Stephen F. Austin State University

Sammy West was war hero, 'fielding gazelle' (April 2018)

Sammy West was war hero, 'fielding gazelle'

By Van Craddock

April means baseball. So, it's time once again to suggest that Sammy West was the best baseball player to ever come out of Gregg County and he ought to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

That won't happen, of course. The baseball career of Samuel Filmore West (who died in 1985 at the age of 81) ended 76 years ago. A lot of today's baseball fans have never even heard of him.

Sammy West was born in Longview on Oct. 5, 1904.

Old-timers will tell you he should be in the Hall of Fame, but there were a couple of factors working against him.

First, West spent most of his career (1927-1942) with two of the worst teams in the history of major league baseball, the Washington Senators and the St. Louis Browns.

The Senators were so inept that fans joked Washington was "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." And the Browns … well, St. Louis was worse than Washington. In 52 years of existence, the Browns finished last or next-to-last 26 times. One year they lost 111 games while winning only 43.

Still, Sammy West put up some great statistics. A far-ranging left-handed outfielder, he set an American League record in 1928 with a .996 fielding percentage. He committed only one error all season as a starter. One manager called the East Texan a "fielding gazelle."

He batted .300 or higher in eight seasons. In 1933 he had eight consecutive hits over two games. That same year he tied the major-league record with four extra-base hits in a game - a double, two triples and a home run. Not a bad day at the office.

West was so highly regarded that in 1933 he was selected to play in the very first major-league all-star game, held at Chicago's Comiskey Park. Among Sammy's American League teammates that day was Babe Ruth, who hit a home run. The American League manager was the legendary Connie Mack.

A second factor working against West making the Hall of Fame was that during his final year in the majors (1942), his career batting average finally dipped to .299. Some baseball gurus insist that if West's average had stayed at .300, he would have been considered for the Hall.

Those who knew West as a youngster weren't surprised he made the majors. He was the son of A. F. and Idora West of Longview. His family eventually moved to West Texas and as a teenager he was playing semi-pro baseball in the Lubbock area.

After four years in the minor leagues, West moved up to the majors in 1927 and made the most of his opportunity. It was an era before fat contracts, when players played hurt and were thankful for the opportunity to be in the "bigs."

When Sammy West retired as a player in 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and served until World War II ended. He then returned to the Washington Senators as a coach for a couple of years. His baseball career over, West returned to Lubbock and operated a sporting goods store for a number of years.

He died on Nov. 23, 1985.

By the way, Sammy West isn't Gregg County's only connection to the hapless St. Louis Browns. In 1932, the Browns moved their Texas League team from Wichita Falls to the East Texas oil boomtown of Longview.

The Browns' team stayed only one year in East Texas. Longview was by far the smallest city in the Texas League that year and management moved the club to San Antonio for the 1933 season.

Sammy West's major league teams also eventually moved. The St. Louis Browns relocated to Baltimore in 1954 and the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961. A "new" Senators team then took up residence in the nation's capital, only to become the Texas Rangers in 1972.