Monday, December 15, 2014

183. Clint Thomas: The Hawk

I wish everyone a great Christmas, Hanukkah or whatever you may celebrate this time of year. I for one am looking forward to Christmas with my wife and her family in Southern California. This month between Thanksgiving and Christmas was a busy one. The biggest news is that I am down to the final edits on my book, The League of Outsider Baseball". It's slated to be in bookstores May 8th of next year, just in time for Father's Day. The whole process has been both unbelievably fun and nerve-racking for me. Fun because I have been able to finally present what I have been doing on the website for almost four years to a larger audience and in a format you can hold in your hands. Websites are fine for some, but I'm an old-school type of guy and love the feeling of something substantial in my fingers. That this will be a 240 page hard cover tome really gets me excited! The nerve-racking part comes when I realize that 240 pages isn't nearly enough to showcase all the great stories and drawings I want to! Each time Simon & Schuster sends me a new draft to edit I get pangs of regret about the players I had to leave out, but that's just my self-depreciating personality - when I look at the book objectively even I have to admit that this is going to be an unbelievably great book. I made the book I always hoped to find in a bookstore ever since I was a kid. With a bit of luck, the book will be a big enough success that I get the opportunity to do a volume 2. I thought you might be interested to see what one of these massive drafts looks like, so I took a quick picture:

Well, let's get on to the main reason this site exists - baseball stories and drawings! Today's story is one I have had on the back burner ever since I devoured Neal Lanctot's masterpiece "Fair Dealing and Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and the Development of Black Professional Baseball, 1910-1932". Among the great players that once graced the Hilldale Club's lineup was a guy they called "The Hawk". While he isn't normally mentioned in the same breathe as Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige, Clint Thomas was among the best all-around ballplayers of the 1920's and 30's. Recognized by his peers as one of those rare "complete ballplayers", The Hawk not only hit for average and power, but his skill in the outfield, accurate arm and base running ability made one of the most dangerous players to take the field.

Clint Thomas was born in Greenup, Kentucky, a town along the banks of the Ohio River in 1896. According to Thomas, he didn't play much baseball as a kid because there wasn't any ball fields for he and his friends to play on. It wasn't until his family moved to the more urban surroundings of Columbus, Ohio where the teenager began his baseball career. He played a little ball when he wasn't working in a grocery store, but then World War I began. Thomas served a year in the Army and was a Sergeant by the time his year hitch ended. He returned to Columbus and began playing ball more serious. Within a year he'd migrated to New York after he heard the Brooklyn Royal Giants were looking for a third baseman. That after only a single summer of semi-pro ball Thomas felt he was ready for the big time speaks highly of his confidence. The Royal Giants were on the down-side of being one of the premier blackball outfits and still boasted legend John Henry Lloyd at short and Jesse Hubbard on the mound. While Thomas' confidence was at a pro level his skills weren't and after batting under .200 returned to Columbus. 

Fortunately for Thomas the newly formed Negro National League put a franchise in Columbus called the Buckeyes. His teammate from the Royal Giants, John Henry Lloyd, was the new team's manager and Thomas played the 1921 season hitting just shy of .300. Still, all the pieces weren't right for Thomas. Because of his speed he was always shifted between second and third base but never felt comfortable at either position. Then the Buckeye's folded and Thomas was cut loose. 

His contract was acquired by the Detroit Stars 1922. He was still floundering at second base when fate stepped in. Regular center fielder Jessie Barber got injured and when the right fielder was switched to center, Thomas took his place in right. It was a stroke of genius. The fleet footed Kentuckian snatched up anything that can near him including balls meant for the center fielder. The next game he was switched to center and a Negro League legend was born. More comfortable in his new position, Thomas loosened up and finished 1922 as the Star's best hitter. The following year Hilldale, an eastern powerhouse club located just outside Philadelphia, poached Thomas away.

