Sunday, July 2, 2017

Dr. Charles L. Thomas and Branch Rickey: "Making Promises and Battling Racism"

Murray Polner writes in his biography of Branch Rickey …

Rickey was far more than the one who broke baseball's color bar. As I started exploring Rickey's roots and life, he came to be, in my eyes, a genuine American hero and not the instant celebrity we encounter so often now. He was, too, the son of poor, rural southern Ohio farmers, who taught their three sons – and by extension all who came after them in succeeding generations – the worth of an ethical and moral way of life grounded in religious faith.”

When the Rickey family moved to the village of Lucasville from their rural farm in the fall of 1892, part of the reason for the move was the realization that Branch was extremely intelligent, and Lucasville had a good school with multiple teachers and a complex curriculum. In addition, the school had a very resourceful superintendent, James H. Finney, a man who became one of Rickey's strongest influences and supporters.

Finney's simple technique was to build self-esteem among the small-town boys and girls and open their eyes and minds to the great ideas of the past by introducing religious aphorisms and teaching morality to guide them into more Christian lives.

Buoyed by his family, his church, and his school, Branch Rickey grew to be a man of incredible determination who fought hell and high water to keep his solemn promises. Two of his most celebrated vows were made to Dr. Charles L. Thomas and Jackie Robinson – both of these promises dependent upon Rickey's own faithful conviction.

Charles “Tommy” Thomas from Zanesville, Ohio, was an excellent athlete on Coach Branch Rickey's 1903 and1904 Ohio Wesleyan baseball teams. He was born in Weston, West Virginia (the boyhood home of Civil War General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson) in 1881,but migrated with his family to Zanesville, Ohio at the age of three. In school, “Cha” as he was know at the time, was a high school three-sport star in football, baseball and track.

When Thomas enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University – one of a handful of black students attending the college at the time – his sport of choice was football (fullback) … that was, until he met Branch Rickey.

Rickey, a student at OWU who had also played in the backfield and caught for the school's baseball team the year before, acquired the coaching position after he had been ruled ineligible for receiving pay during his summer break while playing baseball for the Portsmouth (Ohio) Navies. Much to the regret of the college and Rickey himself, he could no longer play collegiate sports, but he was well-liked and admired on campus, so retiring coach, Dan Daub, recommended Rickey for the position of head baseball coach in the spring of 1903.

OWU President Bashford said he had been impressed with Rickey's honesty in refusing to lie when confronted by the Navies' owner's letter. Rickey had admitted he had taken payment.

In fact, Bashford was so impressed that he had spoken with faculty and all of them were taken by the prodigious schedule Rickey was able to maintain without damaging his scholastic record – quite an accomplishment for a twenty-one year old. After all, Rickey had entered college as a probationary student with no high school diploma (Lucasville did not offer a diploma until a few years later.), and he was taking twenty-one credits, working round-the-clock at an assortment of part-time jobs, and looking forward to the football and baseball seasons.

When Branch Rickey had first met Thomas two years earlier on the football squad, they liked each other. Since Rickey had played catcher on the team, now he needed a replacement, so he recruited Thomas and moved him to the catching position (Originally Thomas had played first base and outfield), thus making him the first of hundreds of players to switch positions under Rickey's guidance. Thomas became the only black player on the team and one of the few in the Midwest at the time.

For two seasons Thomas played under Rickey, who was anguished by the racial slurs endured by his black player. For example, when Ohio Wesleyan went to Lexington to play the University of Kentucky in the spring of 1902, some of the Kentucky players and fans chanted, “Get that nigger off the field!” This caused Rickey to race across the field and confront the Kentucky coach in the dugout.

“We won't play without him!” Rickey declared. Then, many of the Kentucky fans, having come to a game, sided with the Ohioans and started their own chant, “We want Thomas! We want Thomas!”

After an hour's delay, the game began and was played without further incident.

Thomas received similar treatment at West Virginia University, where he became the first black player ever to play on the school's diamond.

In yet another account an alumnus wrote about a game in Athens, Ohio against Ohio University, stating… “the only unpleasant feature of the game was the coarse slurs cast at Mr. Thomas, the catcher. But through it all he showed himself far more the gentleman than his insolent tormentors, though their skin is white.”

Then, of course, what is known to be a key factor in Branch Rickey's determination to break baseball's color ban and sign Jackie Robinson and other black players occurred during the 1904 season.

In 1903, at South Bend, Indiana, where Ohio Wesleyan had traveled to play Notre Dame University, an Oliver Hotel clerk refused to allow Thomas to register with the rest of the team. At that point, Rickey told the team's student manager to go to the local YMCA to try to get a room for not only Thomas but also for the entire team. (Something he later said he had no intention of actually doing.)

