If you were going to make a movie of the life of Claude Alfred Thomas, you’d ask Gary Cooper to play the lead. The lanky cowboy actor and the 6’1″ left-handed pitcher bear a striking resemblance in their photographs.
Lefty was a professional pitcher for most of 16 seasons, appearing in 644 games, a remarkable 62 of them in one season, and winning 223 of them. He also was a teacher of note. He’s credited with showing the young Carl Hubbell how to throw the screwball, a pitch the Giant star turned into a ticket to the Hall of Fame. In spite of starring most places he pitched, Thomas will not be in the Hall of Fame. But for the last half of the 1916 season, he did pitch for Washington. And had the hiring standards of that year been the same as those of the early 21st century, he probably would have caused some general manager to write a large check.
For Thomas compiled an earned run average of 4.18 in three big league starts and four relief appearances. In his first start and the opening six innings of the next, he didn’t give up a run. Still, he spent the next 11 seasons in the minor leagues, albeit many of those in the Pacific Coast League which bordered on being a third major. There he won 80 games, 21 in his best season, 1920.
After his return to the minors, he enlisted in the Army with his brother, Lester, and went to France with the Allied Expeditionary Forces in 1918. There he was gassed so badly he spent much of his military career recuperating in a hospital. His son, Phil, thought the World War I injury may have played a role in his death of a lung disease at the comparatively young age of 55. On Lefty’s return to the Western League for part of the 1919 season, The Wichita Eagle called him “a genuine war hero.”
Thomas was apparently destined to be a ball player. One of the earliest photographs of him depicts a teen ager so slender he could hide behind a fence post. But he’s doing his best to look intimidating, wearing the dark uniform made for him by his mother. Home at the start was Stanberry, MO, where he was born May 15, 1890. But the family moved to northwest Oklahoma Territory in 1907, the year it became a state. His father, J. D. Thomas, farmed there but was better known as the “gunless” sheriff. For 11 years he patrolled Ellis County armed only with a cane.
Not long after his 19th birthday in 1910, he reported for his professional baptism with the Bartlesville, Okla., Boosters of the Western Association, joining the team just as spring training ended. It was a tumultuous time and place to begin a professional career.
Bartlesville was a booming oil town and Oklahoma had been a state only three years. That June its citizens voted to move the state capital from Guthrie 30 miles south to Oklahoma City, causing the Association’s Guthrie team to change its name from the Senators to the Ex-Senators. At the ball park a judge had to call down horsemen who were riding between the catcher and the backstop. In downtown Bartlesville, Emmett Dalton was arrested for public drunkenness, a minor problem for a man whose two brothers were killed when the three attempted to outdo their more famous cousins, Jesse and Frank James, and rob two banks at the same time in Coffeyville, Kans. Emmett survived 23 gunshot wounds and served 14 years in prison before showing up intoxicated in Bartlesville.
Even with all the distractions, Thomas was well-tutored in Bartlesville. As the season started, Frank Barker managed the team. But after winning only two games in two weeks, he was fired and replaced by one of the game’s legends, Jake “Eagle Eye” Bleckley. Jake moved the team into title contention until financial problems caused it to fold a month before the season was to end. After compiling a 16-8 record and striking out 140, Lefty had one last game in Bartlesville. The day after team’s demise was announced, several members played an exhibition against a local semipro team, the Red Sox, to raise money to get out of town. Thomas became a baseball rarity in that game–a southpaw third baseman.
From that time, Lefty took his glove to 13 more towns–Kewanee, Steubenville, Providence, Rochester, Wichita, Clarksdale, Grand Rapids, Des Moines, Washington, Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles and Vernon. He pitched in all or parts of seven seasons in the Western League, inspiring Sec Taylor, the sports editor for whom the Des Moines ball park is named, to choose him for his all-time all steam in a league that boasted such luminaries as Dizzy Dean.
It 1915 and part of 1916 at Des Moines, Thomas pitched in 91 games before Washington purchased his contract. In the capital, his opening was auspicious. Given a start in mid-August he held the Browns to three hits and no runs at St. Louis in an era before the Browns sank into baseball’s Inferno and had to field midgets to sell tickets. That victory lifted Washington’s record to 70-69 or .504. Sill the team was in seventh place in the American League. Only the Athletics, who failed to win 40 games that season, then had a losing record. Washington finished the season one game under .500.
Thomas was given two more big league starts, both losses. In his next outing against Detroit before a crowd that included league president Ban Johnson, he held the Tigers scoreless for six innings. But he left the bases loaded in the ninth and Yancy Ayers in relief gave up a hit, letting the tying and winning runs score. It was Detroit 6, Washington 5. In the season finale at New York, he again pitched well for much of the game, but was stuck with a 5-1 loss at the Polo Grounds. The game was played before only 500 fans. New Yorkers that summer were glued to an all-New York National League pennant race that ended the following day with Brooklyn edging the Giants.
In spring training the following season, Thomas earned a reputation as a camp comic. The Washington Post noted:
Thomas is a pitcher fighting for his place on the staff, with a mighty good chance of attaining that end, and his even temper and cool judgment are no small part of his stock in trade.
Thomas is always ready with a witty answer to all questions and jibes, and has many quaint sayings in his repertoire. He rounds out a trio of baseball fun makers (with Nick Altrock and Huck Sawyer) that surely has no equal.
