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Dentist cited as inspiration behind Jackie Robinson story


Pioneer: Charles Thomas pictured in uniform from the 1905 Ohio Wesleyan University varsity baseball team photo. Photo courtesy of the Ohio Wesleyan University Historical Collection
It turns out that a dentist may have played a role in integrating the game of baseball.

When he made an impression on a visionary executive years before the Brooklyn Dodgers would sign Jackie Robinson to Major League Baseball, Dr. Charles Thomas was known as "Cha" or "Tommy," a two-sport athlete at the Ohio Wesleyan University who would go on to become a dentist.

Born in West Virginia in 1881, Dr. Thomas' family moved to Zanesville, Ohio, when he was 3 years old. In high school, he was a star athlete in baseball, football and track, and in 1903 began college at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, where he played fullback on the football team. There he met Branch Rickey, the future Brooklyn Dodgers' executive, himself a two-sport college athlete. As Mr. Rickey's playing days wound down, he became Ohio Wesleyan's baseball coach and successfully recruited Dr. Thomas to replace him as the team's catcher.

At the time, Dr. Thomas was Ohio Wesleyan University's only black ballplayer. "On numerous occasions, Thomas-led teams were refused admission onto their opponents' field because of the color of his skin," reads a biography of Dr. Thomas on Black College Nines, a website celebrating the history of African-Americans in college baseball.

In spite of the racism he endured, Dr. Thomas had a stellar career at Ohio Wesleyan. Quoting from an OWU transcript, his biography on Black College Nines states that: "more than one game has been won by Thomas' timely mitting. He knows the game, and plays it in a cool-headed manner. His good judgment of the batter has held Webb [Ohio Wesleyan's top pitcher] level many times. Together, Webb and Thomas form the best all-around college battery in the state."

Many agree that Branch Rickey's vision of integrating America's pastime stemmed in part from his time with Ohio Wesleyan in the early 1900s. In fact, by several accounts, Dr. Thomas had a lasting impact on the future Hall of Famer.

During a 1903 road trip, the Ohio Wesleyan baseball team traveled to South Bend, Ind., where Dr. Thomas was refused lodging at a hotel with his white teammates. Instead, Mr. Rickey prevailed on the hotel to allow Dr. Thomas to sleep on a cot in his room. Ohio Wesleyan University gave an account of the incident in a 2011 news release:

"In Rickey's words: 'He looked at me and said, "It's my skin. If I could just tear it off, I'd be like everybody else. It's my skin; it's my skin, Mr. Rickey!" ' "

Years later, Mr. Rickey told the Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber about Dr. Thomas, which Mr. Barber recounted in "Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns."

"For 41 years, I have heard that young man crying," Mr. Rickey told Mr. Barber. "Now, I am going to do something about it."

The hotel incident is recalled in the movie, "42," where Mr. Rickey is played by Harrison Ford and Mr. Robinson by Chadwick Boseman.

"Even though he doesn't mention Dr. Thomas by name, the Branch Rickey character talks about Charles Thomas as a young man he knew from his coaching days and how he never forgot his words," said Mark Moores, the executive director of the New Mexico Dental Association.

Mr. Moores was instrumental in having a story on Dr. Thomas—who practiced dentistry for 40 years in Albuquerque—published in the Albuquerque Journal in April as baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, an annual event honoring the day that Mr. Robinson made his major league debut.

"It's even more remarkable for the era that Dr. Thomas lived in," said Mr. Moores. "This was a time when being a professional was difficult for an African-American. As one of the first black dentists in New Mexico, Dr. Thomas helped desegregate dentistry. He had a significant impact on our national history and the dental profession."

And Branch Rickey kept his word. In 1945 as president and general manager of the Dodgers, he signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league deal and brought him up to the majors in 1947.

According to Black College Nines, in Mr. Robinson, Mr. Rickey hand picked a pioneer in the mold of Dr. Thomas: "Both excelled in multiple sports, and equally important, each exhibited the intellect, maturity and temperament necessary to handle the physical and mental pressures of racism."

After Ohio Wesleyan and while he studied dentistry, Dr. Thomas continued his baseball career by playing on a number of "Negro baseball teams," as they were known at the time, including the Columbus Black Tourists and the Philadelphia Giants. In 1908, he earned his dental degree from Starling-Ohio Medical College dental school, which in 1914 would become part of the Ohio State University College of Dentistry.

ADA records show that he practiced dentistry in St. Louis from 1910-17 then moved to Albuquerque around 1928.

Dr. Thomas remained friends with Branch Rickey until Mr. Rickey's death in 1965. In Dr. Thomas' obituary, the Albuquerque Tribune quotes Dr. Thomas' neighbor and friend as saying that "whenever Rickey passed through Albuquerque, he would look Thomas up and they would share a meal and some memories."

Mr. Rickey was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967. Dr. Thomas died in 1971.