James Tate, in the comments to this post, raises the possibility that “Thomas,” seated to the left of Walter Schlichter in the above photo of the 1910 Philadelphia Giants, is in fact Charles Thomas, Ohio Wesleyan’s first African American athlete, and lifelong friend of Branch Rickey. Thomas was a key figure—actually, the key figure—in Rickey’s own personal explanation of his commitment to integration.
Ohio Wesleyan baseball team, 1903. Charles Thomas is in the middle row, third from left; Branch Rickey is standing on the far left.
Ohio Wesleyan baseball team, 1904. Branch Rickey is again standing on the left, with Charles Thomas is standing in the middle.
When Rickey took over as manager of Ohio Wesleyan’s football and baseball teams in 1903, he often had to deal with the problem of finding accommodations for Thomas on the road, as whites-only hotels wouldn’t allow him to stay. Frequently the solution was for Rickey to set up a cot in his own room for Thomas. One of these occasions, in South Bend, Indiana, before a 1904 game with Notre Dame, would haunt Rickey for years.
Here’s how A. S. “Doc” Young, longtime Chicago Defender sportswriter, told the story in Ebony magazine in 1968:
“Up in Rickey’s room, Thomas—a strong, 220-pound athlete—broke down. Crushed by this bout with Jim Crow, he sat on the cot, his huge body hunched forward, and stared despairingly at his hands.
“ ‘It’s these,’ he said repeatedly. ‘They’re black. If it weren’t for my skin, I wouldn’t be any different from anybody. If only my hands were white.’
“Charlie Thomas pulled violently at first one hand and then the other, trying, it seemed, to tear the black skin from himself. Rickey, watching, attempted to ease Thomas’ mental burden. ‘Tommy’, Rickey said, ‘the day will come when they won’t have to be white’.” (Ebony, November 1968, p. 156)
Back when we first posted the 1910 and 1911 Negro league seasons to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, I had considered the possibility that Thomas, an outfielder and pitcher for the Philadelphia Giants in those seasons, was in fact Charlie Thomas of Ohio Wesleyan. It made all kinds of sense. For one thing, Thomas was supposed to have played briefly for the Philadelphia Giants several years earlier, during the summer of 1905. For another, the Giants’ player in 1910 and 1911 was called “C. Thomas” in box scores.
But in the end, I hesitated to make this identification, for two reasons:
1) Charles Thomas’s biography doesn’t seem to quite match. According to this excellent Black College Nines page on Thomas, upon graduating from dental school in 1908 he opened a practice in St. Louis. It seemed unlikely (though not impossible, of course) that he would have abandoned an already-established practice to go back east to play professional baseball for a couple of years. Moreover, C. Thomas joined the Philadelphia Giants not during their Midwestern tour early in the season, but in July 1910, after they had returned to the east coast.
2) After looking at the photos pretty intensively, I decided that, although there is a superficial resemblance, I couldn’t say that they were of the same person.
Here are several more images of Charles L. Thomas, from (in order) the Black College Nines site, Ohio Wesleyan (via the New York Times), the Cleveland Call and Post (1941), and Black College Nines again: