Thomas Turner, a Chicago American Giants first baseman, heard with mixed emotions the news about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. He appreciated this momentous breakthrough, but he did not allow the report to draw his attention away from the game underway that day in the windy city. He recognized that his own future in baseball and that of the Negro Leagues suddenly appeared murky. How soon and how many fellow players would follow in Robinson’s footsteps from a segregated league to an integrated one? How long would the Negro Leagues survive?
At the same time, Turner reminded himself with gratitude, not dismay, of the on-the-field opportunities he had experienced in the 1930s and 1940s: playing in the Kentucky-Ohio-Indiana League, the Military Leagues while serving during World War II, the Mexican League, and eventually the Negro American League. Turner’s Negro League career began and ended in that watershed year of 1947 but sharing his love and knowledge of the game with others, especially young players in his community, never subsided. In addition, he devoted time and energy to educating others about the Negro Leagues throughout his life through his eye-catching baseball apparel, numerous speaking engagements, memorabilia tables strategically located at local businesses and involvement in SWAP – Seniors With a Purpose. Turner turned his “cup of coffee” in the Negro Leagues into a smorgasbord of lifelong promotional and service activities.
Thomas Turner was born on June 22, 1915, in Olive Branch, Tennessee to a family that would eventually grow to 13 children under the care of his father, Samuel, and his mother, Ada (Wilson) Turner.1 Samuel Turner is listed in the 1902 census as a farmer. This small town with a peace-seeking name was located 17 miles north of Memphis near the mighty Mississippi River. At age 11, Turner’s father ignited his son’s interest in baseball by buying him a glove which the youngster cherished, so much so that Turner “slept with that glove” and carried it buttoned tightly around his belt.2 In his youth, he was also inspired by an uncle who once played with the Nashville Elite Giants.3 During his teenage years, his family moved north to Ohio where Turner graduated from Glendale High School on the outskirts of Cincinnati in 1934. He moved on to Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, not on a baseball but on a football scholarship.4 However, he did not get the opportunity to play football as the football coach shied away from players who did not weigh in excess of 200 pounds. At the time, Turner was only 141 pounds.5
Leaving Tuskegee after two years, Turner returned to Ohio where he played shortstop 1936 – 1939 for teams competing in the Kentucky-Ohio-Indiana League — the Cincinnati Braves and the Dayton Monarchs.6 Teams in this league sometimes sent players to the Negro Leagues, a hope that motivated Turner’s performance. The military draft unexpectedly prevented that possible, next step in his baseball career. What he suddenly lost in playing opportunities in the Ohio/Indiana League and perhaps beyond, Turner gained through the organized baseball leagues on military bases. Experiences in the Ohio/Indiana League boosted his confidence that a professional baseball career was possible, but the draft reinforced the reality that such a path was also unpredictable.
Turner was drafted in 1940 and stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. There he joined Company H, 368th Machine Gun Company, 93rd Infantry Division.7 Rising quickly to the rank of first sergeant, he assumed several roles. He taught marksmanship which impacted his hearing to the point of needing a hearing aid for the rest of his life and prevented his deployment overseas.8 He also served in the military police and the office of the sports recreation officer on the base.9 He participated in the sports programs at Fort Huachuca, especially football and baseball.10 As captain of the baseball team, he led his teammates to the Service Command Tournament in Santa Barbara, California.11 Their proximity to Mexico also provided opportunities for the military squad to play against teams in the Mexican Leagues, especially the one at Hermosillo, Sonora, which expressed interest in Turner returning there to play after his discharge from the service. Lieutenant James Chambers, a career soldier with more than 25 years of service, called Turner the “greatest natural athlete I’ve ever seen in my life.”12
Turner left Fort Huachuca with a nickname, an important recommendation, and the prospect of playing in the Mexican League. While playing first base during games at Fort Huachuca, he would often hear shouts from women fans in the stands, “Hey High Pockets,” causing Turner to look down and notice that his back pockets were riding higher than his belt in the front. The nickname stuck and followed Turner for the rest of his career.13 Mexican League officials urged him to play in Mexico after the war, which he did, joining Hermosillo in the wintertime four-team Mexican Pacific Coast League.
