Clint Thomas: The Hawk

 

CLINT THOMAS was one of those rare ballplayers who was absolutely consistent no matter where or when he played. When you had Thomas on your club, you could conservatively pencil him in for a .310 average and sleep tight at night knowing your outfield had no gaps on either side of the centerfielder. Thomas played pro ball for 17 seasons, many of those year-round in Cuba or Florida in the winter. He’s credited with a lifetime Negro League average of .321, Cuban Winter League average of .311 and .311 in 35 games played against white major league teams. If you’re talking about consistent, you’re talking about Clint Thomas.

CLINTON CYRUS 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 weren’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 Kroger grocery store, but then World War I began. Thomas served a year in the Army and was a Sergeant by the time the war ended.

He returned to Columbus, married Virginia Johnson, and began taking his ballplaying seriously. After a year of showcasing his talent on the city’s sandlots, local baseball fans collected $100 to send Thomas to New York to try out for the Brooklyn Royal Giants. With only a single summer of semi-pro ball Thomas and his fans felt he was ready for the big time, which speaks highly of his confidence and the raw talent he possessed.

The Royal Giants were on the down-side of being one of the premier Blackball outfits, but 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 there yet, and he finished the 1920 season batting under .200 in limited use.

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 and had trouble turning the double play. Then the Buckeye’s folded and Thomas was cut loose.

His contract was acquired by the Detroit Stars for 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. It was a stroke of genius. In his first game as an outfielder, the fleet footed Kentuckian snatched up anything that came 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, Thomas became known as “The Hawk” for his fielding skills, gliding all over the outfield making plays with a talent 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 of the mid 1920s and ‘30s 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 1930s 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 1920s. Thomas, along with future Hall of Famers Judy Johnson, Frank Warfield, Biz Mackey and Louis Santop, powered Hilldale to three consecutive Eastern Colored League pennants from 1923-25. In 1924 the first “Colored World Series” was held, pitting Hilldale against the Kansas City Monarchs, winners of the Negro National League pennant. The Monarchs took the best of nine series, with Thomas hitting a disappointing .237. The same two teams met again the next October, with Hilldale prevailing, 5 games to 1. The Hawk raised his average to .273 with two doubles and two stolen bases. Now in the prime of his career, Thomas led the Eastern Colored League in stolen bases in 1926 while batting .305 with 9 homers and followed that up with .302 in 1927.

The Hawk’s reputation at this time earned him an annual invite to play in the Cuban Winter League. This short-season league featured not only the best Negro Leaguers, but also the finest ballplayers the Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican leagues had to offer. To be chosen to participate in this highly-competitive league was not only an honor but also provided a handsome paycheck. Playing mostly for the Almendares Blues, Thomas would return to Cuba seven times between 1923 to 1930, batting over .300 five times, including .373 in 1924-25 and .393 in 1930.

AFTER DOMINATING the East Coast baseball scene for almost a decade, Hilldale began to hemorrhage players to other teams with bigger pocketbooks. At this time finances for black baseball teams were precarious at best, and Thomas spent the next couple years following 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 large black population with disposable income to burn, Negro League teams found it hard to build a strong team in the city.

In 1932, popular entertainer Bill ”Bojangles” Robinson and promoter Nat Strong partnered with a shadowy gangster named James “Soldier Boy” Semler and took over the remains of the Lincoln Giants. Renamed the “New York Black Yankees,” the owners 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 doormat 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 regularly played in Yankee Stadium before upwards of 30,000 fans, but also toured extensively.

DURING ONE SUCH ROAD TRIP in 1932, Clint Thomas made what has gone down to be the greatest catch in blackball history. Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, built a grandiose stadium to showcase the virtual All-Star team he was assembling. For the very first game played in Greenlee Field, the Crawfords hosted the Black Yankees. With the legendary 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 alongside 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.”

In 1934 The Hawk got the opportunity to show what he had against the best pitcher in the Major Leagues, 30-game winner Dizzy Dean. Dean and the St. Louis Cardinals had just defeated the Detroit Tigers in the World Series and several of the players embarked on a barnstorming tour. On October 17, Dizzy Dean, his brother Paul and future Hall of Famer Joe Medwick joined the Brooklyn Bushwicks in a night game against the Black Yankees at Dexter Park in Queens.

With the game scoreless in the 4th, Clint Thomas hit a two out triple. Years later, The Hawk told historian John Holway that he told Bushwicks third baseman Buck Lai, “Shit, I can steal home on him.” Lai called time and told Dean what Thomas planned to do. Characteristically, Diz invited him to try. As he went into his windup, The Hawk took off for home, and when the dust settled, the ump called “safe!” Dean went into a tirade that cast a dark spell over the rest of the game. Diz threw at the next batter, George Scales, and later angrily chased away a Black Yankees player who wanted an autograph. That steal of home proved to be the winning run as the Black Yanks blanked the Bushwicks, 6-0. After the game Dean fumed to Brooklyn Daily Eagle sportswriter Harold Parrott, “That is the first home that was ever stoled on me, and one of them Black Yankees had to do it.”

There’s no record of where or if Thomas played ball in 1935. In one of the oddest mysteries of Blackball, The Hawk is pictured in a Brooklyn Eagles uniform, but does not appear in any available box scores. Dr. Layton Revel’s painstakingly researched biography, Forgotten Heroes: Clint “Hawk” Thomas available on the Center for Negro League Baseball Research website, opines that he may have been injured all season. Fourteen seasons of hard-traveling, year-round ball must have taken a toll on the 39 year-old. He split 1936 between the Newark Eagles and New York Cubans before returning to the Black Yanks for 1937. Thomas was hitting a nice .317 when he severely injured his ankle. He attempted a comeback at the beginning of 1938 but called it a career after only a few games.

Thomas drove a delivery truck for the Ballantine Scotch Company, then segued into a small real estate business. Finally, The Hawk and his second wife Ellen 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. The old ball hawk passed away at the age of 94 in 1990.

CLINT THOMAS was one of the most likable players of his time, and when The Hawk turned the big eight-oh in 1976, his old hometown 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.

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In addition to the contemporary newspaper articles used to create this story, two other sources were indispensable in making The Hawk’s career come to life. The first is Blackball Tales by John B. Holway. Holway traveled the country interviewing Blackball players, giving us an invaluable primary source for this forgotten period of baseball history. The other work is Dr. Layton Revel’s Forgotten Heroes: Clint “Hawk” Thomas, available on the Center for Negro League Baseball Research website.

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This week’s story is Number 19 in a series of collectible booklets.

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 2 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 018 and will be active through October of 2020. Booklets 1-17 can be purchased as a group, too.

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