British baseball returns to the field this weekend for the start of the semi-competitive run-in to the new season. Sadly, it does so without John Thomas, one of the British game’s great characters and longest-serving veterans, who passed away shortly after the end of the 2012 campaign. He had battled with health problems during the last few years of his life.
The aging process, which he defied for so long, had rapidly caught up with him. Five years earlier, in his late 70s, he was probably among the most sprightly baseball players for his age on the planet.
My enduring memory
As a Croydon Pirate from 2003 to 2011, I got to know “JT” during the years that turned out to be the final decade of his life. I would love to cite some heroic act on the diamond or managerial masterstroke as my enduring memory of the man, but the image that will remain with me forever more is quite different.
It was a warm summer evening in the early years of my time with the Pirates and I had just completed my journey from work to their ground at Roundshaw Playing Fields, where I was helping with the set-up for the annual London Tournament. As I passed the toilet block on my left, a silver-haired, balding man emerged from one of the doors muttering that it was out of the question, if we were going to host a tournament where there would be ladies present (as competitors and spectators), to have facilities that were anything but sparkling. I looked down to see that he was clutching a white brush and wearing bright-pink Marigold gloves.
JT was never one to shirk a task, whether it was raking the mound, collecting in equipment, or scrubbing toilets. He was also one of the greatest characters in the British game that I have had the pleasure of meeting.
The early years
John Thomas was born on 26 September 1928 in Birkenhead, across the Mersey from Liverpool. In the early 1930s, Sir John Moores began his plan to make baseball a major sport on Merseyside and further afield. While the coming of war reversed much of the progress that had been made, one of the surviving remnants was a junior circuit in Birkenhead. An 11-year-old John Thomas signed up with the Birkenhead YMCA team as an outfielder and he also competed for Cammell Laird and Everton Colts during a six-year spell in the league. While John was playing with Everton’s junior team, the club’s senior outfit played friendlies with a line-up that featured local association football stars such as Alf Hanson, Norman Greenhalgh, and Jackie Grant.
At Cammell Laird, John learned the position of catcher and thus began to wear the protective gear that he would put on countless times over the next seven decades.
In 1944, with World War II still raging, John turned 16, joined the army, and had a four-year break from baseball.
Becoming an all-star
John Thomas returned to baseball in 1949 as a catcher-infielder for the Bidston Indians, a senior team in the Merseyside League. Another catcher on that squad in the late 1940s was the father of the musician Elvis Costello.
Division I champions in John’s first year in the senior circuit were the Liverpool Robins, and in 1951 John became catcher for this leading Merseyside club.
He gained all-star honours that year and repeated the feat a couple of seasons later. By this time he was playing for the National Dock Labour Board.
Between 1955 and 1958 John’s reputation on Merseyside as a catcher continued to grow with the Liverpool Postal Pirates, and in 1959 he returned to the Robins, who were in the process of being renamed the Liverpool Tigers.
Life as a Tiger
In terms of team silverware, 1960 was a breakthrough season for John Thomas. The Tigers won the Merseyside League pennant, the Lancashire Cup, and the Nicholas Shield. They also won through to the national final for the first time since they had claimed the most important trophy of all — as the Robins — back in 1948. On this occasion, the Tigers fell 6-1 to the defending champions, Thames Board Mills.
John again claimed regional all-star honours that season and in a team list from this time he was described as “the finest catcher in Lancashire” with “very few to beat him in this country.” He was also noted to be “quite a personality.”
In 1961, the Tigers defended their three titles but missed out on the national final altogether. However, in 1962 they earned a return trip, and this time, with John behind the dish, they defeated their opponents, the East Hull Aces, by a score of 8-3. John went 1-for-3 with a run scored. At the age of 33, he was a national champion.
Over the following few years, John won more silverware with the Tigers and gained at least one more all-star selection: in 1964 he was picked for the Lancashire squad to take on Yorkshire in the Roses clash. Perhaps his greatest honour of all came in 1965, when he was selected as starting catcher for Great Britain against the Dutch junior national team. The question of whether he would be picked for later international teams, including the 1967 European Championship A-Pool squad, was rendered irrelevant: soon he would be playing baseball thousands of miles away.
In 1966, John Thomas joined 100 other expatriates among a 700 workforce at a newly opened alumina refinery in St Elizabeth, Jamaica. The plan was for those 100 jobs to be slowly transitioned on to the native workforce, but this was not before John had a chance to make his mark on the island’s baseball scene. His greatest successes came with Scotia Bank in the Morin League, where he scooped double all-star honours, a Most Valuable Player award, and a league title. John also represented Jamaica in international competition.
John remained in Jamaica until 1974, when he moved to Saudi Arabia. There was no baseball for him there, but he did find fast-pitch softball. In the final game of the 1974 season, John hit a single in a rally that gave his team, the Dharan Bears, a come-from-behind victory, which they needed to seal the league title.
