This article was written by Dan Mullen
Tommy Tatum played parts of fourteen seasons in professional baseball, but it was for a single moment—a product of timing more than anything else—that made Tommy Tatum part of American baseball history. On April 18, 1947, Tatum batted third for the Brooklyn Dodgers in an early-season visit to the Polo Grounds for a meeting with the Giants. The third of just four games he would appear in during his final stint with the Dodgers, Tatum found himself batting between fellow rookie Jackie Robinson and star right fielder Dixie Walker. With the score tied at 1–1 in the third inning, Robinson belted a Dave Koslo pitch for his first major league home run.
As Robinson crossed the plate, Tatum greeted him with outstretched arms. A photographer captured a moment representing racial integration in baseball that made its way to doorsteps throughout the city on the back page of the next day’s Daily News. An encouraging welcome to modern baseball’s first African American was about the biggest contribution Tatum gave Brooklyn in the 1947 season. He would have only one more at-bat with the team—an unsuccessful trip as a pinch-hitter on May 8 against the Cardinals—before he became the casualty of an unusually deep Brooklyn outfield.
Tommy was born V T Tatum to Emmit and Lessie Tatum in the north Texas town of Decatur, on July 16, 1919. He picked up the name Tommy in his youth, since the V T did not stand for anything. Tatum honed his game on the sandlots of Oklahoma City under the tutelage of Oklahoma coaching legend Roy Deal. A talented and polished all-around player by his late teens, Tatum starred on Deal’s Gassers, a sandlot team sponsored by the Oklahoma Natural Gas Company. Known locally as the ‘Red Fox’ for the color of his hair, Tatum caught the eye of Detroit scouts who offered him a contract with the Tigers in 1939, upon his graduation from Capitol Hill High School.
The right-handed hitting Tatum, who was six feet and weighed 185 pounds, spent one season in the Detroit organization, batting .254 for the Class C Henderson Tigers as a nineteen year old. Despite leading the team with nine triples, and being one of the team’s youngest players, he failed to impress the parent club. After he was granted free agency, along with twenty other Detroit minor leaguers, on January 14, 1940, the Dodgers signed Tatum and assigned him to Nashville of the Southern Association.
Again one of his league’s youngest players, Tatum was up for the challenge in 1940. Used mostly as a utility player, he batted .307 with seven triples in 264 at-bats for a Nashville team that finished the season with 101 wins and just forty-seven losses. During Minor League Baseball’s Centennial celebration in 2001, the 1940 Nashville Volunteers were recognized as the 47th-best minor league team ever.
Tatum returned to Nashville in 1941 where he had an even better year in a full-time role, primarily as a center fielder. He batted .347 with forty extra-base hits in 105 games before being brought to Brooklyn. Tommy made his major-league debut on August 1 in Chicago, playing center field and batting sixth. In the first inning he faced left-hander Vern Olsen, with Joe Medwick on third and Dolph Camilli on first. The Nashville recruit gave a good account of himself with an RBI double. It would be the high point of his major-league career. Tatum appeared in seven more games, batting .167 (2-for-12) with just the one run batted in overall.
On Christmas Eve 1941, Tatum married Alberta Marie Moody in Nashville. The couple would have two sons: Terry, born in 1944, and Dennis, born in 1947. Tatum went to training camp with the Dodgers in 1942 and had a good spring. However, the club thought he needed more seasoning and sent the twenty-two-year-old Tatum to the Montreal Royals of the International League. Tommy spent the entire 1942 season with Montreal, teaming with Carl Furillo, Stan Rojek, and other top prospects on the fast track to Brooklyn. Tatum, who played almost exclusively at third base for the ’42 Royals, struggled to a .226 average in 156 games.
By January 1943 Tatum was in the United States Army Signal Corps, eventually serving in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Like many professionals, Tatum played baseball during his time in the armed forces. While in Hawaii he played for the Wanderers, an entrant in the Hawaii Baseball League. Reportedly, Tatum had twenty-two hits in his first forty-three at-bats, but also suffered an injury to his throwing arm, from which he would never fully recover.
After returning to baseball in 1946, Tatum would again be a part of one of baseball’s all-time most successful minor league teams, the 100-win Montreal Royals. Tatum batted .319 and stole twenty-eight bases in 129 games that season, teaming with Marv Rackley and Jackie Robinson on a team loaded with speed. Tatum played first base and second base for the first time in his professional career, doubtless a sign his arm was giving him trouble. The Royals won the International League pennant and then defeated the Louisville Colonels in the Junior World Series, a series in which Tatum contributed several key hits. After the season he was named to the International League All-Star team and came in third in the league’s MVP voting.
