He only appeared in 685 games in 13 years. He didn’t even collect 500 hits and was bypassed at the plate with four intentional walks. But George Thomas did something that very few of us get to do. He did something that less fortunate people can only dream about. George Thomas played Major League Baseball.

He only appeared in 685 games in 13 years. He didn’t even collect 500 hits and was bypassed at the plate with four intentional walks.

But George Thomas did something that very few of us get to do. He did something that less fortunate people can only dream about. George Thomas played Major League Baseball.

Born Nov. 29, 1937, Thomas grew up in Minneapolis and fell in love with the game of baseball at a young age. His father once tried out for the minor league Minneapolis Millers, an affiliate of the New York Giants. And his older brother, Jerry, was also quite an athlete.

“Through sports, my brother had always been a good athlete,” Thomas said. “I’d always been known as Jerry Thomas’ little brother.”

The siblings eventually made their way to the University of Minnesota. Jerry was on the 1956 College World Series Championship team that defeated Arizona and George was waiting in the wings because freshmen weren’t allowed to play with the seasoned players.

That caught the attention of major league scouts checking out the talent in Omaha during the tournament.

“After the season was over, my brother was going to sign because he’s a senior and they were out in the car (talking a deal), it took a while, seemingly it was cut and dry, but they came back in and said, ‘Hey, how would you like to play professional baseball?,'” Thomas recalled. “And since my GPA was very low in college, I thought that might be a real good move at this particular time.”

George signed with the Detroit Tigers. The scout that signed him to his big league contract was George Mariarty, a legendary figure in the game. Mariarty is best known not only for being a player and manager, but as an umpire, too.

Motown and the Great American West

Thomas made his major league debut Sept. 11, 1957. He came in to pinch hit for Quincy native, third baseman Jim Finigan, and struck out swinging. The 19-year-old replaced Finigan at third and committed an error in what would be his only game of the season.

Thomas only made it into one game in 1958, too. He was inserted as a pinch runner.
He returned to the big league club in 1961 and remembers one of his at-bats vividly. It was against future Hall of Famer, New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford.

“Whitey Ford took, I would think five pitches, and got rid of me very quickly,” Thomas, who was known for his humorous ways, said. “I didn’t know whether to hit off him or get his autograph.”

Thomas played in 17 games for Detroit in 1961 before being dealt to the new Los Angeles Angels.

For the first time in baseball history, baseball had expanded. The original Washington Senators moved to Minneapolis and became the Minnesota Twins, while a second-generation Senators team was born in the nation’s capital. Joining the new Washington club was the Los Angeles Angels, owned by country music legend Gene Autry.

It forced the American League to expand its season from 154 games to 162. No one knew it at the time, but it would have a huge impact on the single-season home run race that year between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

The National League expanded by two teams in 1962 with the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s. Thus expanding the National League schedule to 162 games, too.

“The expansion years were going on in 1961. They expanded and when I was in Detroit, the shortstop, Chico Fernandez got hurt, they brought up Dick McAuliffe and they put me on waivers because I was the youngest guy with the least experience on the roster and it was between (the Angels) and Minnesota,” Thomas remembered. And the Angels wouldn’t pass, so they took me.”

It was different playing in California. No major league team existed west of St. Louis until 1955 when the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City and then in 1958 the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers headed to San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1958.

Before 1955 the West Coast only had the Pacific Coast League, where at times players gave up higher salaries to go off and play in the majors.

In 1961, it was the American League’s turn to make a Cal-if-orn-ia home.

“There wasn’t really much expected,” Thomas said. “I really went out there, had a fairly good year in ’61. That winter I was called into the service and then I came back in the end of September in 1962, played some in ’63, didn’t have a really good year. And then they traded me back to Detroit. And then I had one or two more good years there.”

As it turns out the trade to the Angels worked out great for Thomas. Despite only six at-bats, two runs scored and two strikeouts in Detroit, he went on to appear in 79 games for Los Angeles where he had 282 at-bats, 39 runs scored, 79 hits, 12 doubles, a triple and 13 home runs. He also collected 59 RBIs and walked 21 times finishing the expansion season with a .280 batting average.

Thomas was a utility player used mainly in the outfield and third base for the Angels. He played 38 games at third and 45 in the outfield. He collected 63 assists along the hot corner, not to mention turned five double plays, and 71 putouts in the outfield.

“We won a few games that first year in ’61, and ’62 — I don’t know if it was indicative that I wasn’t there, but they were in first place in July,” he said.

Los Angeles traded Thomas back to Detroit during the 1963 season where he remained for the next two and a half years.

In 1964, he had the best season of his career.

Playing in 105 games, Thomas had 308 at-bats, scored 39 runs, had 88 hits, hit 15 doubles, two triples, 12 home runs, collected 44 RBIs and boasted a .286 batting average.

