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Family History Reveals a Major League Ballplayer - Ira Thomas

Catherine King Eddy always knew there was a big-league ballplayer in her family tree. Five years ago, the New Britain, Conn., resident embarked on a mission to learn everything she could about him, which, among other things, has resulted in an amazing collection of early 20th-century baseball memorabilia.

Catherine King Eddy always knew there was a big-league ballplayer in her family tree. Five years ago, the New Britain, Conn., resident embarked on a mission to learn everything she could about him, which, among other things, has resulted in an amazing collection of early 20th-century baseball memorabilia.

Her distant relative, Ira Thomas, spent parts of 10 years in the majors from 1906-15 as a catcher for the New York Highlanders – predecessor of the Yankees – and the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia A’s. He was team captain for the A’s on a team that won back-to-back world championships in 1910 and 1911, and he holds the distinction of being the first player ever to get a pinch-hit in World Series play.

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“This is my prized possession,” she said, holding up a plastic-encased ball.

It comes from the 1910 Series and reads, “1st Game of World Series, Monday, October 17th 1910 – To my uncle Lacy King from Ira Thomas. Athletics: runs 4; hits 7, errors 2. Chicago: runs 1, hits 3, errors 1.”

The ball was autographed by Thomas and eight other A’s, along with 12 Cubs players. Combined, it bears the signatures of six Hall of Famers – Eddie Collins, Frank “Home Run” Baker and Chief Bender of the A’s, along with Chicago’s Mordecai Brown, Joe Tinker and Frank Chance.
Following the A’s World Series triumph, Thomas’ uncle held a reception for him back home in Ballston Spa, N.Y., where Thomas was born and raised. Coincidentally, it’s also the birthplace of Civil War hero Abner Doubleday, once thought to have invented baseball, which historians now agree is more legend than fact. To this day, however, Thomas is still the only Ballston Spa native to reach the major leagues.

“It was an event for all the town’s gentlemen to attend, and the ballroom was packed to the rafters with all the citizens,” Eddy said. “They all wanted to give a local boy a true congratulations party. As a thank you to his uncle, Ira presented Lacy T. King with a baseball that had been used in the World Series.”

The rare family jewel now belongs to Eddy, who has written an extensive history about Thomas, in addition to her impressive memorabilia collection.

“I started getting into it, and it just kind of snowballed,” she said. “I’m shocked that there’s still things out there in people’s basements and attics that they’re willing to share,” she said. “When I was a kid growing up, I hated history. Now it’s a real joy.”

Eddy said she has found most of the items on eBay. She has early baseball cards, old pins, programs and photos, including one from a January 1911 issue of The Sporting News. She isn’t motivated by the collection’s monetary value, instead the history it represents.

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“My favorite is the first card that I bought,” she said. It was part of a 1910 set that came in packs of Sweet Caporal cigarettes (T205 Gold Borders). Thomas, however, never smoke or drank. The card shows a “head and shoulders” picture of him in an A’s uniform set against a baseball diamond with a pair of crossed baseball bats in the foreground. The A’s early logo, a white elephant, is shown in the top left-hand corner.

A special folding baseball card, distributed by Mecca Cigarettes (T201 Mecca Double Folders), shows Thomas holding up his catcher’s mitt as if trying to catch a pop fly. When flipped open, there’s a picture of pitcher John Coombs and both players’ 1910 statistics. Thomas hit .277 and had a .967 fielding percentage, quite a feat considering the primitive equipment used by early 20th-century ballplayers.

Eddy’s other discoveries include a 1914-15 era Cracker Jack card depicting Thomas, and antique cuff links and tie tacks with the A’s white elephant logo on them.

Thomas might have been the American League’s best catcher during the height of his career. In 1911, he finished eighth in the MVP Award balloting after hitting .273 as the A’s starting catcher. Five of the seven players who finished ahead of him would reach the Hall of Fame, not including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Ty Cobb, Thomas’ former teammate, won the award in 1911.

In 1908, he helped the Tigers win the AL flag before losing to the Cubs in the Fall Classic, where Thomas went 2-for-4. It was the first of three World Series he played in.

This was the deadball era, before home runs became a major part of the game. Thomas had just three home runs during his career, but he was an astute handler of pitchers, with a knack for timely hitting.

In 1909, Thomas was reunited with Connie Mack, manager of the A’s, whom he’d gotten to know while playing minor league ball in Hartford, Conn.

Playing history
Thomas was born on Jan. 22, 1881. At 17, his family moved to Connecticut where his father, Lugy, found work in an axe handle factory, and Ira played baseball whenever he could.

His pro career began in 1902 in the old Connecticut League, a minor-league circuit. From there, he played for Newark, where he caught future Hall of Famer Ed Walsh, and then Providence (1904-05), which won an Eastern League title during his last season with the club.

The Highlanders purchased Thomas’ contract in August 1905, and he made his big league debut the following season on May 18. The team played at Hilltop Park, at 165th Street and Broadway, the highest point in Manhattan at the time.

After two years, the Tigers acquired his services, and Thomas became a backup catcher to Boss Schmidt. In Game 1 of the 1908 Fall Classic, he hit for shortstop Charley O’Leary in the ninth inning and got a single – the first pinch-hit ever recorded in a World Series contest.

With the A’s, he shared catching duties with Jack Lapp in 1910, but he played a career-high 103 games in 1911. The A’s won the Series both years against the Cubs and Giants, with each player getting a winner’s check of $2,068 and $3,655, respectively.

The A’s went on to win two more World Series in 1913 and ’14, but Thomas’ role with the team had diminished by then. While still team captain, he did not appear in any of those postseason games.

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Coaching career
Retiring from active play, he stayed on as a coach with the A’s and then bought a minor-league franchise in the Texas League at Shreveport, La., which he managed for three years. During that time, he discovered future Hall of Famer Al Simmons, whom Connie Mack signed on Thomas’ advice.

It was also at Thomas’ urging that Mack signed Robert “Lefty” Grove, who went on to become one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Simmons and Grove were both instrumental in Philadelphia’s three straight pennants (1929-31) and back-to-back World Championships (1929-30).

Thomas rejoined the A’s in 1925, and quickly became chief scout, staying with the team through its 1954 move to Kansas City. But he came back East in 1956 – at age 75 – to scout the Philadelphia area for the Yankees, the franchise he started out with 50 years before.

Lasting legacy
Thomas died on Oct. 11, 1958, and is buried in the same Philadelphia cemetery as his good friend and former manager, Connie Mack. His obituary in the New York Times said, “He was captain and catcher on the Athletics world championship teams of 1910, 1911, 1913 and 1914.”
For all his baseball prowess, the thing Eddy admires most about Thomas was his basic humanity.

“I think his time as a scout was even more important than his short playing career,” she said.

“He became involved in players’ lives. It really showed a commitment. He wanted what was best for them, too.

“They had a flu pandemic in Philadelphia one year and his wife, Katherine, worked in the emergency room. He would drive to people’s houses and pick them up without regard for his own health and safety. Those are the kinds of stories that define Ira, as well as being a baseball player.”

Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD from Glens Falls. N.Y.