SABR

Erskine Thomason

This article was written by Andy Sturgill.

The Philadelphia Phillies are the oldest continuous one-name, one-city franchise in North American sports, with a heritage that dates back to 1883. In their history, the Phillies have played nearly 20,000 games and approximately 180,000 innings. This is the story of a man who participated in only one of those innings. The big-league career of Erskine Thomason began and ended on Wednesday, September 18, 1974 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.

Melvin Erskine Thomason was born on August 13, 1948, the son of Furman Erskine Thomason and Dorothy Cain Thomason. Sadly, Erskine’s mother passed away the day he was born. Erskine’s father ran a small family farm with two of his brothers before being elected county supervisor in his 40s. Erskine grew up on the farm with his father and two older sisters, in addition to the two uncles and their families, who all helped tend the farm.

Thomason was born in Laurens, South Carolina, a town in the western part of the state about 35 miles south of Spartanburg. Laurens holds a place in rock n' roll lore, as it is the birthplace of blues musician Pink Anderson, from whom the “pink” in Pink Floyd is drawn. 

Thomason remained in Laurens throughout his formative years in the 1950s and '60s, and graduated from Laurens High in 1966. While in high school Thomason quarterbacked the football team and played basketball aside from his prowess on the diamond. Thomason pitched every other game for Laurens, alternating games on the mound with a junk-baller and playing the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. After graduating from Laurens, Erskine enrolled at Anderson Junior College in Anderson, SC for two years, playing outfield (pitching only rarely) on the baseball team, and picking up the first portion of the credits needed for his degree. Having taken all that junior college could offer him academically and athletically, in the fall of 1968 Thomason travelled 20 miles southeast of Anderson to little Due West, South Carolina, home to the coincidentally-named Christian liberal arts school Erskine College.  

At Erskine (the College), Erskine (the man) was able to complete his bachelor’s degree in physical education, and further his baseball career, principally by a move to the pitcher's mound. “I couldn’t hit,” Thomason recalled. “The guy that recruited me to Erskine said ‘You can come here, but you’re going to pitch.’ That’s how I ended up as a pitcher at Erskine.” In 1969, his first season at Erskine, Thomason went 5-1 with a 1.35 ERA and was named to the All-District team.  Playing for coach Harry Stille, Thomason's only loss of the season came at the hands of Wofford College, 1-0, despite pitching nine shutout innings before allowing a game-winning unearned run in the 10th. Thomason pitched 72 2/3 innings for the Flying Fleet in 1969, and allowed only 36 hits. He followed his collegiate season by playing for the Charlottesville (VA) club in the Shenandoah Valley League, where he led the league in wins. 

As a senior in 1970, Thomason continued his outstanding performance, going 7-4 with a 1.80 ERA and pitched the Flying Fleet to the NAIA District Six championship. He set then school records with 102 innings pitched for the season, and tied the school mark when he struck out 18 batters in a game against Wofford. Thomason ended his college career by shutting out Appalachian on three hits in the District championship game, and then striking out 15 in a 3-1 loss to Fairmont (WV) in the NAIA Area Playoffs. Two of the runs Fairmont scored on Erskine were unearned. For his efforts, Thomason was once again named to the All-District team and was named an Honorable Mention NAIA All-American.

Following his fine college career, the Philadelphia Phillies made Erskine their 22nd round draft choice in the 1970 June draft. He was signed by Phillies scout A.C. Swails for a bonus of $5,000 and assigned to the Pulaski Phillies in the Appalachian League. At the time he signed with the Phillies, Thomason was again playing in the Shenandoah Valley League, this time with Waynesboro. When he arrived at Pulaski, Thomason roomed with another pitcher from South Carolina, first round draft pick Mike Martin (not the same Mike Martin who has been the head baseball coach at Florida State for over 30 years).

Thomason held his own in his first professional season, posting a mark of 4-5 with a 2.86 ERA in 85 innings. Thomason led the team in innings pitched, starts (12), and WHIP (1.153), while his ERA was third on the club, only eight-tenths of a point higher than the team leader. The right-handed hitter also notched the only home run of his professional baseball career.

Over the offseason, Thomason spent some time as an eighth-grade science teacher in Laurens County, which happened to be the first year of integration in the Laurens schools.

Nineteen seventy-one saw a homecoming of sorts for Erskine, as he spent almost the entire season with the Spartanburg Phillies of the Western Carolinas League. Pitching less than an hour from where he grew up, Thomason had a fine season, going 12-7 with a 3.38 ERA in 141 innings pitched.

