(If you like some cardboard with your baseball trivia, read the rest of our related posts here.)
If you’ve followed either Major League Baseball or college football over the last couple of decades, then you know that the Unversity of Tennessee football program regularly churns out stellar athletes.
Even putting aside the obvious NFL standouts like Peyton Manning and Jamal Lewis, a player who was once one of the Vols’ budding stars in football turned out to be one of the best hitters in Major League Baseball over the last twenty years of so.
Todd Helton was installed as Tennessee’s starting quarterback as a senior to start the 1994 season … only to lose that job to a young Manning before the end of the season.
It all worked out for Helton, though, as he was drafted in the first round the next spring by the Colorado Rockies and was in the Majors by 1997. Over a Big League career that spanned all the way to 2013 and was spent entirely with the Rox, Helton hit .316 with more than 2500 hits and 369 home runs. He also picked up three Gold Gloves for his work at first base.
As you might expect, Helton has appeared on a fair number of baseball cards over the years — but did you know he wasn’t the first Volunteers football player to have his own MLB baseball card?
He only missed that mark by, oh, about 90 years.
Sammy Knows 2-Sport Splendor
Samual Strang Nicklin was born on December 16, 1876, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The Nicklins were a wealthy and well-respected local family, and young Sammy grew to be a scholar and an athlete. He received a short tryout in with the Louisville Colonels in 1896 and attended the University of North Carolina in 1895-96 before coming home to the University of Tennessee in 1896-97. He played football at both schools and was the captain of the team at Tennessee, where he also injured his knee.
That mishap sidelined — temporarily — his athletic career, and then he served in the US Army during the Spanish-American War in 1898. When he returned home in 1899, Nicklin decided to pursue baseball as his career.
According to SABR researcher Stephen V. Rice, the Nicklins viewed baseball as a less than respectable vocation, so he headed into the minors as “Clyde Strang” in order to protect the family’s status in upper-crust society.
By the time he broke into the Major Leagues for good in 1900 with the Chicago Orphans, Nicklin was Sammy Strang.
And that’s who he’d be all through a 10-year Big League career that would include stops with five different teams … and at least two early baseball cards.
Strang first appeared in the 1903 Breisch Williams E107 set in a Chicago uniform but was listed as a member of the Brooklyn Superbas, for whom he served as the starting third baseman that season.
Then, in 1909, Strang made it into the T206 set with “BALTIMORE” across his chest, a reflection of his time with the minor league Orioles.
Strang finished his Big League career after spending the 1908 season with the New York Giants, with lifetime achievements that included 790 hits and 216 runs.
And, of course, the first baseball card of a Tennesee football player!