January 22 – Happy Birthday Ira Thomas

iraThomasIra Thomas was born on this date in 1881 about 20 miles north of my hometown, in Ballston Spa, NY. He grew into a sturdy 6’2″, 200 pound frame, which was considered “huge” back at the turn of the 20th century. That gave him the brawn he needed to handle the physical challenges of the catcher’s position. After a few years of minor league ball, he joined the New York Highlanders in 1906 and became Red Kleinow’s primary backup behind the plate.

Thomas had developed strong defensive skills for the position and he had a great arm for nailing opposing base runners. What he couldn’t do very well during his early big league days with New York was hit. In 44 games during his rookie season, he averaged just .200. Still, he was impressive enough defensively to remain with the team in 1907 and pretty much share the catching responsibilities evenly with Kleinow. Once again however, Thomas’s bat failed him. The increased at bats he got in 1907 did not improve his hitting stroke and he ended his second big league season with just a .192 average.

His weakness at the plate is what most likely got him sold to the Tigers in December of 1907. It was with Detroit that Thomas made MLB history and he did it ironically, with his bat. The Tigers faced the Cubs in the 1908 World Series and in the ninth inning of Game 1, Thomas got the first pinch hit, a single, in Series history.

Still just a backup with Detroit, Thomas was spending lots of time watching big league games and big league players perform from the bench. In doing so, he developed lots of knowledge that he would put to good and profitable use for the rest of his life. The first opportunity to do so came in 1909 when he was sold to Connie Mack’s A’s. Not only did his hitting improve in Philly, he also got his first chance to become a big league team’s starting catcher. Those Mack-led A’s teams would go onto win four AL Pennants in the next five years and Thomas was an integral part of each of them, first as the starting backstop and later as one of Mack’s most respected and knowledgeable bench coaches. The Yankees wanted to hire Thomas after the 1914 season ended to manage New York the following year but he wasn’t quite ready to retire as a player.

After he did quit playing in 1915, he accepted an offer to coach the baseball team at Williams College. Five years later, he revived his relationship with Mack and the A’s, as a coach, manager and later, a very talented scout for the organization. He also did some scouting for the Yankees late in his career. Thomas died in 1958 at the age of 77.

He shares his birthday with this former Yankee outfield prospect.

1906 NYY 44 126 115 12 23 1 2 0 15 2 8 11 .200 .258 .243 .502
1907 NYY 80 224 208 20 40 5 4 1 24 5 10 24 .192 .240 .269 .509
10 Yrs 484 1485 1352 124 327 46 17 3 155 20 82 138 .242 .296 .308 .604
PHA (7 yrs) 320 1027 928 86 233 39 11 2 108 13 59 93 .251 .308 .323 .631
NYY (2 yrs) 124 350 323 32 63 6 6 1 39 7 18 35 .195 .246 .260 .506
DET (1 yr) 40 108 101 6 31 1 0 0 8 0 5 10 .307 .346 .317 .663
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/24/2014.

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