Turner recalls his experiences at Hermosillo in 1946 with great affection. He respected his coach, future Hall of Famer Bob Lemon.14 He also enjoyed the fans, especially the youngsters, who flocked to his side every time he arrived at the ballpark. American black ballplayers playing on Mexican League teams were granted special attention. Youngsters would compete to hold gloves and shoes as players entered the stadium. Such an honor brought with it a free ticket to the game.15 Turner also benefited from the interest of white businessmen who hired him to teach their kids the game of baseball. He recalls receiving five dollars for each young player spending one hour of instructional time with him on the field. In addition, Turner would enjoy a limousine ride from the hotel to the park on these occasions, a perk not likely provided him north of the border.16 It was economically beneficial (he was paid $700 per month, and he never paid for a meal) and personally gratifying: “Playing ball throughout Latin America helped players survive year round and gave them a sense of respect they rarely found anywhere else. To many, that was worth a great deal. Fans in Mexico and other Latin American nations were fanatics about the game, causing it to rival bullfighting as their number one pastime.”17
Eventually, marriage to his first wife, Alicia Prado, whom he met and married in Mexico, and the expected birth of his first of three children (Ana, Olga, and Glen) prompted Turner’s return to the states.18 He wanted his children to be born in the United States. Meanwhile, Jack Adkins, his football coach in the service, had contacted Dr. John Martin, owner of the Chicago American Giants, and encouraged him to take a look at Turner as a prospective Negro League player. In addition. an old army buddy, pitcher Walter McCoy, who had been with the Giants since 1945, put in a good word about him, guaranteeing a soft landing for Turner and his family stateside.19 In February 1947, soon after the birth of his daughter, the family traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, for a spring training tryout. Turner started at a salary of $400 a month.20 Coach Candy Jim Taylor prepared the team to head north for the start of the league season and other barnstorming games. The rookie first baseman began his Negro League career in the home of the Chicago White Sox, Comiskey Park, where the Giants played on Sundays when the Sox were on the road. It would always remain a special memory for Turner that in his first official game in the Negro Leagues on May 28, 1947, he hit a home run at Comiskey Park against Cleveland Buckeyes pitcher Chet Brewer.21
His time with Chicago was brief and records are incomplete for the 1947 season. According to Seamheads, he only played in two games, going 1-for-7 with an RBI. Eventually, he lost his position to Lyman Bostock, Sr., a veteran of Negro League play with the Birmingham Black Barons and former All-Star in 1941. In June, Candy Jim Taylor approached Turner and informed him that his salary would be cut to $200 a month. The team was facing financial difficulties. With a newborn at home, Turner realized that he could not support his family, especially in an expensive city like Chicago, on that reduced amount. He decided he would leave the team under these circumstances.22 He shifted his attention from the baseball diamond to various work settings, parking cars for Shillitos in Cincinnati for $30 a week, working at the telephone company, and finally, in 1951, landing at General Electric.23 His household also expanded with the arrival of his second daughter, Olga, and son, Glen.24 When he returned home to Cincinnati he “caught on initially with a local club called the Valley Tigers for which he played with and managed until 1954.”25 Along the way, he “did get three offers for major league tryouts but none of them amounted to anything.”26 Cincinnati offered Turner $250 a month on the condition that he would join their farm club in the Sally League.
Turner’s first marriage ended in 1957, and he spent several years as a single parent. Even with his greater family responsibilities, he maintained his commitment to social justice and service efforts which informed the rest of his life. During the Civil Rights Movement, Turner attended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 and drove from Cincinnati to Alabama to join the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.27 In 1966, he moved his family across the country to Seattle, Washington, to take a job at Boeing. There he married Lora E. Jackson (Betty) in 1967.28 Along with others, he suffered from a layoff from the aerospace company, and found a new job as Director of Seattle’s Parks and Recreation Department. His initiatives in this position ranged from establishing youth sports programs to launching hot meal outreach in the community.29
Turner retired in 1982 and returned with Betty to Ohio in 1984, settling in Georgetown, where he immediately became involved in many service projects. He volunteered to coach girls’ softball teams, helping to start over 300 women’s slow-pitch teams, according to the Points of Light Award he received.30 Another coach once invited Turner to offer his seventh-grade team some fielding instruction during a practice. His involvement with nursing home residents reflected his devotion to senior citizens in his community. The Points of Light Award also emphasizes that Turner helped establish the organization Seniors With a Purpose (SWAP), encouraging former Negro League players to promote in their communities the participation of youth in the lives of seniors.31
Tom Turner died in Georgetown, Ohio on June 17, 2013, just five days from his 98th birthday. Leslie Heaphy’s concise description of his baseball skill provides an equally accurate measure of the man: “As a fielder Turner was graceful and agile, while at the plate he showed consistency.”32
A SABR meeting in Cincinnati provided the occasion for the author to meet Thomas Turner for the first time. He invited him to attend a class on Baseball and Philosophy at Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio to talk about his experiences in the Negro Leagues. He made several visits to this class, talking not only about baseball, but also religion, patriotism, and service. The aged visitor mesmerized the group of traditional college-age students. On his first visit, Turner appeared in his colorful Negro League jacket covered with multiple team logos and wearing a Chicago American Giants hat. He brought much energy to these occasions and received great attentiveness in return. It was remarkable to watch the class warm up to this charismatic visitor to class. Turner’s commitment to mentoring and inspiring young people was evident.33
Turner also shared his enthusiasm and wisdom at his memorabilia tables set up in businesses across southwest Ohio. Shoppers at Kroger, IGA, and Meijers were often greeted by Tom Turner’s friendly smile, gentle demeanor, and genuine interest in talking about the Negro Leagues as they surveyed his wares. His church viewed these exchanges as outreach efforts as well as educational ones. To the end of his life, Tom Turner connected with fans around his love of baseball and his concern for others.34
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.
