As this year’s World Series wraps up, we look back at Dixon, Kentucky native Laban Lacy Rice, whose long life as an educator, classicist, hoax artist, astronomer and cosmologist began to take shape when he entered Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee and organized its first baseball team.
From 1890 to 1893, Rice and his younger brother Cale Young Rice were, as pitcher and catcher respectively, the team’s feared battery. In the early days of his career, when the pitcher’s mound was nine feet closer to home plate, Rice, who possessed control, velocity and mastery of one of the first curve balls inflicted on local batters, regularly recorded 15 to 18 strikeouts; he recorded 21 against an unfortunate team from Hopkinsville.
However, it was Cumberland’s rivalry with Vanderbilt University that attracted the most enthusiasm. Behind Rice’s pitching, Cumberland regularly defeated Vandy and whenever the players returned from a road game, throngs of cheering citizens would meet them at the train station and escort them back to town. But there was no line drawn between amateurs and professionals, and when Vanderbilt engineering student Ben Sanders—also a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies—took the mound, Cumberland finally fell to its arch rival.
Besides Rice, Cumberland fielded other players who later excelled in their chosen careers, such as Tennessee Chief Justice Grafton Green and Missouri Supreme Court Justice James T. “Tom” Blair. Lacy Rice himself became chancellor, then president of his alma mater. Although he tried his hand briefly at professional baseball, his interests soon expanded “from curved balls to curved space” as he counted among his many academic achievements an expertise in Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Laban Lacy Rice’s career in baseball and education is documented in his collection of papers held in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections. Click here to download a finding aid. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.