Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tales of T212 #17 : Chester "Pinch" Thomas

Back in the early 1980s I thought I'd combine my interests in minor league baseball and vintage baseball cards by assembling a collection of the Obak cigarette cards that were distributed on the West Coast in 1909, 1910 and 1911.I didn't realize it then, but those cards are so much rarer than most of the contemporary T206 cards from "Back East" that putting together complete sets of the Obak could take decades to accomplish -- and that's if a guy had more money than God to buy the cards when they became available.At about the time I started my Obak collection I also started researching the players who appeared in the sets. Over the course of several long Wisconsin winters I pored over microfilms of The Sporting News and The Sporting Life from the period several years before to several years after the Obak cards circulated, making prodigious notes on 3x5 file cards for each player in the set.I gave up trying to collect the T212s (that's the catalog number Jefferson Burdick assigned the three sets in the pioneering American Card Catalog in 1939), long ago, and have since sold off all my Obaks, one-by-one, first on eBay, then on the Net 54 baseball card forum. As I was selling each card, I included interesting tidbits about each player from my notes. The bidders seemed to like learning a little bit about these guys on the cards, so I thought I'd now begin sharing their stories here.
Among the players who appeared in the 1909-1911 Obak card sets, one of those who enjoyed a significant major league career was catcher Chester "Pinch" Thomas. Thomas not only spent 10 season in the American League as a backup catcher for the Red Sox (1912-1917) and Indians (1918-1921), he was on the winning team in four World Series (Boston 1912, 1915-1916; Cleveland 1920).
Thomas was born in west-central Illinois in 1888. His first stop in pro ball was at age 19 in 1907 with San Jose of the outlaw California State League, where he was a teammate of Hal Chase.
He made his debut in Organized Baseball with Oakland of the Pacific Coast League in 1909. He split 1910 with Oakland and Sacramento, and was with Sac'to in 1911. The back of his 1911 Obak card stretches the truth a little in describing him as the "best hitting catcher in the Coast League." He actually batted only .262 with one home run in those three seasons. Early in 1911, Thomas was beaten and robbed by thugs in San Francisco, and for a time it looked like he would lose the sight in one eye.
Nonetheless, the Red Sox drafted Thomas for 1912, as a backup backstop to Bill Carrigan and Hick Cady. After the 1917 season, he was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics, but he never played for them in an A.L. game, being sold to the Cleveland Indians on June 1, 1918, as a reserve catcher behind Steve O'Neill. He was released by the Indians on July 21, 1921, leaving the big leagues with a .237 career average.
Thomas signed on with Hartford of the Eastern League as playing manager in late 1921. He signed with Salt Lake City for 1922, but didn't play. In 1923 he was a playing manager for both the Portland and Oakland PCL clubs.
Thomas was a successful motion picture director in the off-seasons. He died in Modesto, Calif., on Christmas Eve, 1953.

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