Tommy Oran had a brief and unspectacular baseball career that has long since been forgotten, and very little is known about his life. Yet he holds an important distinction as the first Native American to play major league baseball, making it well worth the effort to compile what little is known.
E. H. Tobias’s history of the early years of baseball in St. Louis includes a list of early ballplayers that includes “Thomas Oran (the Indian).” Tobias seems to imply that Oran was originally a member of the Empire Club, one of the city’s top amateur clubs in the 1860s and ’70s, but if so he wasn’t initially able to make the first nine.
In 1867, Oran became the catcher for another amateur St. Louis club, the Olympics. In 1868 he joined the Union Club, which had captured the local championship from the Empires in July of 1867. Oran took over as the Union Club’s starting catcher and helped them retain the championship in 1868, leading the club in runs scored.
On June 5, 1869, the Empire Club defeated the Unions to regain local supremacy. Shortly afterward, the Empires lost their catcher to injuries and recruited Oran to take his place. (Spink, 42) Both clubs appear to have been amateurs, and it is unlikely that Oran was offered money to change clubs. It is, however, quite possible that he received another sort of inducement to join the Empires. Empire club president Henry Clay Sexton was the chief of the St. Louis fire department and Oran was soon working as a city fireman.
The Empires retained their championship through the 1873 season and Tommy Oran remained one of their mainstays. He played catcher until early in the 1871 season, at which point he switched to primarily playing third base.
By 1872, the Empires’ toughest local rival was a new club called the Red Stockings. In 1873 the two clubs split their first four games before the Empires pulled out the fifth and deciding game to retain the championship. But many wondered whether the veteran club could continue to hold off the upstart Reds.
The 1874 season saw the younger club continue to improve. On May 24, they beat the Empires in the first game of that year’s championship series, and shortly thereafter Oran jumped to the Red Stockings. His appearance in their lineup in a game on July 12 sparked a protest.
Up until this point St. Louis had a reputation as one of the few remaining bastions of amateur baseball, but the tide was clearly turning. In January of 1875, a club that became known as the Brown Stockings was organized to bring openly professional baseball to St. Louis for the first time. The new club recruited a lineup of Eastern professional players and entered the National Association, the first major league.
Not to be outdone, the Red Stockings held a meeting the following month and entered their name in the same league. But while the Red Stockings would be competing in the same league with their cross-town rivals, the club’s organizational structure was very different. While the Browns were paying salaries to their players, the Reds were known as a “co-op club” because they offered their players only a share of the profits from each game.
Co-op clubs were a prominent and somewhat controversial feature of the National Association. Since they provided a far less secure form of income, these clubs could not attract a high enough caliber of ballplayer to be competitive against the salaried nines. Some of them could not even afford to make road trips, simply waiting for others to pay them visits.
The result is that many histories treat these clubs as parasites, and in turn depict the National League as an improvement on the National Association because it excluded such clubs. There is some truth in this portrayal, but it is not equally applicable to all clubs. The Red Stockings, in particular, were valuable because having two entries in St. Louis enabled visiting clubs to defray the expenses of the long trip to St. Louis by scheduling matches against both clubs.
In addition, while many co-op clubs were on a shoestring budget, the Reds boasted $12,000 in capital stock that allowed them to make a couple of short road trips. Their roster included one imported player, Charles Sweasy, who had been a starter for the legendary Red Stockings of Cincinnati during their undefeated 1869 campaign. The rest was made up of the best local talent, including Silver Flint, destined for a long career as the catcher of the great White Stockings of Chicago teams of the 1880s.
It was still too much to expect the Red Stockings to be competitive against the salaried nines. The club finished the season with a 4-15 record, with all four wins coming against fellow co-op clubs. But the team did exceed the performance of the typical co-op team, playing some surprisingly close games with the salaried aggregations, including one-run losses to Chicago and Philadelphia.
In the process Tommy Oran became the first Native American major leaguer. He played in all nineteen of the team’s games, and retroactive calculation shows him to have had a team-best 10 runs batted in. Otherwise, however, his performance was unimpressive. His batting average was a mere .185 and his eleven errors and .633 fielding percentage while playing the outfield were unacceptably high. (He also played part of one game at shortstop.)
That off-season the National Association was replaced by the National League, effectively ending Oran’s professional playing career. Little more than a decade later he was dead, passing away in St. Louis on September 22, 1886. By then, a couple of other Native Americans, Joe Visner and Jim Toy, were playing professionally and the death of this pioneer warranted only a two-sentence obituary in the Sporting News. (Sporting News, October 4, 1886, p. 5) And by the late 1890s, when Louis Sockalexis became the first Native American ballplayer to receive significant media coverage, Oran had been entirely forgotten.
As a result, we know almost nothing about his personal life. The 1870 census records Oran working as a St. Louis fireman and living with his eighteen-year-old wife Kate and their infant son Thomas. It also indicated that he was born in California around 1846 (which means that he is also the first native of the Golden State to play major league baseball). But thereafter almost nothing is known about his life, including what became of his wife and son.
By working backward, researcher Richard Malatzky did find a likely possibility on the 1860 census. That year’s census shows a “Thomas Indian,” age 13, living in Petaluma, California, with George Indian, Buck Indian and the family of Abram Cramer. While this is not necessarily the man who later became known as Thomas Oran, it is the only plausible candidate who has been identified.
After his death, Oran’s name was mentioned from time to time in the Sporting News. An 1890 piece mentioned that, “Oran was a half-breed Indian and died from the effects of fire water.” (Sporting News, March 22, 1890) The following year, after an article that erroneously called him “Thomas Morgan” and said that he was known as “Lusher Tom” or “Indian Tom,” Sporting News publisher A. H. Spink pointed out the mistake. (Sporting News, September 19, 1891)
As these descriptions suggest, Tommy Oran’s ethnic heritage made him the subject of stereotyping. So far as we know, he was not subjected to more overt forms of discrimination. But, as with so much about the life of this pioneer, that is a subject about which we do not know nearly enough.
A. H. Spink, The National Game (1910: reprint, Southern Illinois University Press, 2000); E. H. Tobias, sixteen-part history of baseball in St. Louis up to 1876, Sporting News, November 2, 1895-February 15, 1896; Marshall Wright, The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870 (McFarland, 2000); contemporary newspapers and sporting publications, as noted; censuses and city directories; research by Richard Malatzky.