While Robinson immediately offered a spark as Brooklyn’s every day first baseman, Rackley and Tatum struggled to find playing time in an overcrowded Dodgers outfield. Stuck behind imbedded stars Pete Reiser and Dixie Walker, along with second-year man Carl Furillo and a plethora of other options, including veteran Arky Vaughan, Tatum found his way into only four games in the first month of the season.
On May 13 Brooklyn sold the now twenty-seven-year-old Tatum to the Cincinnati Reds for an estimated $15,000. In Cincinnati, Tommy saw regular action for the only time in his big league career. With the Dodgers in town at the time of the transaction, Tatum wasted no time gaining revenge on his former employer.
In his first game in a Reds uniform, he drove in more runs than he had in his entire time with the Dodgers, courtesy of a two-run single in Cincinnati’s 7–5 victory. The next day, Tatum had one of the best games of his career. He belted his only major league home run, a first inning solo shot off former teammate Joe Hatten, and stole a base in the Reds’ 2–0 victory.
Tatum went on to establish himself as a capable member of the Reds lineup, batting .273 with five doubles, two triples and sixteen RBIs in sixty-nine games. He stole seven bases without being caught and put together a seven-game hitting streak in mid-August that included four multi-hit games. Tommy played his last major-league game on September 24, 1947. Over eighty-one games in the big leagues, he compiled a .258 batting average.
Tatum was with the Reds’ Double A affiliate Tulsa Oilers in 1948 where he enjoyed one of the most productive campaigns of his professional career. When he was named to the Texas League All-Star squad in early July, he was leading the circuit in runs scored, hits, RBI, batting average and stolen bases. He paced the Oilers to a second place finish and led the Texas League with a .333 average.
Tatum spent the 1949 season bouncing from system to system; he played briefly with the Reds’ Triple A squad in Syracuse before being shipped to the Red Sox organization, where he suited up for Class AA Birmingham and Class AAA Louisville. Tommy hit .285 overall, with twenty-four doubles, one triple and four home runs.
In 1950 Tatum found a home back in the Dodgers farm system at Fort Worth of the Texas League, serving as a player-coach with former teammate and player-manager Bobby Bragan. At age thirty, the ‘Red Fox’ had become known as the ‘Old Red Fox’ but his base running ability still drew praise. Baseball Digest printed a Fort Worth Star-Telegraph feature on Tatum’s ‘come-up slide’ and delayed steal in an article pronouncing him the Texas League’s best base runner. “If the center fielder has to come in to field the ball and makes a little lob throw to shortstop or second baseman thinking that the play is all over,” Tatum said of his cunning maneuver. “You’ve got a real chance of going on in and scoring ahead of the relay. As you’re nearing the bag, keep your eye on the coverer . . . when he gives the clue, you make the ‘come-up slide which will get you off running, in case the ball gets away.” Playing some third base in addition to the outfield, Tatum’s offensive production dropped off, as he batted just .223 in 115 games.
The next year, Tatum moved across the Texas League and became player-manager of the Oklahoma City Indians where he remained for the better part of five years before being replaced midway through the 1955 season. He hit .297 in his first season at the helm, but his average dwindled in each succeeding year. The Indians best regular season finish during the Tatum era was 1954, when they finished third. In 1952, however, the Indians parlayed their fourth place finish into a berth in the league finals before succumbing.
Tatum briefly considered joining old teammate and then-Pirates manager Bobby Bragan for the 1956 season to help Pittsburgh’s woeful running game. but ultimately passed on the offer, deciding to remain in Oklahoma. After baseball, he worked as an insurance broker and was active as a Mason, achieving thirty-second degree status.
Tatum remained in Oklahoma City until his death, at age seventy, on November 7, 1989. He is buried in the Resurrection Memorial Cemetery in Oklahoma City. He was survived by his wife Marie, sons, Terry and Dennis, and numerous grandchildren.
Chicago Daily Tribune
The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City)
Le Petit Journal (Montreal, PQ)
The Afro-American (Baltimore)
The Montreal Gazette
Christian Science Monitor
Telephone interview by Thomas Bourke with Terry Tatum, Oklahoma City, OK, May 22, 2010.