He was a mighty batsman ... one of the best ever
- Christy Mathewson
Quick. Who holds the Reds' all-time record for highest batting average in a single season? How about the Reds' all-time career leader? When talking about high batting average in Reds history, names like Edd Roush, Ernie Lombardi and Pete Rose immediately come to mind. While each of these players won batting titles for the Reds and finished with career averages in excess of .300, the all-time Reds record holder for both single-season and career batting average is Cy Seymour, a pitcher-turned-outfielder. He hit .377 in 1905 and compiled a .332 lifetime average in a Reds uniform.
Born James Bentley Seymour in 1872, he earned the nickname "Cyclone" for the speed of his fastball while pitching for the New York Giants from 1896-1900. Cy's blinding fastball helped him lead the league in strikeouts in 1898 and allowed him to pace the league in strikeouts per nine innings in each season from 1897-99. He reached a career-high 25 wins for the 1898 Giants, the sixth-highest total in the league. While compiling some impressive numbers over this period, Seymour's success as a pitcher was compromised to a degree by control problems that plagued him throughout the initial years of his career. These issues -- and the fact that Seymour played for a Giants club that was long on pitching and painfully thin on hitting -- encouraged Cy to place greater emphasis on his hitting skills. This was an approach that proved to reap great dividends when, in 1900, he fell victim to a "dead arm," a vague but common malady that described a host of arm problems for pitchers of the time.
The season before his arm injury, Seymour hit an impressive .327 in 159 at-bats. After missing the majority of the 1900 season due to injury, Seymour jumped out of his Giants contract and signed as an outfielder with the Baltimore Orioles of the upstart American League, a new circuit which had designs on challenging the National League's longstanding monopoly on "major league" baseball. His stay in Baltimore was brief but successful, as the migratory Seymour again took advantage of the contract jumping rampant at the time when he broke his Baltimore contract to sign a pact with the Reds midway through the 1902 season. Joining Seymour were fellow outfielders Joe Kelley and Mike Donlin, giving the Reds an entirely new outfield for the balance of the 1902 campaign.
Seymour immediately blossomed with his new club, batting .340 for the Reds while serving as the club's starting center fielder. This batting mark, coupled with the .268 he hit with the Orioles, left Seymour with a .302 average for the season, the fourth consecutive year he bested the .300 mark. He was fifth in the league in hitting in 1903 at .342 and fifth again in 1904 when he hit .313. The flirtations with the upper echelon of league batting averages were but a precursor to Seymour's 1905 season.
There is no ready explanation for Cy Seymour's remarkable 1905 season. Suffice it to say that he never had a season anything like it before, and he would not approach it again. In addition to leading the league in batting average at .377 -- 14 points higher than Honus Wagner's second-place mark -- he also led the league in hits, doubles, triples, RBIs and slugging percentage. He fell one home run short of the league's triple crown when teammate Fred Odwell hit an inside-the-park home run on the second-to-last day of the season.
Cy Seymour's 1905 season stands as one of the most remarkable hitting performances in Reds history and as one of the great hitting seasons of the first decades of the 20th century. His achievements that year are made all the more remarkable by the unusual path his career had taken. In the annals of baseball history, precious few players have made successful transitions from being quality pitchers to being quality position players. The greatest converted pitcher is, of course, Babe Ruth. Cy Seymour might be the second player on this elite list; albeit a distant and oft-forgotten second. Indeed, as Bill Kirwin notes in his Society for American Baseball Research biography of Seymour, "Since 1893, only one player in the history of the game, Babe Ruth, combined to ever have more pitching victories and more hits than Seymour. The second most versatile player who ever played the game is almost totally unknown ... But Cy Seymour was a pitcher in a hitting era and a hitter in a pitching era. He managed to combine the abilities of hitting and pitching into an exceptional and rare career, yet perhaps because of this obverse situation, he is mysteriously forgotten."
When Seymour began the 1906 season by hitting a disappointing .257 in his first 79 games, the struggling Reds -- who finished the year with a 64-87 record, down 15 wins from the year before -- sold Seymour to the Giants for the gaudy sum of $10,000, the largest purchase price for a player up to that time. Seymour hit .320 over the balance of the season for his old club and continued to hit well for the Giants over each of the next four seasons.
Unfortunately, his return to New York is perhaps best remembered for his misplay of a fly ball in the Giants' 1908 playoff game against the Cubs -- the game necessitated by the infamous "Merkle's Boner" incident. In the third inning of the game, Seymour ignored the entreaties of his teammates to play a deeper center field with the Cubs' Joe Tinker coming to the plate. Tinker lined a ball over Seymour's head, a ball that likely would have been caught had he been playing deeper. Due in no small part to Seymour's misplay, the Cubs ended up scoring four runs in the inning and won the game, 4-2.
With the exception of brief 39-game stint with the Boston Braves in 1913 at age 40, the 1910 season with the Giants was the last of Seymour's Major League career. Seymour would continue to play baseball professionally for several more years for various Minor League teams. While working at a shipyard during World War I, he contracted tuberculosis and died from the disease on Sept. 20, 1919, in New York.
In keeping with the overlooked nature of Seymour's career, the Reds' all-time leader in both single-season and career batting did not become a member of the Reds Hall of Fame until 1998, 40 years after the Hall of Fame was established and almost a century after he played his last game for the Reds.