With Hilldale he became known as "The Hawk" for his fielding skills, gliding all over the outfield making plays with a skill so graceful that old-timers could clearly remember one Hawk play or another through the fog of decades gone by. Ted Page, a Negro League star from the mid 1920's to the mid-1930's recalled that Thomas "attacked the ball the way a dog attacked raw meat." Hall of Famer Monte Irvin grew up in Paterson, New Jersey watching the best black and white teams of the 1930's and, starting in 1937, played in both the Negro and Major Leagues. His opinion should be taken very seriously when out of all the black players he witnessed, it was Clint Thomas who Irvin called “the black Joe DiMaggio". To draw a more contemporary comparison the Hall of Famer said "Clint was a Pete Rose type of player, he always went all out".

That aggressive attitude didn't just apply to batting and fielding - Thomas quickly established himself as one of blackball's best base runners as well. Buck Leonard, Hall of Famer and contemporary of Thomas remembered "when he got on base we all knew what was on his mind. He had stealing on his mind." Judy Johnson, another Hall of Famer and contemporary called him one of the best he ever saw play and said "I called him "Racehorse" because he ran to first so fast that he almost had to turn around backwards to stop".

The Hawk was Hilldale's clean-up hitter throughout the 1920's. Thomas, along with Judy Johnson, Frank Warfield, Biz Mackey and Louis Santop, Thomas powered Hilldale to three consecutive Eastern Colored League pennants from 1923-25. This may have been one of the greatest blackball teams of all-time and no less than four players: Judy Johnson, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop and John Henry Lloyd have plaques hanging in Cooperstown. 

After dominating the east coast baseball scene for almost a decade, Hilldale began to hemerage players to other teams with bigger pocket books. At this time finances for black baseball teams were precarious at best and Thomas spent the next couple years surfing the dollar sign around from team to team. As the best clean-up man in the game, The Hawk was a much sought after item and after periods with the Atlantic City Bacharachs and Homestead Grays, Thomas returned to New York City where his pro career began. He hooked up with the old Lincoln Giants, a once proud powerhouse now winding down as an independent team playing in the lucrative Metropolitan semi-pro scene. Even though New York had a huge black population with disposable income to burn, Negro League teams found it hard to build a strong team in the city. Shady gangster "Soldier Boy" Semler took over the remains of the Lincoln Giants and formed the New York Black Yankees in 1931. Semler hired Clint Thomas and John Henry Lloyd to add some credibility to a team of underpaid kids and washed up vets. Despite their grandiose name, the Black Yankees were the whipping boys of the Negro Leagues. Still the team was monetarily successful due to their monopoly on the New York City market. Unfortunately Semler used the team primarily to launder his underworld profits and did nothing to improve the Black Yankees talent pool. Still, Thomas continued to shine. It was during this period that he was able to demonstrate his considerable talent to the largest audience. Unlike Hilldale which primarily stayed close to Philadelphia, the Black Yankees not only played in Yankee Stadium but also toured extensively.

During one such road trip Clint Thomas made what has gone down to be the greatest catch in blackball history. Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, built a grand stadium to house the virtual All-Star team he was assembling. For the very first game in Greenlee Field, the Crawfords hosted the Black Yankees. With Satchel Paige on the mound the Craws expected opening day at the only black-owned sports complex to be an easy win for the home team. Unfortunately Clint Thomas had other ideas. With the Black Yanks up 1-0 and a few Crawfords on base slugger Josh Gibson pounded a long fly ball to deep left center. The Hawk turned on his heels and peeled off for the fence, his back to the plate. The left fielder ran along side yelling "got it Hawk, got it?" Thomas just ran as fast as he could and when he reached the wall, stretched his arm out high and snagged the ball right at the top of the wall. The air went out of the Crawfords after that and the Black Yankees beat Paige. Ted Page, a member of the Crawfords that day remarked "Clint could chase that ball into another world".

The Hawk wrapped up his career in 1938. He drove a delivery truck for the Ballantine Scotch Company then segued into a small real estate business. Finally The Hawk settled in West Virginia where he became a staff supervisor for the state's Department of Mines and then a messenger for the State Senate, a post he held well into his 80's. Thomas was one of the most likable players of his time and when The Hawk turned the big eight-oh in 1976, his old home town of Greenup, Kentucky honored him with a birthday party that became the very first Negro League reunion. Long before the big collector-fueled heyday of Negro League collecting of the 1990's, the annual Greenup reunion was an intimate affair where the old superstars of segregated baseball congregated to relive their past glory. At the center of it all was The Hawk.