Thomason recalled the season fondly: “It was great playing so close to home where my friends and family were able to see me pitch a bit. Every time I pitched in Spartanburg, my dad was there to watch me.”

Thomason was one of the four regulars to take the ball to the hill every fifth day for the Spartanburg club, and he responded by tying for the league lead in wins and coming in second in the league with seven complete games. Erskine also finished fourth in the league in ERA, but did not even lead his own team, as Mike Martin posted a 2.92 mark. Perhaps his best game of the season came on July 1 in a 15-2 win over Anderson. Erskine allowed six hits and struck out eight in a complete game effort, and also led the team at the plate with a bases-loaded double and sacrifice fly to give him four RBIs in the game. At the end of the Western Carolinas season, Thomason was voted Spartanburg's best pitcher in a ballot of his teammates, and earned a late-season promotion to Peninsula of the Carolina League, where he started one game as Peninsula prepared for the Carolina League playoffs.

Thomason continued his ascent of the minor-league ranks in 1972, but not in a traditional manner. Along with three teammates from the 1971 Spartanburg club, Thomason spent the '72 season with the Carolina League's Burlington club, an affiliate of the Texas Rangers. The Burlington team was a co-op club that other organizations were able to send their minor leaguers to. Nineteen seventy-two was the team's only season of operation.

In the midst of playing for a mish-mash of a minor-league team, Thomason enjoyed another stellar year, going 11-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 141 innings. He was second on the club in innings pitched, but for the first time he showed a lack of control, more than doubling his 1971 walk total in five fewer innings pitched. However, Thomason's ERA was good enough for seventh in the league, and his Burlington club won the first-half crown before losing the championship series to the Salem Pirates, two games to one. His star continued to rise.

Returning to the Philadelphia organization full-time in 1973, Erskine spent the entire season at the Phillies' long-time AA home, Reading. Reading manager Cal Emery admitted that he didn't see enough of Erskine in spring training to know how he would help the club, but by mid-summer, Thomason was Reading's most consistent starter, if not the most consistent in the whole Eastern League.[1] Some of Erskine's best games of his career came during the 1973 season at the hands of the Trois-Rivieres Aigles (or Three Rivers Eagles) of the Cincinnati system. In a game at Trois-Rivieres on April 26, Erskine pitched the Phils to a 5-1 victory, and struck out 13 in the process. When Erskine pitched at Trois-Rivieres again six weeks later, he was again dominant, striking out 11 and giving up two runs over the first eight innings. However, Thomason allowed the first three hitters of the ninth to reach base before he was removed from the game by Emery. Two relief pitchers, an intentional walk, and an error after Thomason exited conspired to turn a 4-2 ninth-inning lead into a 5-4 walk-off loss for both the Phillies and for Thomason. To the surprise of no one, Erskine was selected to the Eastern League All-Star game. He was selected to pitch in the game by Jim Snyder, who managed, of course, Trois-Rivieres.

Erskine was outstanding down the stretch, going 10-2 over his final 12 decisions and leading Reading to the Eastern League crown. He was especially dominant in August, going 6-1 with a 2.09 ERA. He pitched half of a double shutout sweep at West Haven on August 30, which put Reading in first place to stay, then beat Waterbury on the next to the last day of the season to protect a half-game lead over the Sherbrooke Pirates.[2]

"Every time he went out to the mound he gave us a good effort," recalled Reading teammate Jerry Martin in 2006. "He was our ace."[3]

At season's end, Erskine's 3.20 ERA was third-best in the league, as were his 149 strikeouts, while he finished in a five-way tie for the league lead with 12 wins. Thomason capped off his 1973 season with a complete-game victory over the Pittsfield Rangers in the Eastern League playoffs, helping Reading take the Eastern League crown. After the season, the parent club in Philadelphia decided to add Erskine to its 40-man roster to protect him from that winter's Rule V draft.[4]

Going into 1974, the Philadelphia Phillies were coming off of a season in which they went 71-91 and finished in last in the National League East. The Phils entered spring training with a rotation featuring Steve Carlton, who lost 20 games in 1973, Jim Lonborg, Dick Ruthven, and a competition for the fourth starter's slot between Ron Schueler, Roy Thomas, and Thomason. In early 1974 NFL Films, ostensibly looking to expand into the baseball world, began working on a documentary entitled Bush Leagues to Bright Lights, which followed the daily life of a minor-league prospect on the verge of making it to the majors, a sort of “reality TV” some 30 years before the term entered the mainstream vocabulary.

