RIP to Lee Thomas, who was an All-Star as a ballplayer and the architect of a pennant-winning team as a baseball executive. He died on August 31 at the age of 86 in his home in Chesterfield, Mo. He had been on hospice care following a long illness. Thomas played for the New York Yankees (1961), Los Angeles Angels (1961-64), Boston Red Sox (1964-65), Atlanta Braves (1966), Chicago Cubs (1966-67) and Houston Astros (1968). He also worked in the front office of the St. Louis Cardinals as director of player development and the Philadelphia Phillies as general manager, creating winning franchises in both places.
James Leroy Thomas was born in Peoria, Ill., on February 5, 1936. He moved around from Illinois to Texas as a child before his stepfather moved the family to St. Louis when he was 8 years old. He played football, basketball and baseball at Beaumont High School in St. Louis, as well as American Legion baseball. He played on championship football teams, and Thomas also won the state championship with his Stockham Post Legion team in 1953. Thomas graduated in 1954 and signed for $4,000 with the New York Yankees and scout Lou Maguolo. He started his professional career with the Owensboro Oilers of the Class-D Kitty League, beginning a long trek to the majors.
Thomas showed some power in his second year in the minors, belting out 12 long balls for Quincy in 1955. But outside of that, he tended to have single-digit home run numbers with a batting average in the .260s or .270s. He stayed with Class-A Binghamton from mid-1956 all the way until 1959, improving his hitting. Thomas, normally an outfielder, also spent a season playing first base, and he took to the additional position well. In his final season with the Triplets, he hit .304 with 25 home runs and 122 RBIs, earning a promotion to Double-A Amarillo in 1960.
Thomas tore apart Texas League pitching in ’60, hitting at a .400 clip before slipping to .390. He also homered 17 times in 61 games. He was promoted to Triple-A Richmond that July, at the request of Yankees manager Casey Stengel. “Casey likes the way Thomas can play ball and he wants to see what he can do in a higher classification,” explained Johnny Johnson, Yankees farm director. Thomas hit .258 in Richmond but homered 11 times in 55 games.
The Yankees and new Manager Ralph Houk added Thomas to the 1961 Opening Day roster, but there wasn’t much room for an outfielder on a team that had Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. Bill Skowron was the first baseman, eliminating Thomas’ other position. The rookie made two pinch-hitting appearances in his month with the Yankees. He was 1-for-2, singling in his first major-league at-bat against Baltimore’s Hoyt Wilhelm. After weeks of sitting on the bench, he was dealt to the Los Angeles Angels on May 8, 1961, along with pitchers Ryne Duren and Johnny James. The Yankees got back the reliever they wanted, Truman “Tex” Clevenger, and outfielder Bob Cerv.
Thomas later credited the expansion of Major League Baseball with saving his career, because the brand-new Angels gave him a chance he never would have received with the Yankees. “If it hadn’t been for the expansion, I might have been a perennial minor-league star. Another Rocky Nelson,” he said.
Initially, the Angels used Thomas sparingly as well. Then he made a few starts in right field and kept getting on base once or twice a game. On May 25, he swatted two solo home runs in a losing effort against Cleveland pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant, and Thomas stayed the team’s starting right fielder for the remainder of the season. He hit a grand slam — the first in Angel history — in the first game of a doubleheader against the Orioles on June 6 to give the Angels and starter Eli Grba a 7-3 win. (Thomas was promptly beaned by Baltimore starter Chuck Estrada in the nightcap.) He set a record with 9 hits in a doubleheader against the Kansas City Athletics on September 4, including 7 hits in a row. He homered three times in the second game, including another grand slam, and drove in 8 runs in a 13-12 loss to the A’s. By the end of the season, Thomas had slashed .285/.353/.491, with 24 home runs and 70 RBIs. He finished tied for third in the AL Rookie of the Year with Floyd Robinson (White Sox) and Chuck Schilling (Boston), behind 15-game winner Don Schwall of the Red Sox and Kansas City’s Dick Howser.
The Angels’ acquisition of Thomas was part of a concerted effort to bring youthful talent to the expansion franchise, and he was expected to take over first base from George Thomas (no relation). Lee Thomas started 79 games at first in 1962, but he also got plenty of starts at all three outfield positions. He improved upon almost every offensive statistic from his rookie campaign, with a .290 batting average, 26 home runs and 104 runs driven in. He was named to both All-Star Teams and finished in 11th place in the AL MVP vote. His hitting was part of the reason that the surprising Angels were in first place in early July — a rarity for a second-year ballclub — and finished in third place in the AL, 10 games above .500.