A glorious return to Merseyside
While John Thomas was in Jamaica, his beloved Tigers had claimed another national title. Nine years after their 8-3 victory over the East Hull Aces, they inflicted the same reverse on that team to scoop the 1971 championship. But the club was still strong in 1975, when John returned to British baseball. They again made the national final that year and this time claimed a 5-3 victory, downing the Nottingham Lions, victors from 1974. Thus, in the year he turned 47, John was a British champion once more.
In 1982, now aged 54, John brought the curtain down on his Merseyside baseball career. But he was about to start a multi-decade spell as a player at the other end of the country.
A successful start in south-east England
After completing a move to south-east England, John wasted no time in resuming his playing career. He became a catcher for the Croydon Blue Jays, in the top tier of the Southern league, and in his first season with the club they posted a respectable 9-and-6 record to finish third in the loop. The following year, the Blue Jays improved to 9-and-1 in the league, advancing to the national semi-finals, in which they brushed aside the Southglade Hornets by a score of 12-1. In the final, they pipped the Hull Mets 10-9 in a last-inning comeback. John, as back-up catcher to Vince Warner, had claimed his third national championship, aged 55.
Time to diversify
John Thomas remained a member of the Blue Jays’ first-team squad until the end of 1987. In 1988, the year in which he turned 60, John had a rethink of his priorities, which is something many people of this age might do. He moved down a rung to the second team, becoming player-manager (he had managed back in Jamaica, but this was his first taste of the role in Britain). However, John’s intention was not to play less frequently. Quite the opposite was true.
Croydon Blue Jays II, like all British league teams, played on Sundays, which left Saturdays free for extracurricular work. Thus, when the Old Timers Baseball Club formed in 1988 to play friendlies on the first day of the weekend (with a minimum joining age of 50 at the time of its founding), John jumped at the opportunity.
John’s first stint as a manager in Britain lasted a year, for in 1989 he transferred to the Crawley Comets. Both Crawley (17-and-2) and Blue Jays II (13-and-7) had won promotion from Division 3 up to Division 2 in 1988. In 1990, John won the “club man of the year” award at Crawley and in 1991 he was bestowed with the same honour by the Old Timers.
In the early 1990s, Crawley’s premier team, the Giants, made way for the Comets and thus John found himself playing in the top tier once more. Moreover, his role within British baseball continued to diversify. On 9 May 1993, for instance, he pitched in relief for the Comets in a National Premier League game.
In 1994, John’s last year with the team, the Comets accepted the chance to play in the B-Pool of the European Cup Winners Cup. They went 1-and-4, with their solitary victory coming against the home-team Mainz Athletics.
The next year, John dropped down to Division 3, joining the London Wolverines (the London Wolves’ second team) as player-manager. Just as he had done with Blue Jays II, he guided the Wolverines to promotion in his first year as manager (they finished tied for first place with a 9-and-3 record). With the Wolverines, John also continued to develop in his new-found role of pitcher. On 26 August 1996, for example, he struck out seven in beating the Brentwood Stags.
Then politics intervened, as a dispute between the Wolves and the Wolverines saw the committee expel the majority of the second team from the club. Undeterred, the expelled players, with John as player-manager, returned to British baseball Division 3 South in 1997 as the aptly named London Exiles. The Exiles amassed a perfect 16-and-0 record to storm to the division title. In one of his more memorable games, which was the season opener on 20 April, the 68-year-old pitcher hit a triple and took the victory as the Exiles fought back from an 8-0 hole to beat the Guildford Mudcats 13-12, thus getting their life as a club off to a winning start. John continued as player-manager in 1998 and steered the Exiles to second place in Division 2 South with an 11-and-2 record.
In 1999, John switched clubs for the final time. He joined the Croydon Pirates, where his roles included playing for and managing the second team, serving as a coach across the club, and working as a groundsman. With John at the helm, Pirates II won the Division 2 South title in 2000 and the Division 1 South title in 2001. Excluding the 1996 season, in which his Wolverines had been forced to fold owing to their expulsion by the club committee, John’s first six seasons of British baseball management had brought him three first-place finishes, one tie for first, and two second places.
The final seasons
He fulfilled his various roles on the Pirates for a decade. During this period, John also continued to play for the Old Timers, and he claimed the club’s “top fielder” award in 2000. In 2005, aged 76, he caught five games for the veterans. In 2008, still with the Old Timers, John Thomas played his final season, bringing an end to a playing career spanning 70 years. Fittingly, in the last game of his age-defying career, he stole a base. He was a few months shy of his 80th birthday.
If anyone in the world had a longer active stint in amateur baseball than John Thomas I would love to hear that person’s story.
I don’t expect I’ll ever see the like of JT again. He was an exceptional man in so many ways.