Schueler ended up making 44 appearances and 27 starts for the Phillies in '74, while the 21-year old Thomas spent the season in the minors and would not make his major-league debut until 1977. Thomason, who always struggled in spring training, was sent to Toledo for the majority of the season, and brought an NFL Films crew with him. Among the events captured by NFL Films in Toledo was Thomason's wedding to Gina Spence. (Thomason and Spence divorced in 1979).[5]

The 1974 Toledo Mud Hens were managed by former Phillies All-Star pitcher Jim Bunning. Erskine had a season that defied explanation on some levels. He appeared in 29 games, starting 28 with a record of 7-14. Despite the lopsided record, he had an ERA of 3.66, led the team with 177 innings pitched and finished second on the team with 113 strikeouts.

On September 4, after major-league rosters had expanded, Thomason received the call to join the big club, and he reported to the team on the ninth in St. Louis in time for a two-game set against the Cardinals. Erskine did not appear in a game over the first eight days he spent with the team, and began to wonder if he would ever get into a game.

The Phillies hosted the Cubs on September 18 in a game that saw Jim Lonborg start on the bump for the Phils against Rick Reuschel for the Cubs. The Cubs led 4-1 in the sixth when Gene Garber replaced Lonborg, and the Cubs tacked on an unearned run off of Garber in the seventh. Garber finished out the eighth, and was pinch-hit for in the bottom half of the inning by Tony Taylor. When the Phils took the field for the top of the ninth, Thomason was summoned from the bullpen to make his major-league debut. 

As the 6-foot-1 190-pound righty strode to the top of the Veterans Stadium mound, he could not have known that he would never again appear in a big-league game. And while his time in The Show was brief, Thomason had brushes with the earliest stages of greatness, an ever so brief glimpse of what would develop into a great era in Phillies history. Thomason's battery mate on this evening was Bob Boone, only in his second season. Behind him at shortstop was fifth-year scrapper Larry Bowa. Immediately to Thomason’s right was a skinny kid nine days shy of his 25th birthday who had just played in his first of 12 All-Star games - Mike Schmidt. Behind Schmidt and Bowa stood 23-year old Greg Luzinski. These four men would make up the core of a team that won six division titles over the next decade for a team with little positive history to speak of. “You could tell the Phillies weren’t far away,” Thomason remembered. “Something good was going to happen with them and you wanted to be a part of it.”

But on this night, they were just four men of nine on the field for a Phillies team playing out the string in September. And Erskine Thomason was one of them, too.

With that, Thomason peered in at Boone and found Cubs catcher Steve Swisher waiting for him in the right-handed batter's box. Thomason won the battle with his first big-league hitter, striking out Swisher for the first out of the inning. Next up was Cubs relief pitcher Steve Stone, who had combined with Reuschel to hold the Phillies to one run on only two hits. Stone made contact against Thomason, hitting a grounder to short that Bowa fielded and fired across to Willie Montanez at first for the second out. In stepped leadoff man and center fielder Rick Monday, easily the best hitter to come to bat against the right-handed Thomason. As it turned out, he would be the last hitter Thomason would ever face in a major-league game. Monday hit a ground ball to Dave Cash at second, who fielded and threw to Montanez at first for the third out of the inning. The Phillies offense kicked up a bit of a fuss in the bottom of the ninth, scoring a run on three hits and chasing Stone from the game in favor of Ken Frailing. Frailing retired Philadelphia pinch-hitter Mike Anderson with two aboard in the ninth to preserve a 5-2 Cubs win. Stone earned the win for the Cubs to improve to 8-5, Lonborg took the loss for the Phillies to drop to 15-12, and Frailing picked up his only save of the season, one of only two in his career. The game extended a Phillies losing streak to five games.

And so went the major-league career of Erskine Thomason. Three up, three down, a strikeout, two groundouts, and a no decision. Ten minutes max. He did his job, holding the Cubs right where they were and giving his team a chance to come back in the bottom of the ninth. The NFL Films crew didn't even make it to Veterans Stadium in time to film him pitch his one big-league inning, and the footage in the documentary is a combination of the next evening's game (action not including Thomason) and Thomason pretending to pitch on the mound at an empty Veterans Stadium about an hour after the game ended. Thomason and the camera crew were the only people on the field.[6]

Thomason never got a chance on a major-league mound again. In 1975 Thomason started the season back at Reading for six games before returning to Toledo, where he was turned into a short-reliever at the suggestion of Bunning. Between Toledo and Reading, Erskine turned in a combined line of 2-5 with 10 saves and a 3.72 ERA in 92 innings. He was dropped from the Phillies' 40-man roster. Angry at being removed from the 40-man roster and eager to spend more time at home with his young son, Thomason decided to leave baseball, saying in 2010, "I always told myself when I started going backward I would retire. I should’ve stayed with it another year, but I’m happy with how everything turned out."

