Jack Thornton had a long and eventful baseball career, during which his death or near-death was reported several times. Yet what became of him after his playing days ended as well as when and where he actually died remain abiding mysteries that baseball researchers are still trying to solve.
Little is known about Thornton's early years, but profiles in the sporting presses do fill in the basic outlines. He was born on May 22, 1869, probably in Washington, D.C., where he grew up. He became a regular on the local sandlots for a club called the Mount Pleasants but did not play professionally until 1889, when he tried out with the local National League club and received the chance to make his major league debut under highly unusual circumstances. (Sporting Life, January 22 and October 25, 1890; Sporting News, February 7, 1891; Washington Post, February 17, 1901)
Thornton was a pitcher and his tryout began with him warming up with George Keefe, one of Washington's pitchers. But one of Thornton's curves struck Keefe in the head, knocking him unconscious. Keefe was unable to accompany the team on its next road trip, so Thornton took his place and was given a start against Indianapolis on August 14. (Washington Star, August 2 and 13, 1889)
In the first inning, Jack Glasscock of the home team was perched on third base with two outs when Martin Sullivan strode to the plate. As the young pitcher began his motion, the batsman tried a questionable tactic to try to rattle him: "Thornton was about to pitch, when Sullivan jumped from one side of the plate to the other, and the pitcher held his arm for fear of hitting him. This constituted a balk according to the rules, and Glasscock was allowed to go home, although the play was perfectly explainable and excusable on Thornton's part, and done with no intention to deceive the runner." (Washington Star, August 15, 1889)
Sullivan's ploy was condemned by the Washington Star, which argued that he should be fined and that a new rule needed to be adopted to prevent the tactic. But it was not until 1907 that this practice was prohibited by the rules, by which time several more batters had made similar maneuvers. (John H. Gruber, "Out for Interference," Sporting News, February 24, 1916; Peter Morris, A Game of Inches, 75) And, in the absence of a specific rule that covered the situation, the umpire allowed Glasscock's run to score.
Rattled, the young pitcher struggled with his control and ended up on the short end of an 11-8 decision. But his performance was not all bad, with eight errors behind him having much to do with the result. The Star adjudged that, "Thornton showed up well enough in the box for a beginner, and had he been decently supported would probably have won the game, notwithstanding his eight bases on balls." (Washington Star, August 15, 1889)
Keefe soon returned to action, and this was Jack Thornton's only appearance in a Washington uniform. That off-season he signed to play in Milwaukee, where he spent the entire 1890 campaign, pitching a no-hitter on June 12 and leading the Western Association with 29 victories. At season's end, with the chaos of three major leagues struggling for survival, Thornton signed contracts with both Milwaukee and Philadelphia of the Players' League. (Sporting News, October 11, 1890)
The Players' League ended up folding and, when the dust cleared, Thornton surfaced with Philadelphia of the National League. There he became one of the mainstays of the pitching staff, winning 15 and losing 16 and posting a 3.68 earned run average. This would prove to be his only full season as a major leaguer. After three disastrous outings for Philadelphia and a single game with St. Louis in 1892 he was relegated to the minors. His major league career was over, and soon his pitching days would also end, but Jack Thornton's days as a professional ballplayer far from over.
He spent the rest of 1892 playing for Syracuse and Utica, and began making the transition from pitching to playing in the outfield. He signed with Mobile of the Southern League for the 1893 season but appears to have played little.
Late in the 1893 season, a little-known pitcher named William Thornton died of the yellow fever. The 1894 baseball guides, however, reported that it was Jack who died, which meant that his appearance at spring training created quite a stir. When informed of his supposed demise, a surprised Jack replied "Is that so? Well here I am." (Sporting News, May 19, 1894) His equally surprised teammates joked about having to share the bench with a ghost.
In the ensuing years, Thornton became a familiar figure around minor league circuits. He played for Norfolk of the Virginia League in 1894 and then split 1895 between Norfolk and Dallas of the Texas-Southern League. That season also saw him make the transition to first base, which remained his primary position for the rest of his career.
Thornton spent the next two seasons in the Atlantic League, splitting the 1896 season between New Haven and Hartford and the 1897 campaign between Hartford and Richmond. He joined Dubuque in 1898, where he paced the Western Association in hits. Thornton returned to the Atlantic League in 1899 and he batted a league-leading .379 for Paterson and Newark before ending the year with Derby of the Connecticut League, where he continued his hot hitting by posting a .370 batting average.
Despite the big year he apparently sat out the 1900 season before returning to baseball with Grand Rapids and Fort Wayne of the Western Association in 1901. He spent the entire 1902 campaign back with Milwaukee of the Western League and when he started the 1903 season there it looked as if he might finally settle down.
Instead, 1903 proved a tumultuous season for Jack Thornton. In early June, there were reports that the Milwaukee and Peoria clubs were missing and it was feared their train had been caught in a flood. (Sporting Life, June 6, 1903) Both teams turned up unharmed, but three weeks later, on June 26, there was a fire at the Milwaukee hotel where the St. Paul team and several Milwaukee players were staying. Bob Wood ran through the hotel sounding the alarm just in time and the players escaped in their underclothing as the blaze raged.
Then in August there came word that Thornton had gotten in a fight with teammate Jim Cockman and been released. It looked as if this might finally end Jack Thornton's lengthy playing career, as he intimated that he had $60,000 awaiting him in California and had no need to work any longer. (Sporting Life, August 8 and 15, 1903)
Yet even this did not end Jack Thornton's ball-playing career. He concluded the season with Omaha (Western League), then spent the 1904 campaign as captain of Colorado Springs (Western League), and played briefly for Salt Lake City (Pacific National League) in 1905. Appropriately enough, he commenced the 1906 season as manager of the Dayton Veterans of the Central League, but was soon relieved of his duties, and that is the last that was seen of him on a professional baseball diamond. (Sporting Life, March 31, 1906)
By contrast with the vast amount of available information concerning his baseball career, surprisingly little is known about other aspects of Jack Thornton's life. The 1893 death of William Thornton made it into Jack's entry in the encyclopedias and was not removed until recently. Efforts to replace it with an accurate listing have thus far been unsuccessful.
Tracking him through the censuses has proven especially difficult. The 1870 and 1880 censuses show only one plausible candidate in Washington: a John Thornton born around 1869 to Robert R. Thornton, a blacksmith, and his wife Maria. While there is no certainty that this entry is for the ballplayer, the absence of other candidates makes that seems likely.
Unfortunately, efforts to track this family have not been productive. This John Thornton appears in the Washington city directories for several years but is listed as a plasterer rather than a ballplayer. After 1894 the listings fade out entirely.
A Jack Thornton was listed in the 1904-05 Colorado Springs city directory with wife Nina and this one is definitely the ballplayer. But these listings too come to an end and no corresponding census listing has ever been found.
A "Big Jack" Thornton, described as a former major leaguer, was pitching for a Chicago semipro team called the Artesians in 1907, and this is almost certainly the ballplayer. Nearly a decade later, there are references to a "Big Jack" Thornton pitching for a Chicago indoor baseball team called the Marquettes. This might also be the former major leaguer, but as he would have been in his mid-40s, it is far from certain.
Efforts to trace this man have thus far proved unsuccessful. As a result, despite the efforts of the SABR Biographical Committee, Jack Thornton remains one of only 300 players whose date and place of death are unknown.
Research by Reed Howard, Ray Nemec, Richard Malatzky, and many other members of the SABR Biographical Committee; contemporary newspapers and sporting presses (as noted), censuses, vital records and city directories.