They represent three different sections of the country. Altrock being from Chicago, Sawyer from Los Angeles and Thomas from a place in Oklahoma not large enough the fans to be familiar with and each has his own ‘brogue.’
He kept the reputation for a sense of humor at Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League. There a sportswriter for the Times told this story:
Perhaps ‘Lefty” Thomas, pitcher for the Los Angeles club, isn’t the best hitter in the Coast league, but at the same time there are several fellows around Los Angeles who think he is.
It seems that Thomas was talking to several fans in front of Washington park just the other day. One of them wasn’t at all impressed with Thomas’ work with the stick.
‘Hey, Lefty,” he queried. ‘Why don’t you learn to hit?”
‘Oh, I have,’ replied Thomas as he pointed to a young man standing near by who was carrying his arm in a sling. ‘See that guy?’ continued Thomas. ‘Well he thought I was going to bunt.’
As it turned out, Lefty’s Oklahoma brogue wasn’t enough to keep employed by Clark Griffith’s Washington team. On March 31, 1917, Thomas was among four sent to Minneapolis in the American Association where he pitched in a near record 62 games. In one Sunday-to-Sunday stretch he pitched both ends of three doubleheaders, six full games in eight days.
It was 1919 in the Western League that he would figure in one of the minor league’s most important trades. Thomas had been signed by Frank Isbell, a World Series record setting Cub infielder who owned Wichita’s team which he called the Izzies after himself. With rosters limited to 14 players, Isbell’s team was crippled when one of its outfielders was hospitalized after being hit in the head by a pitch. Thomas in fact, was forced into outfield duty until a replacement could be found.
Isbell found Seattle with two strugglers, pitcher Frank Bowman and outfielder Joe Wilhoit. Thomas was sent to the Coast league for the pair who combined to put Wichita into contention for the league championship. Wilhoit, in fact, hit safely in a still standing record 69 successive games. Baseball America called Wilhoit’s streak the most significant event of the 1911-20 decade in minor league baseball.
For Lefty, the Coast league with its mild climate and long season became home and he was welcomed there. A Seattle newspaper called him the “one ball player” on the Siwahses’ roster. “Thomas is a fine fellow to have on the ball club as he plays the game for the game’s sake. He has won his niche in Coast League baseball and a home with the fans here for his willing work.” It was at Seattle where he teamed with Ernie Schorr, Elmer Reiger and Herbert Benton to pitch 50 successive innings without allowing a run.
But in 1920 he was traded to Los Angeles where he played until 1923 then went across town to Vernon for two more seasons. He also played in the coast’s winter leagues and sold cars for an L.A. Paige automobile dealer. His pitching assortment included a spitter he called the “perspiration pill” because he dampened the end of a forefinger with sweat from atop his right wrist rather than with saliva.
The Los Angeles Times described how he did it.
He throws it in a different way than any other man in baseball. It is a combination of Pete Standridge’s fork ball and the regular spitter.
The index finger of the left hand is moistened and placed on top of the ball while the second finger is forked along the side.
Thomas doesn’t require the same amount of moisture that most saliva pitchers use. After he is warmed up, he can throw the spitter by moistening the tip of his index finger with the perspiration from his forehead or the wrist of his other hand.
It is not necessary for him to put his hand to his mouth and in that way it is believed he never could be stopped from using the spitter if he cared to throw it.
In the end it was not a lack of moisture or an aching arm that ended his professional career, but his legs. At Des Moines in 1926 he injured both knees in separate accidents, both while fielding slow ground balls. Those injuries caused him to miss more than six weeks although the 37-year-old still managed to appear in 27 games and win 12.
While Thomas’ professional career ended, he never really left baseball. He played for and managed sandlot and semipro teams while trying his hand on the family farm near Gage. But the Depression and Dust Bowl made that unattractive and he went to El Reno to manage its baseball team. He later became a correctional officer at a federal reformatory there, a deputy sheriff and, eventually, unsuccessful candidate for sheriff.
At El Reno he was also named commissioner of American Legion baseball for the state of Oklahoma. Then, when World War II loomed, he went to work as an examiner for the state selective service office, traveling the eastern half of the state to interview young men seeking draft exemptions.
In 1946 he was stricken with pneumonia and hospitalized at a clinic in Kansas. From there he moved to a veterans hospital at Sulphur, Okla., where he died at age 55. His wife, the former Gladys Ingrain of Perry, Iowa, and son, Phil, survived him.
New York Times, August-September 1916
Los Angeles Times, “Perspiration Spitter Big Asset to Claude Thomas,” and “Angelographs,” April 18, 1920
El Reno American, January 27, 1938
Tulsa Daily World, March 21, 1941
Washington Post, March 18, 1917, April 1, 1917
Bartlesville Examiner, March-August 1910
Bartlesville Evening Enterprise, June 20, 1941
Wichita Eagle, April-August 1919
Seattle Post, “One Real Ball Player on Seattle Team.” Undated.
W.C. Madden and Patrick J. Stewart, Western League, a Baseball History, 1885 through 1999
Lloyd Johnson (ed.), The Minor League Register
Interview with Philip Thomas, March 26, 2007