1921 Orioles: Tommy Thomas

Imagine it’s 1921.

You are a Syracuse Stars player, and the Baltimore Orioles roar into town. In the first game you face Jack Ogden, a guy who’s well on his way to winning 31 games. Loss number one. The next afternoon you have to hit against a fireballing wildman named Lefty Groves. Loss number two before you even know what happened.

Now if it were any other team, you could relax on the third afternoon because what team could possibly have a third knockout starter – but this aint any team. This, my friend, is Jack Dunn’s Orioles.

In 1921 the Orioles had as their third starter a local boy and City College teammate of Max Bishop: Alphonse “Tommy” Thomas.

Built along the lines of a football player and the exact opposite of the skinny Lefty Grove, Tommy Thomas was in his first season with the Birds, but he had been pitching in the International League since 1918. That year his City College baseball Coach and Buffalo Bisons infielder Herb Armstrong, took Thomas along when he joined the team for their season opener against the Orioles. When Buffalo lost the first two games, the exasperated Bisons manager put the 18 year-old Thomas in to start the third. The teenager surprised everyone by throwing five innings of six-hit ball, allowing 2 runs before the game was called due to rain. According to Thomas, the Bisons offered him a contract right there, but he declined.

A few months later when school ended and the recent graduate was left with no job prospects, he contacted Buffalo and asked if the offer was still on the table. It was, and Tommy Thomas became a professional ballplayer, his career path set for the rest of his life.

Thomas went 5-10 for a bad Buffalo team in 1918, then was 15-13 with a beautiful 1.99 ERA in ’19. When his ERA went over the 4.00 mark in 1920 Buffalo lost interest and put him on the waiver wire. As soon as Jack Dunn saw the name “Thomas” he wrote a check for $1,000 and brought the big pitcher back to Charm City.

Dunn had been following Thomas’ career and knew that the kid had talent, but he hadn’t been taught how to use it in Buffalo. That first year with Baltimore Thomas had several veterans to learn from, including Babe Ruth’s first catcher, Ben Egan, and Jack Dunn, who had spent five years pitching in the majors. During 1921 the Orioles would win a record 119 games, including 27 straight wins, a record that stood until 1987. As the team’s third starter, Thomas won 24 games – third in the league behind teammates Jack Ogden and Lefty Grove – threw just over 300 innings and posted a 2.78 ERA.

Thomas was the prototypical ballplayer that Jack Dunn sought for his club. The Baltimore boy was educated, threw hard as hell and neither smoked nor drank. Heck, he even went to the opera. But best of all, Thomas listened and learned. And because of that, he won.

Utilizing a hard curve followed up with a blazing fastball, Thomas flew with the Birds for four more International League pennants. His last season, 1925, turned out to be his best – winning 32 games with an ERA of 2.97. By this time the other league owners were sick of the Orioles winning every season by a landslide. Not only was it humiliating, but also financially problematic, as no one wanted to go to games when the outcome was pretty much obvious. Jack Dunn had been slowly selling off his stars since 1922, and finally at the end of his magnificent 1925 season, it was Tommy Thomas’ turn.

The Chicago White Sox forked over $15,000 for the big right-hander. In his first season in the majors Thomas won 15 games for a mediocre Sox team, holding opposing batsmen to a .244 average and his 127 strikeouts was third best in the AL. As good as that rookie stat line is, perhaps the most surprising thing that happened to Thomas in 1925 was when the Sox’s notorious tightwad owner Charlie Comiskey handed the rookie a $2,500 check for beating Senators legend Walter Johnson in a thrilling late season 2-1 win.

In ’27 Thomas won 19 games, led the league in innings pitched and again finished third in strikeouts. He won another 17 in ’28 and came in third for the third time in strikeouts. His wins drooped to 14 in 1929, but his ERA was 3.19, sixth best in the league and he topped the complete games column with 24.

One has to take into consideration that the White Sox were a second-rate team during the seasons Thomas played on the Southside. With an ERA in the low 3.00s and his strikeout ratio, Thomas could have been a star on a better club. However, the baseball luck was not that kind to Thomas, and it was about to get worse.

1930 brought the death of Thomas’ father and an elbow injury that would dog him for the rest of his career. Courageously pitching through the pain, Thomas won 21 more games for Chi before they dealt him to Washington in 1932. Arm trouble limited his effectiveness and he was sent to the Phillies in ’35. After several games he was sent down to Baltimore.

Unfortunately, Jack Dunn had passed away in 1928, and the mid-thirties Orioles were a far cry from the days of the seven consecutive pennant winners. Thomas finished out the season with a 3-2 record for the Birds. He made it back to the majors for two more years split between the Browns and Red Sox, then spent 1938 in the low minors.

In Chattanooga, Thomas became a coach under Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby and followed him back to Charm City when The Dunn family hired him as the O’s new manager. Fortunately for Thomas, Hornsby was a disappointing and unpopular manager and by 1940 the former 32 game winner was running the Birds himself.

Under Thomas’ leadership, the Orioles resumed scouting the local talent just like jack Dunn used to, and the team began winning again. The 1944 team looked to be the one that would claim the first pennant for Baltimore since 1925. Then, tragedy struck.

On Forth of July morning, Oriole Park burned down in a fire that consumed not only the ancient park but also the team’s records, memorabilia and equipment. Thomas responded by ordering new uniforms, this time changing the style back to the simple “B” in a diamond on the sleeve as worn by the team during their 1919-1925 glory days. Using borrowed bats and gloves, the Orioles went on a winning streak and took the pennant by a few percentage points over Newark. In the 4-team playoff, Baltimore clobbered Buffalo and Newark, and then beat the American Association champions Louisville Colonels to win the Little World Series.

Thomas managed the Orioles into the late 1940s, then joined the Red Sox, first as a scout and then as GM of their top farm club, the Minneapolis Millers. He returned to scouting, retiring to rural Pennsylvania with his wife, Alice, in 1973.

The big righty passed away at the age of 88 in 1988. It’s interesting to think about what his career might have been had he went up to the majors a few years earlier than he did, and been able to play on teams better than the ones he pitched for. But then again, that’s baseball, aint it?

Friday we go back to Jack Bentley – ’cause besides playing first base, batting .412 and winning the Triple Crown he was also the most effective pitcher on the ’21 O’s.

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