In the field, he had 90 games in the outfield and only one game at third. He had four assists in the outfield and 164 putouts.

Onto Boston

After the 1965 season, Thomas was off to another city to boast another uniform. This time he had been traded to the Boston Red Sox.

“They had brought up some kids from the minor leagues for Detroit and I knew that it was going to be tough to make that ball club,” Thomas recalled. “And then they traded me for Bill Monbouquette, who had been a 20-game winner.”

Joining Thomas in the trade to Boston was George Smith.

A star pitcher for Boston, Monbouquette was a four-time all-star and had recently pitched a no-hitter in 1962.

“It was kind of a non-plus thing going on, but we found out later that Monbouquette had a bad arm, and that’s kind of why he got traded,” Thomas said.

Unfortunately for Boston, 1966 wasn’t a very good year. They finished with a 72-90 record in ninth place, 26 games behind the AL Champion Baltimore Orioles. The only team to do worse was the New York Yankees.

Next year though, 1967, would be one of the best years baseball had ever seen. A small dynasty was starting in St. Louis in the National League and the Red Sox would win the American League pennant in dramatic fashion thanks to wins and losses by other teams on the final day of the season.

Some have dubbed it “the last true pennant race.”

Thomas delivered when called upon even though he only appeared in 65 games. His .213 average made him a go-to guy for manager Dick Williams and his games in the field — this year it was three games at first base, 48 in the outfield and one behind the plate as catcher — contributed to 57 putouts.

Before making it to the World Series, Boston suffered a big blow to their lineup. Tony Conigliaro was victim of one of the inside pitches that broke his left cheekbone, dislocated his jaw and damaged his retina.

Thomas was in the bullpen warming up a pitcher.

“I could hear that splat and I looked and Tony was out cold. It was terrible,” he remembered. “I didn’t see it, I just heard the noise and you knew something was wrong.

If you hit the helmet, you can hear that, but this was a different sound. He never really recouped from that. He never was his old self.”

After battling all season long, the end of the regular games was rapidly approaching. Boston had a shot at the pennant, but it was gong to take some other wins and losses to make that possible. The American League champion would move on to play St. Louis in the World Series.

“It all added up to the White Sox, the Angels and us,” Thomas said. “And that particular series weekend, the Angels knocked off Detroit — who should have won it, or Minnesota. And we ended up winning three in a row against them.”

Next they had to battle the St. Louis Cardinals. The team was loaded with stars like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Orlando Cepeda and Tim McCarver. Mike Shannon moved to third base so the team could accompany Roger Maris in right field. It was a team loaded of future hall of famers, including St. Louis manager Red Schoendienst.

“We were the underdog,” Thomas said. That’s what was really good about it because we were never supposed to win that World Series. They were supposed to sweep us four straight.

“We had nothing to lose.”

The Red Sox did lose the series to the Cardinals, but in seven games. Boston battled back to force a do or die match up.

Thomas got the opportunity of appearing in two of the games.

“I pressured Nelson Briles into 3-and-2 and struck out, and then (in another at-bat) I hit a ground ball back to the pitcher.”

In the outfield, he also stole a would-be home run from base stealing legend Brock.

“It was exciting because Reggie Smith was coming over and I didn’t want to run into him because he’s one of our better outfielders,” Thomas remembered. “And it was my ball to catch.”

Adding to the pain of losing the World Series, the final game was played in Fenway Park.
“I didn’t think we’d take it as hard as the guys did,” Thomas said. “They didn’t just force us out, we put up a fight, we did very well against them.”

Moving on

Thomas stayed in the big leagues and in Boston until 1971. The Red Sox traded him to the Twins during the ’71 season and when it was all said and done, he called it a career.

“I didn’t really retire, they asked me not to come to spring training,” he said jokingly.

Thomas could have taken a coaching job in the minor leagues, but coaching baseball at his alma mater for the Gophers interested him more.

Next to the college games he managed, that was the only baseball Thomas saw live. It took him nearly a decade after his retirement to return to the stands and watch as a spectator.

A Twins game against the Tigers was too much for him fresh off of leaving the big leagues.

“It hurt so much to be sitting there and not be part of one of those teams, that I never went to a major league game for about seven to eight years,” he said. “I knew I had to put that behind me and start looking ahead and every time you go to something that reminds you to go backwards, I just couldn’t do that.”

Another 10 years went by at the University of Minnesota before he moved on with his life yet again. This time baseball wasn’t his primary occupation. Thomas went into business selling audio/video software packaging.

Today he and his wife spend summers about an hour outside of the Twin Cities in Wisconsin, and their winters are spent in Florida.

Dominic Genetti writes for the Hannibal Courier-Post.