His story is typical of many pitchers in the early history of the game. A blazing fastball provided an opportunity to escape a life of working the local coal mines. But wildness and constant conflicts with team management over his salary limited him to just ten major league games. His talent allowed him to pitch in the minor leagues for more than ten years, three times winning twenty games. But when this baseball career ended, he drifted back to his home in Ohio where he went back to work in the coal mines.
Thomas was a huge man for his era, standing 6 feet 4 inches and weighing around 200 pounds. His physical stature and ability to throw hard attracted attention from professional scouts. He had a reputation as an extremely slow worker and was known for his lack of control (he picked up the nickname "Savage Tom" and “the man killer” due to wildness resulting in many hit batsmen). That, and poor fundamentals such as fielding bunts and holding runners, prevented a longer career in the majors.
Thomas Robert Thomas was born December 17, 1873 in Shawnee, Ohio, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Columbus. His father, Felix, was born in England and worked as a coal miner. His mother Elizabeth (Kirton) was a native of Pennsylvania. Tom was the oldest of four children; he had a younger brother John, and two younger sisters, Mary and Helen.
Thomas first caught the attention of major league scouts while pitching for a semi-pro team in Marysville, Ohio in an exhibition game against the National League's Louisville Colonels in 1894 in which “the league batters could do nothing with him”1. That September he was also picked up by a club in Canton, Ohio for an exhibition game against the Cleveland Spiders. He reportedly “showed plenty of speed and good curves, but lacked control of the ball”2. Nonetheless, he impressed Spiders manager Patsy Tabeau who brought him to Cleveland for a trial later that month.
He was signed by Cleveland and made his major league debut on September 20, when he relieved starter Bobby Wallace with two out in the sixth inning of a 14-8 Cleveland win over Washington shortened to seven innings by rain. In his one-third of an inning, Thomas walked two and was charged with one earned run. He made no other appearances the rest of the year resulting in a season ERA of 27.00.
In 1895 he was back in the minor leagues going 26-18 in 46 games for the Peoria (Illinois) Distillers in the Class B Western Association. He began the next season in Peoria but was soon sold to the Detroit Tigers, then a member of the Class A Western League. Thomas had four strong seasons with Detroit, winning twenty games in both 1897 and 1898.
Thomas' record in baseball-reference.com shows him only with Detroit for the 1896-1899 seasons. There were also references to the fact that in February 1897 "Tom Thomas of Detroit will not have a chance to show what he can do in the National League, he is to be returned without a trial"3, implying he may have been pursued by at least one major league team. On October 19, 1897, the Cincinnati Post reported "Tom Thomas, who goes to Louisville, was given by Detroit in exchange for outfielder [John] Richter and Rube Waddell." Further, a couple months later, it was reported "Detroit ... will bring big and bristling Tom Thomas back from Philadelphia."4
Thomas never played for Louisville, and there is no record of any association with either of the Philadelphia teams. Instead, after a hold out over a salary dispute, he was back with Detroit for the 1898 season. On September 26, 1899 the Tigers sold him, along with teammates Fritz Beulow and Pat Dillard to the St. Louis Perfctos of the National League. After a five year absence, Thomas was back in the major leagues and was reunited with Patsy Tabeau, his former manager in Cleveland.5 He got into four games the rest of that season, going 1-1 with a 2.52 ERA in 25 innings.
He went to spring training with the Perfectos (now the Cardinals) in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1900 and by the time the team broke camp it was reported he and teammate Cy Young were in top notch form, and further "Young and Thomas are the best conditioned pitchers of the lot ... Thomas and Young are pitching better ball at present than any of Tabeau's hurlers."6
Thomas first win of the1900 season came on May 16 when he came in to relieve Young in the eighth inning and held the New York Giants scoreless while the Cardinals rallied for a 7-6 victory. Four days later he threw a 9-5 complete game victory, also over the Giants, although contemporary news accounts7 gave his catcher, veteran Wilbert Robinson, much of the credit for the victory by guiding the erratic pitcher through the game. He made just three more relief appearances and overall he pitched in five games for St. Louis, going 2-2 in 26 1/3 innings pitched, before being farmed out to the Kansas City Blues of the American League (then a Class A minor league). He finished the season with The Chicago White Stockings of the same league.
Thomas split the 1901 season between the St. Paul Saints and Minneapolis Millers of the Western League, while also pitching briefly for an independent team in Fargo, North Dakota that summer. He began the 1902 season with the Columbus Senators of the American Association but by May had moved to the Milwaukee Brewers of the same league. Thomas had a combined record of 6 wins and 16 losses in 182 innings. In September he was released and signed by the Louisville Colonels, also of the American Association, but there is no record of him having pitched for Louisville.
In 1903 Thomas was in the Class B Central League with the Terre Haute, Indiana Hottentots and the Orphans of Anderson, Indiana/Grand Rapids, Michigan. He made news that summer when he and four Grand Rapids teammates were arrested after skipping out on their board bill at the Grand Hotel while the team was in Anderson, Indiana. He was fined $17.50, plus the amount of his bill, which was paid by Central League Vice President Halderman.8
Thomas apparently jumped the Grand Rapids club late in the 1903 season due to a salary dispute, and pitched for the independent Youngstown, Ohio Iron Works in 1904. Grand Rapids still held his rights as he was reserved by the team in October, 1904.9 He began the 1905 season with Grand Rapids but appeared in only nine games before splitting the rest of the season with Zanesville and Youngstown in the Class C Ohio-Pennsylvania League.
He pitched in five games for Youngstown in 1906, his last known appearance in Organized Baseball. No statistics are available, but the following spring the Daily Mirror of Marion, Ohio reported he pitched well but developed a "kink" in his arm. He requested his release and planned to join the Augusta, Georgia club in the South Atlantic League were he thought the warmer weather would help his sore arm. There is no record of him playing for Augusta. His obituary10 indicated he also pitched for the Mt. Clements Bathers in the Class D Southern Michigan League, but his name does not appear on the team roster in baseball-reference.com. The last that is heard from Thomas was his release by Youngstown in August of 1907.
After that Thomas umpired in the Ohio-Pennsylvania League for two years. His obituary also mentions having played for "Richmond in 1910". It is known he joined the Richmond, Kentucky Pioneers of the Class D Blue Grass League in April of 191011, but there is no record of him having played with that team. A player named Thomas? (with no first name given) also appears with the Youngstown, Ohio Steelman in 1910, but it is not known if this was Tom Thomas.
Little is known of Thomas' life after that. At the time of the 1920 US Census he was living with his mother and brother in Salt Lick, Ohio and employed as a coal miner. He then held a series of odd jobs before dying of a heart attack at age 68 on September 23, 1942 in Shawnee, Ohio. There is no record of Thomas having married, or having any descendents. He was buried in the local cemetery in Shawnee.
Nemec, David, The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, and Umpires (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2012).
1 “Tabeau’s Latest Find”, Cleveland Plaindealer, September 20, 1904
2 Canton (OH) Repository, September 24, 1894
3 Kansas City Journal, February 16, 1897
4 Kansas City Journal, January 5, 1898
5 His obituary in the October 1, 1942 issue of The Sporting News indicated he had been sold by Detroit to Chicago of the National League, and then transferred to St. Louis.
6 St. Louis Republic, April 5, 1900
7 St. Louis Republic, May 21, 1900
8 Topeka (KS) State Journal, July 11, 1903
9 Grand Rapids (MI) Press, October 11, 1904
10 The Sporting News, October 1, 1942
11 Richmond (KY) Climax, April 20, 1910