The year was 1903, and Branch Rickey was the Head Coach for the Ohio Wesleyan Baseball Team. During a road trip to play Notre Dame, Rickey's team was denied lodging at the Oliver Hotel in South Bend, Indiana. Rickey was able to convince the clerk to allow his star African American catcher Charles "Tommy" Thomas to stay in his room.
This incident, was one of many injustices that would haunt Rickey for years, and would be credited with being the catalyst of Branch Rickey signing Jackie Robinson in 1947 to break the color barrier. So who was Charles Thomas?
Charles Thomas was a baseball and football star for Ohio Wesleyan, first playing his sport of choice - football. When Branch Rickey became coach of both teams, he recruited Thomas to play on the baseball team as well. Thomas was the sole black player on both teams and faced racism both on and off the field.
The 1904 Ohio Wesleyan University Baseball team. Charles Thomas, top row center, Branch Rickey, top row right.
Thomas would play three years of baseball, unofficially hitting over .300 each season, and a cumulative .321 over those three seasons. Upon graduating, Thomas would go to dentistry school and play part time for some local Negro League teams including the Philadelphia Giants where he would hit over .600 in limited play. Choosing dentistry over baseball, Thomas would become one of the first black dentists in New Mexico and would stay friends with Branch Rickey for the rest of their lives.
Legend credits Thomas' history as part of the Jackie Robinson story, and many point out that Charles Thomas and Jackie Robinson shared many of the same traits. Both were college educated, competed in multiple sports and displayed the maturity, intellect and temperament required to be barrier breakers.
In 1905, the wrote “we can hardly hope to find a man who is as strong an all around player as [Charles] Tommy [Thomas]. Success to him in whatever he may do.”
Baseball and society may have been forever changed because Branch Rickey knew Charles Thomas.