In addition to using the sources shown in the notes, the author used Seamheads.com for statistical information.
1 “In Celebration of the Life of Thomas Turner,” Georgetown Church of Christ, Georgetown, Ohio, 2013: 4.
2 Katie Chadwell. “’High Pockets’ to Celebrate 90th Birthday,” newsdemocrat.com, Georgetown, Ohio, November 3, 2010.
3 Carol Chroust. “Turner: Life is About How, Not How Long, You Live,” In Your Prime, A Quarterly Supplement serving Clinton, Brown and Highland Counties,” Spring 2004, 1.
5 Brent Kelley, Voices from the Negro Leagues: Conversations with 52 Baseball Standouts of the Period 1924-1960, (Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland Publishers, 1998), 244.
6 Becky Sprang, “Thomas Turner Visits Wilmington College,” unpublished interview with Turner,” The Witness (student newspaper), Wilmington College, Spring 2007.
7 Sergeant 1st Class Donald Sparks, “’A Soldier’s Paradise’,” Fort Hauchuca Scout, June 27, 2002: 9.
8 Brent Kelley, “Thomas ‘High Pockets’ Turner, Negro Leaguer was a Gifted Natural Athlete in a Half-dozen Sports,” Sports Collector’s Digest, May 31, 1996: 184.
10 Kelley, Sports Collector’s Digest, May 31, 1996: 184.
11 “Thomas ‘High Pockets Turner, 97,” Obituaries, Brown County Press (Mount Orab, Ohio) June 23, 2013.
12 Kelley, Voices from the Negro Leagues, 244.
13 Kelley, Sports Collector’s Digest: 185.
14 Leslie A. Heaphy, ed. Black Baseball and Chicago, Essays on the Players, Teams and Games of the Negro League’s Most Important City (McFarland & Co.: Jefferson, North Carolina, 2006), 132.
15 Kelley, Sports Collector’s Digest: 185.
16 Kelley, Sports Collector’s Digest: 185.
17 Leslie A. Heaphy, Shadowed Diamonds: Growth and Decline of the Negro Leagues (Dissertation. The University of Toledo, August 1995), 234.
18 “In Celebration of the Life of Thomas Turner,” 4.
19 Paul Debono, The Chicago American Giants (McFarland & Company: Jefferson, North Carolina, 2007), 217.
20 Kelley, 185.
21 John Erardi. “Tom Turner, A Third-Deck Homer and a Look from a Scout,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 4, 1999: A6; Indications are that the homer came in the bottom half of the Second inning of the second inning of a doubleheader on May 25, 1947. See “Buckeyes and Chicago Split,” Chicago Defender, May 31, 1947: 11. Only a line score is available, and Brewer pitched the second game. Few details are in the article.
22 Joel Gastright, “Former Negro League player visits WC,” The Witness (Wilmington College, Wilmington, Ohio), April 12, 2007: 1.
23 Chroust, 2.
24 “In Celebration of the Life of Thomas Turner,” 6.
25 Heaphy, Black Baseball and Chicago, 133.
26 Heaphy, Black Baseball and Chicago, 133.
27 “In Celebration of the Life of Thomas Turner,” 4.
28 “In Celebration of the Life of Thomas Turner,” 4.
29 Chroust, 2.
32 Leslie A. Heaphy, The Negro Leagues, 1869 – 1960 (McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2003): 159.
34 Fairview Lamplighter, Fairview Chapel, Georgetown, Ohio, November and December 2008: 5.