by Steve McCarthy
Pre-1900 baseball certainly had it's share of star pitchers with names like Royal Ricketts, Eli Taylor and George Stonge immediately coming to mind. One name that belongs in the same breath but is often not included is that of one Thomas Sanders. Slight in stature at just 5'5" and 160 pounds, Sanders relied on his guile, pinpoint control and a burning desire to be the best to make up for what he might have lacked in brute force.
When you use the term 'crafty left-hander' a player like Tom Sanders immediately comes to mind. He falls well down the list of career strikeout leaders from his era but no one walked batters at a lower rate that Sanders. His career walks per nine innings was a minuscule 0.39. It is a stat category of course dominated by 19th century pitchers but he was head and shoulders the best of them all in this regard.
While not given much credit nationally as the National Base Ball League was still finding it's footing in those days, Sanders was immensely popular in New York and became the leader and first real star pitcher for the New York Knickerbockers. Extremely competitive, he fashioned a 285-190 career record in his brief career relatively brief career. He was already 28 years old when the NBL played its inaugural season in 1876 and for the next 9 seasons he was one of the best pitchers in the game.
There were no playoffs back then but Sanders did lead the Knickerbockers to their first four titles. In 1878, the league's third season, teams still played a 70 game schedule spread out over the summer so the top pitcher on each club routinely received 50 odd starts. Sanders won a league high 35 games that year and posted the lowest era in the loop as Knickerbockers went 43-27 to nip two-time defending champion Chicago by one game for their first title. Two years later Sanders would again lead the league in wins and era as New York once more topped Chicago by a single game to win the pennant. The trend of finishing ahead of Chicago every second year continued as the Knickerbockers won two more titles. The first came in 1882 when he won 35 games and they beat the Haymakers by 3 games and again in 1884 when New York once more finished a game up on Chicago but this time Sanders (23-17) was 36 years old and had given way to 27 year old Bill Bates as the team's number one starter.
Sanders would remain with New York, but in a greatly reduced role, for two more season before retiring following the 1886 campaign. Well after his career was over and long after Sanders had passed away, it took several years before he garnered enough support to finally be permitted to join his contemporaries Rickets, Taylor and Stonge in the Hall of Fame. In fact, Sanders did not receive a single vote when the ballots were tabulated for the inaugural class of 1946 which featured Royal Ricketts. He was overlooked once more in 1947 when Eli Taylor got the call. Finally in 1948, which was the year George Stonge was enshrined, Sanders was named on 50% of the ballots. In 1949 his support dipped to 42%, well short of the 75% necessary and in 1950 it ticked up slightly with his named being placed on 8 of the 12 ballots cast. Finally in 1951 Tom Sanders time came and he was the only unanimous choice in that class.
Tom Sanders does not have an award named after him like Royal Ricketts does. He did not win over 300 games like fellow 18th century pitchers Eli Taylor, George Stonge did. However, one cannot deny his impact on the game during the NBL's infancy and his plaque alongside the other greats in Cooperstown is well deserved.