Inspiring a legend

April 30, 2013

Frank Lewis

PDT Staff Writer

As the motion picture about Scioto County native Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson as the first African-American to a Major League Baseball contract garners positive reviews, stories continue to pour in about Rickey’s career. Now, a story by Ed Johnson in the Albuquerque Journal, says an Albuquerque dentist may have been one of the inspirations for Rickey to make the decision to go against the entire sports world and do the right thing.

Dr. Charles L. Thomas, died 41 years ago, but the life story of the dental surgeon is forever intertwined with that of Rickey.

Johnson says the story of Thomas, a young black man, may have been somewhat embellished, and made more dramatic by the telling and retelling, but in light of Rickey’s life now at the forefront of American life, it may be meaningful to retell it one more time.

Known first as “Cha,” and later as “Tommy,” Thomas reportedly was a star athlete in high school and caught the attention of the then-22-year-old Ohio Wesleyan baseball coach - Branch Rickey, who promptly signed him to catch for OWU. Johnson says in his story that in 1903 OWU traveled to South Bend to play Notre Dame, and when Rickey went to check his team into the Oliver Hotel, the owner told him “the negro” would not be allowed to stay there. Then, the story goes on to say Rickey had a cot brought into his room so that Thomas would have a place to sleep. The two became roommates.

Ebony Magazine, in a 1968 article, has the following account reproduced in Johnson’s story:

“Thomas sat on that cot, hunched over, violently rubbing his hands as if trying to shed skin. ‘If it weren’t for my skin I wouldn’t be any different from anyone. If only my hands were white.’”

The story then quotes Rickey as saying, “Tommy, the day will come when they won’t have to be white.”

Thomas went on to dentist school, first opening a practice in St. Louis. Then, in 1920, he moved to Albuquerque, where he became one of the first black dentists in New Mexico, and where he lived for 51 years. He kept in touch with Rickey, and once visited him in St. Louis. According to Johnson’s story, the club’s grandstands were segregated, but Rickey didn’t want his guest to feel the embarrassment of having to sit separate, so, according the Ebony article, he sat with Rickey in his office as the game played and the two talked baseball.

Now comes the connection between Rickey’s relationship with Thomas and his decision to sign Robinson.

“In 1944, Rickey became president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In Ken Burns’ baseball documentary, Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber says Rickey told him about Thomas.

“For 41 years, I have heard that young man crying,” Barber said he remembered Rickey saying. “Now, I am going to do something about it.”

That something, in 1947, turned out to be bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues.

Thomas retured from his dental practice in 1960, and whenever Rickey would pass through Albuquerque, he would look Thomas up and they would share a meal and memories, according to Thomas’ neighbor Herman Schulman. Thomas was 91 when he died in 1971.

The Albuquerque Journal story can be read at www.abqjournal.com/sports/2013/04/19/an-old-story-about-hands.html.

Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 252, or at flewis@civitasmedia.com. For breaking news, follow Frank on Twitter @FrankLewisPDT.