John “Bud” Thomas, a former infielder who played with the St. Louis Browns in 1951, passed away on Saturday in Sedalia, Missouri. He was 86.
First noticed by the Browns as the shortstop for the West squad in the 1945 Esquire All-American Game at the Polo Grounds that featured Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb as honorary managers, Thomas signed with the club in 1947. Within four years he made the jump from the lowest rung of the minor league ladder all the way to the majors.
In his brief time with Bill Veeck’s team, Thomas hit .350 (7-for-20) while playing flawless defense at shortstop, handling 30 chances without an error. One of those seven precious hits was a home run against the Philadelphia Athletics at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. The memory of an unfortunate misplay in the field the inning prior has put a cloud over one of his shining major league moments.
“They gave the guy [Alex Kellner] a hit, but I made an error that let them score three runs,” Thomas said in a 2011 interview. “I replayed that in my mind forever. They scored and it put them ahead 3-4 runs.
“I come up and there’s nobody on base, and I hit a home run. I know where the pitch was because it was my favorite pitch, high around the letters. I usually hustle down to first base and I didn’t look to see it go out or anything like that. I’m running around and the defense wasn’t moving. I continued running and I think that ball went out of the ballpark. I keep running and nobody was saying anything and I round second base and I say, ‘God I hope to hell that’s a home run. It’s going to be embarrassing if I didn’t hit that out.’”
Thomas returned to the Browns dugout and nobody got up to congratulate him. Sixty years later, the memory of being ignored by his teammates after hitting his first (and only) home run in the major leagues put an even greater damper on what should have been a joyous event.
“I round third base, I get home, and I get on the bench,” he recalled. “I don’t mind saying this now, nobody on that team or the bench never said a thing about it. Nobody said a word. It really got me. That was the recollection. It wasn’t the silent treatment; I didn’t know what the hell it was. That’s [just] the way it was.”
After his standout performance in his short September trial, Thomas was sure that he would get a shot at making the Browns out of spring training in 1952. He later found out that the cash strapped Browns were looking to make a quick financial play on Thomas’ brief success.
“I had such a great year in ’51,” he said. “I found out when I got there, they were running ballplayers in and out of there all year long to get something going. They figured if they could get someone up there and he showed promise, they could sell him. This is all hindsight. At the time, you don’t think that way. All that other stuff comes out later.”
The Browns sold Thomas’ contract to Toronto of the International League. A surprised Thomas found out not via communication with the team’s front office, but from The Sporting News.
“I’m standing in front of our house and my neighbor said, ‘I thought I you were going to take spring training with the Browns?’ he recalled. “I said, ‘I am.’ He said, ‘Not according to what I read.’ I said, ‘What did you read?’ He said, ‘The Sporting News said you were going to go to Toronto.’ I said, “Get me The Sporting News.’ Sure enough I was traded to Toronto.”
The man who once called future Hall of Famers Leon Day and Satchel Paige his teammates while playing with the Browns organization was out of organized baseball by 1953, only two years after his brief, but shining run in the major leagues. The superintendent of schools in his hometown of Sedalia asked him to come back and teach. He gladly obliged.
“I was primarily an administrator,” he said. “I came back and I was a teacher. I was the first student teacher that came out of the college (University of Central Missouri) that went to Sedalia. I became principal of an elementary school for five years, then I opened another elementary school. For my last 11 years, I was the assistant superintendent of schools.”