It’s a well known fact that the world absolutely cherishes an underdog. So it goes in baseball.
The story of one of the Red Sox’s all time greats, and one of baseball’s great underdogs, Jim Rice, began in Anderson, South Carolina on March 8th, 1953.
“Ed”, as he was lovingly nicknamed, grew up in a time when racism, and racial segregation in the ‘Jim Crow’ South, was rife and was initially forced to attend Westside, the poorer cousin to all-white T.L Hanna High School. It was only post-integration, as Rice was moved to Hanna High, where his talent would begin to show and he would win over the hearts of most of the students; his elevation to co-class president, acting as a catalyst for diffusion of racial tensions within the area.
Rice’s sporting talent wasn’t monopolised by baseball – he was also a basketball and football standout. In his senior year at Hanna, he led his team to victory in the North Carolina – South Carolina Shrine Bowl, appearing as wide receiver, defensive back and kick returner. Despite numerous offers from some of college football’s most prestigious teams (including Clemson), he would accept an offer from the Boston Red Sox, who elected to choose him 15th overall in the 1971 amateur entry draft.
Rice’s pact with the Sox raised eyebrows. Albeit 12 years on from the Boston club breaking their own self-enforced ‘colour barrier’ through the signing of Pumpsie Green, the spectre of the club which passed on Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson loomed large. By 1971 the Red Sox were yet to have a black star, and owner Tom Yawkey – who many blame for the Red Sox historical racial issues – would not pass for another five years
Indeed, it wouldn’t be until August 19th, 1974 that Rice would make his debut against the Sox of Chicago. This was a remarkable event. Set against the backdrop of the introduction of ‘forced busing’, the City of Boston’s own ham-fisted response to schools desegregation, which added fuel to the fire of racial tension in the area, the Sox first great black prospect arrived. Unperturbed by the tensions outside of the ballpark, Rice crack his first home run against Cleveland on October 1 of the same year, charting a respectable 680 OPS in 24 games in what was his age 21 season.
It was in 1975 that “Jim Ed” would form a formidable partnership with Fred Lynn, earning the nickname of the “Gold Dust Twins”. However, this partnership was always uneasy. Rice felt that the Red Sox institutional racism lingered, famously stating in a 1978 magazine interview that “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.”
Rice would have a standout year in 1975 as a full time starter for the Red Sox. He would accomplish a .309 batting average, with 174 base hits and 22 home runs. He would finish a close second in the Rookie Of The Year awards and third in the AL MVP voting both of which were won by Lynn – the first to do such a double in a single season – perhaps showing another cause for Rice’s ire.
That season the Sox would dominate the AL East division. Unfortunately, Rice sat out the postseason, as the team would go on to win the AL Championship series against the Oakland A’s, whom they would eventually sweep 3-0 in the series due to a wrist injury. In the World Series, the Red Sox would finish runners up, to peak the peak ‘Big Red Machine’ Cincinnati Reds in one of the all-time great World Series, famous for Carlton Fisk‘s Game 6 bomb round the Pesky Pole.
In his peak season, Rice captured the 1978 MVP award. He would lead the league in home runs, smashing a total of 46 out of the ballpark, capturing an organisation record 406 total bases, with 139 RBI, 231 hits and a total of 15 triples. He is the only baseball player to lead the Major League in triples, home runs and RBI’s in a single season to this day (keep trying Mike Trout). His amazing total of 46 home runs would land the second of his three American League home run titles wins, the others coming in 1977 and 1983.
But no one in Boston remembers 1978 as the year of Jim Rice. Thanks Bucky Dent.
In 1986, Rice’s last great season as part of the Red Sox organisation, they would again make the World Series. On this occasion he would not be discouraged by injuries, playing in all 14 postseason games, connecting on 14 hits and 2 home runs, running in 6 RBIs as well as scoring 14 runs. Alas, of course the rough luck of both Rice and the Red Sox persisted. This time the New York Mets, Mookie Wilson and Bill Bucknor overshadowed Boston’s underdog.
The great slugger would retire three years later, hanging his cleats up in 1989. He would finish his stellar career with a total of 3 home run leading seasons, 2 RBI leading seasons, and in total bases gained four times in 1977, ‘78, ‘79 and 1983. He would also capture the Silver Slugger award twice consecutively in 1983 and ‘84. He finished his career with a .298 batting average, 382 home runs and most impressively 4,129 total bases hit.
The most impressive thing about Rice was that he wasn’t one dimensional. He managed to hit the ball with both power and accuracy. As of today he ranks thirteenth in both BA and Home Runs.
For many though, Rice’s greatest contributions are his humanitarian values. Not only does he active in charities within his community, the most notable demonstration of his humanitarianism is came on the 7th of August, 1982. A young Red Sox fan, Johnathan Keane, was struck in the head by a hard hit line drive . Rice sprinted to the boy’s aid and Keane made a full recovery and credits ‘Jim Ed’ for saving his life.
Rice would go on to have his number 14 retired at the iconic Fenway Park, the first black star of a ballpark haunted by a segregationist past. In retirement he defied the odds again, being elected into the Baseball Hall Of Fame in 2009, in his last year of eligibility.
It is always difficult to decipher a players greatness who hasn’t won a World Series. Despite this, Jim Rice, was a standout slugger during his 16 year career. He demonstrated what it meant to defy people’s opinions. Not only that, he made himself a household name in a city and on a team that with an unpalatable rap-sheet in managing black talent, and black people.
Jim Rice epitomises why so many love baseball – not only did he perform incredibly athletically but he also united the people through the game we all love.