compassionate side, sending a heartwarming letter to Legs Martin, a former teammate and Johnson City player-manager. Martin was incarcerated on drug charges. Lanford wrote:
You can have a chance to come back. I have in my many dealings with you found you always on the square. I have played with you and for you and I have never worked for a better man. I am coming over to see you soon and bring you something to eat. Your old friend, Sam Lanford.43
In the mid-1930s, local sportswriter Carter “Scoop” Latimer of the Greenville News penned that Lanford is now “all wool and a yard wide like the fleece he gets off sheep he raises … Sammy Lanford sticks out in memory as our baseball hero of a bygone era.”44 Lanford continued to farm well into the 1950s. In 1961, the same Greenville News ran a little montage on their local shepherd:
Grover Lanford at the age of 76 has retired twice, but is still working. In 1915 he retired as a professional baseball player. More recently he retired from farming field crops and turned his full attention to sheep and cattle raising. He has 30 head of sheep at his North Main Street home here. His 216-acre farm is now operated by his son, Grover J. Lanford.45
In 1962, “raw-boned fireballing pitcher” Lanford was recognized as one of greater Greenville’s best baseball players ever, named in the same breath as Shoeless Joe Jackson, Champ Osteen, and Dinty Barbare, among others.46 Three years later, Ada and Sam celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.47 In 1966, an article described him as saving “twin lambs when he found them frozen stiff after being born in below zero temperatures. Lanford took the lambs into his house, breathed into their mouths, then fed them warm milk from a bottle.”48
Ada passed away on May 11, 1969, at 84. Sam Lanford died a year later on September 14, 1970, in Woodruff of respiratory failure after a long illness.49 He is buried at Bethel Cemetery in town.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Alan Cohen.
Dean Lollis, Historic Baseball website: http://www.historicbaseball.com/players/l/lanford_sam.html
1 Ruth Drummond “Outstanding Woodruff High Baseball Team of 1903 Produced Pro Players,” Greenville (South Carolina) News, August 25, 1957: 28.
2 Carter Latimer, “When Shaver Thrilled Home Town,” Greenville News, May 24, 1935: 16.
3 “Southern College Ball; Strength of the Teams,” Atlanta Constitution, March 26, 1905: 6.
4 Carter Latimer, “Great Pitcher and Mighty Hitter,” Greenville News, March 29, 1936: 15.
5 “Pitcher Lanford Made Furman Win,” Greenville News, May 6, 1905: 8.
6 “Furman 8, Clemson 1,” Charlotte News, May 6, 1905: 6.
7 Greenville News, May 11, 1905: 8.
8 “Furman Squad in Fine Shape,” Atlanta Constitution, March 11, 1906: 3.
9 “Furman Defeats Clemson” Atlanta Constitution, April 8, 1906: 2.
10 “With Two Out Tech Team Won,” Atlanta Constitution, April 21, 1906: 9.
11 “Georgia Tech Defeats Furman,” Charlotte Observer, May 2, 1906: 3.
12 “Great Sanford, of Furman, Fanned Twelve Men Out of Fifteen at the Bat,” Atlanta Constitution, May 6, 1906: 7.
13 Ruth Drummond “Outstanding Woodruff High Baseball Team of 1903 Produced Pro Players,” Greenville (South Carolina) News, August 25, 1957: 28.
14 “G.W.U. Loses Second,” Washington Post, April 10, 1907: 8.
15 “Davidson Wins Three to One,” Charlotte News, May 9, 1907: 2.
16 “The Champion,” Charlotte Observer, May 19, 1907: 22.
17 “Davidson’s Star Slabman,” Atlanta Constitution, May 14, 1907: 11.
18 The Edisto were a member of the Cusabo Indian family of tribes. Orangeburg was also at times referred to as the Cotton Pickers.
19 “Lovely in Orangeburg,” Watchman and Southron (Sumter, South Carolina), July 10, 1907: 8.
20 Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, South Carolina), July 25, 1907: 8.
21 “A Picked Team,” Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, South Carolina), August 22, 1907: 8.
22 “Sox Win a Weird Game, 16-2”, Chicago Tribune, August 20, 1907: 7. This article was referenced in Dean Lollis, “Sam Lanford Bio” Historic Baseball website: http://www.historicbaseball.com/players/l/lanford_sam.html
23 “Three Pitchers Try to Head Off the Champions,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), August 20, 1907: 9.
24 Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), August 20, 1907: 9
25 “Lanford No Puzzle to the Gothamites,” Washington Herald, September 15, 1907: 25.
26 Duane Pesice, “Baseball History Unpacked, September 14,” SB Nation, Bleed Cubbie Blue website:
27 Charlotte News, April 4, 1908: 11.
28 Watchman and Southron, April 1, 1908: 6.
29 “Charlotte Loses the Initial Game,” Charlotte Observer, May 1, 1908: 3.
30 “Charleston Wants Lanford,” Times and Democrat, May 8, 1908: 8.
31 “Stings,” Charlotte Observer, May 21, 1908: 3.
32 Charlotte Observer, May 23, 1908: 3.
33 “Sammy Lanford Signed with New Orleans,” Greenville News, February 13, 1911: 3
34 “Lanford Still Out of Shape,” Charlotte Observer, April 16, 1909: 3.
35 “Sammy Lanford Signed with New Orleans,” Greenville News, February 13, 1911: 3.
36 “Manager Frank Gives Two Pelicans Release,” (Nashville) Tennessean, April 6, 1911: 8.
37 The Romans Crow Loud” Selma Times-Journal, May 29, 1911: 2.
38 “Notes,” Anniston (Alabama) Star, June 3, 1911: 6.
39 “Bill Blessing Working with Large Rome Squad,” Chattanooga Times, March 27, 1912: 9.
40 “One by One Johnson City Players Depart,” Knoxville Sentinel, September 9, 1913: 16.
41 “Hughes-Lanford,” Laurens (South Carolina) Advertiser, February 17, 1915: 5.
42 “Mrs. L.G. Lanford,” Greenville News, May 12, 1969: 5.
43 “Martin Thankful Friends Still Have Faith in Him,” Greenville News, June 25, 1926: 2.
44 Carter Latimer “Great Pitcher and Mighty Hitter,” Greenville News, March 29, 1936: 15.
45 “After 76 Years, A Shepherd,” Greenville News, October 16, 1961: 16.
46 “City Gave to Game’s Roll,” Greenville News, June 26, 1962: 161.
47 “Lanfords are Wed 50 Years,” Greenville News, February 16, 1965: 12.
48 “Resuscitation Efforts,” Kingsport (Tennessee) Times, February 3, 1966: 4.
49 “Lewis Grover Lanford,” Gaffney (South Carolina) Ledger, September 16, 1970: 8.