After leaving baseball, Thomason went to work for the South Carolina Tax Commission, which proved unfulfilling. After three years away from the game, at age 30 Thomason grew interested in getting back into baseball as a coach. Toward that end he contacted Dallas Green, who was the Phillies’ minor-league director, and inquired about a coaching job. Green told Thomason that the Phils’ coaching positions were filled for 1979, but came back to Thomason with an intriguing offer - an invitation to spring training - as a player. Thomason pitched well enough in the spring to earn a job back at AA Reading, ironically playing for the same Jim Snyder whom he had terrorized five years earlier when Snyder was managing Trois-Rivieres. His first appearance in professional baseball since his last pitch in Reading four years earlier came in an April 20 game against the Bristol Red Sox. Entering in the third inning, Thomason immediately allowed doubles to two of the first three batters he faced. However, he went on to pitch six innings of one-run relief for the Phils.[7] 

For the season, Thomason pitched respectably, posting a 6-2 record with a 3.60 ERA in 18 games, 11 of which were starts. He threw one complete game and struck out only 39 batters in 85 innings. At the end of the 1979 season, Erskine Thomason's playing days really were over.

Following the ’79 season, Thomason was granted a job he wanted originally when he decided to get back into baseball. He spent part of 1980 and all of the 1981 season as the pitching coach for the South Atlantic League's Spartanburg Phillies, where he was again able to stay involved in the game of baseball near his hometown of Laurens. After the season, Thomason spent the winter as the pitching coach for Hermosillo in the Mexican League.

Following the 1981 season, Phillies manager Dallas Green was lured to Chicago to take over as general manager of the Cubs and began to set up a "Philadelphia West" with the Cubs, bringing field staff (Lee Elia, John Vukovich), executives (Gordon Goldsberry), and players (Larry Bowa, Gary Matthews, Bob Dernier, and some kid named Ryne Sandberg) that he had familiarity with from his time in Philadelphia. This emphasis on men with a Phillies connection paid off for Thomason as well, as he was named a minor-league pitching instructor for the Cubs in November of 1981, a position he kept through 1987. Along the way, Erskine influenced young pitchers such as Jamie Moyer and Greg Maddux.

Just prior to his first spring training with the Cubs, Erskine married Iva Winn Templeton at the First Presbyterian Church in Greer, SC. Erskine's father served as his best man.[8]

For his accomplishments in Due West, Thomason was inducted into the Erskine College Hall of Fame in 1984.

Now in his 60s with three grown children, Thomason lives in his native Laurens, where he has lived his entire life aside from his baseball life. He works in nearby Duncan, SC as a sales manager for Fairway Outdoor Advertising, a company he began working for within a month of leaving baseball for good in the mid ‘80s. Though not in the game anymore, Thomason still follows baseball, paying particular attention to the Phillies and the regional favorite Atlanta Braves.

While his major-league career ended nearly as fast as it arrived, Thomason is at peace with his baseball life. “You don’t dream that particular moment would be your only moment,” he said in 2004. “That never crossed your mind, never even crossed your mind. I got a taste of it, which most people don’t get an opportunity to do. I don’t have any regrets, other than I wished it had lasted longer.”[9]

Sources

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations by Erskine Thomason are from a phone interview with author on June 2, 2010 

Reading Eagle

BaseballReference.com

Spartanburg Herald-Journal

The State Newspaper (SC)

Player file from National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY

 
Thanks to the Erskine College Sports Information Department, Len Levin, and Bill Nowlin. Special thanks to Erskine College's retired PR director Dick Haldeman, who helped fill in large portions of Thomason's college career.

Thanks to Erskine Thomason for spending some time talking about his life and career during a phone interview on June 2, 2010.




[1] Reading Eagle, July 26, 1973

[2] Reading Eagle, August 14, 2006

[3] Ibid

[4] Reading Eagle, April 24, 1979

[5] The State (SC), July 16, 2004

[6] Author interview with subject, June 2, 2010

[7] Reading Eagle, April 21, 1979

[8] Spartanburg Herald-Journal, February 7, 1982

[9] The State (SC), July 16, 2004

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