Rickey, determined to keep the squad together, asked to speak to the hotel manager, and the manager finally agreed to let Thomas wait in Rickey's room until lodging could be found for him in South Bend's black neighborhood. When they arrived at the room, Rickey called the front desk and ordered a cot for Thomas. The angry hotel manager accused Rickey of breaking his word. But, Rickey bellowed back: “Under no circumstances will I leave or allow Thomas to be put out.” And, he didn't.

Once in the room, Thomas broke down sobbing and scratching at his skin as if he wanted to remove the color there. “I never felt so helpless in my life,” Rickey later told Arthur Mann.

Rickey recalled years later:

We went upstairs. I summoned the team captain to discuss plans for the game. Tommy stood in the corner, tense and brooding and in silence. I asked him to sit in a chair and relax. Instead, he sat on the end of the cot, his huge shoulders hunched and his large hands clasped between his knees. Tears welled in his eyes. They spilled down his face. Then his shoulders heaved convulsively, and he rubbed one great hand over the other with all the power of his body, muttering, 'Black skin, black skin. If I could only make 'em white.' He kept rubbing and rubbing as though he would remove the blackness by sheer friction.”

Rickey realized that but for the color line, Thomas was good enough to play professional baseball. In that hotel room, Rickey tried to console Thomas by telling him that a time would come when there would be equal opportunity for all, regardless of color. He told Thomas to “buck up” and he promised him they would “lick this one day,” but added “we can't if you feel sorry for yourself.”

“I vowed that I would always do whatever I could to see that other Americans did not have to face the bitter humiliation that was heaped upon Charles Thomas,” Rickey later told The Associated Press.

And, Thomas did “buck up.” He played in the Notre Dame game and remained on the team throughout the season. He actually played three years of baseball at Ohio Wesleyan University, two under Branch Rickey and his final season in 1905 under Ben Davis. During his career, Thomas excelled offensively as well as defensively. While catching was his primary position, Tommy also filled in at first base and in the outfield where he was primarily used in centerfield.

Though records of the day were not as meticulously kept as today, unofficially Charles Thomas hit above .300 each season and compiled a combined batting average of .321 (60/187) over his three years of baseball. 


In addition, Thomas played baseball on a number of black teams. He played with the highly regarded Columbus Black Tourists in the Ohio State Colored League. The Philadelphia Giants team of 1905, on which Charles Thomas competed part-time, is considered one of the all-time great teams in the segregated world of negro baseball. Three of his teammates on that team have since been inducted into professional baseball’s Hall of Fame. During his abbreviated stay with the Giants, Thomas registered a .619 batting average.

Rickey and Thomas remained friends for the rest of their lives. In 1947, Thomas, who had become a dentist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, told writer Mark Harris the story of his visit to his former college coach in St. Louis “about the time when Dizzy Dean was in his prime.”

For the visit, although Rickey was a baseball executive, he was unable to seat Thomas among white fans in the field boxes or grandstand because of Jim Crow rules. Rather than send him out to watch the game in the segregated section of Sportsman's Park, Thomas said the Rickey spent the time talking with him in Rickey's office, saying once again that one day racial discrimination would not exist in the United States.

In 1958, Thomas recalled his Ohio Wesleyan college experience:

From the first day I entered OWU, Rickey took a special interest in my welfare. I think I was the first Negro player o its teams, and some fellows didn't welcome me any too kindly, but there was no open opposition.

I always felt that Branch set them straight. During the three years that I was at OW, no man could have treated me better. When we went on our trips, Rickey was first one to see if I was welcome in the hotel where we were to stop. On several occasions, he talked the manager into letting me occupy a double room with him and his roommate, Barney Russell.”

Dr. Thomas lived a successful, full life and passed away in 1971 at the age of 90.

And, the promises?

Shortly after he signed Jackie Robinson to a contract, Branch Rickey was quoted by the Associated Press as follows:

It has been on my mind for years, ever since I coached baseball at my alma mater. The West Virginia team at first refused to play us if our catching star, Charlie Thomas, was in the line-up. Later, we went to South Bend for a game with Notre Dame and Charlie was refused a room in a hotel. I finally prevailed upon the manager to put a cot in my room.”

We all know how Jackie Robinson, with the help of Branch Rickey, broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947. It was Branch and Jackie who brought about the long-awaited fruition of that promise when Robinson stepped onto the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. However, it is very conceivable that Jackie's promise may have not even taken place had it not been for a much earlier vow made by Rickey – a vow he made to himself and to Charles Thomas.


“Charles Thomas (Ohio Wesleyan) – Inspiration to Branch Rickey.” Black College Nines. March 02, 2009.
Mark Harris. “Branch Rickey Keeps His Forty Year Promise.” Negro Digest. September, 1947. 

Lee Lowenfish. Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman. 2007. 
John J. Monteleone, Editor. Branch Rickey's Little Blue Book. 1995. 
Murray Polner. Branch Rickey: A Biography. 1982.

Charles Thomas in later life.

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