The success didn’t last, for either Thomas or the Angels. He had offseason knee surgery due to an old high school football injury, and he struggled all season long. The team fell to ninth place in 1963, and Thomas was labeled “one of the season’s biggest busts” by the Associated Press. That reference came when he hit a 2-run triple on July 13 to beat the Yankees and snap a 10-game Angels losing streak. Those heroics aside, he batted just .220, and his slugging percentage dropped to .316, with 9 home runs. He improved his batting average to .273 with the Angels in 1964, but the power all but vanished. Thomas was traded to Boston on June 4, 1964, for outfielder Lou Clinton, and the change of scenery did him good. He regained his power stroke in Boston, even if his overall hitting suffered, and he finished the season with a .262 average and 15 home runs.
Thomas’ last great season came in 1965 with the Red Sox. He hit 22 home runs, added a career-high 27 doubles, and his slash line was a good .271/.361/.464. He was the key player in an offseason trade between the Red Sox and Atlanta Braves. Atlanta sent pitchers Bob Sadowski and Dan Osinski to the Sox for Thomas and pitcher Arnold Early. Thomas wasn’t saddened by the deal. “I’m glad to be moving to a new town and a new stadium,” he said. “When I was in Boston, I had the feeling that I wasn’t appreciated.”
When the Braves played their first game in Atlanta on April 12, 1966, Thomas was the starting first baseman, which gave manager Bobby Bragan the change to move Joe Torre to catcher full time. Thomas hit 6 home runs for the Braves, but he went into a prolonged stump in May that saw his batting average drop below .200. Just before the Braves were scheduled to play against Chicago in Wrigley Field on May 28, he was told he’d been traded to the Cubs for reliever Ted Abernathy. The Cubs won that day’s game, 8-5. Thomas hit a run-scoring single as a pinch-hitter off Abernathy that tied the game, and Ron Santo won it with a 3-run homer off his former teammate. The Cubs used Thomas mainly as a pinch-hitter and backup outfielder/first baseman. He hit .242 with a homer in 77 games over the rest of the ’66 season. He hit .220 in much the same role for the Cubs in 1967, and the team traded him to Houston in 1968 for a pair of minor leaguers. Thomas batted .194 in a part-time role in 1968, with 1 home run and 11 runs driven in. He then went to Japan in 1969 to play for the Nankai Hawks and improved his hitting to .263 with a dozen home runs. He returned to the U.S. and signed contract with his hometown (or close enough) St. Louis Cardinals, but he never reached the majors. He hit .268 for Triple-A Tulsa in what was his final season as a player, retiring after the 1970 season at the age of 34.
In 8 seasons, Thomas slashed .255/.327/.397. His 847 career hits included 111 doubles, 22 triples and 106 home runs. He drove in 428 runs and scored 405 times. His career OPS is .724, and his OPS+ is an even 100.
During his playing career, Thomas earned the nicknames of “White Fang” and “Mad Dog,” due to his temper. Once at a celebrity golf tournament, he and another player were partnered with actor-musician Buddy Rogers and a Hollywood producer. Rogers conceded putts for the ballplayers, but he and the producer wouldn’t concede even the shortest putts to each other. Frustrated by the game, Thomas wrapped his clubs around a tree and walked off the course. (There are variations of this tale that involve golf clubs or even an entire golf bag being chucked into a pond.)
Thomas said that he signed with the Cardinals because he wanted to stay involved in baseball after his playing days. “There aren’t too many jobs in baseball, but I would like to have one. I love this game, and I want to do something,” he said. When his playing career ended, Thomas held many roles for the Cardinals, from bullpen coach to manager of the Modesto Reds, the team’s California League affiliate, in 1974. He was appointed the team’s traveling secretary in 1976 and kept that job until December of 1980, when Cardinals general manager Whitey Herzog decided to improve the team’s player development and scouting. He named Thomas director of player development.
“I told him you’re too damned important to be a traveling secretary,” Herzog told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He was a wonderful employee and a wonderful friend.”
Among the players who were developed by the Cardinals during Thomas’ tenure are Andy Van Slyke, Tito Landrum, Danny Cox, Vince Coleman, Joe Magrane, Todd Zeile and Todd Worrell. It was Thomas who suggested that Worrell, who lacked the stamina to go deep into ballgames as a starting pitcher, be converted to a reliever. He soon became the Cardinals’ closer, winning Fireman of the Year as a rookie in 1985 and helping the Cardinals claim the NL pennant.
“When he went from a starter to a reliever, he got the attitude of going right at them,” Thomas told the Post-Dispatch in 1986. “He became an offensive pitcher instead of a defensive pitcher. All of a sudden, he took the tiger by the tail… I’m not saying he wouldn’t have made it as a starter, but he wouldn’t be what he is.”
Thomas’ career with the Cardinals ended when the Phillies hired him as general manager in 1988. Technically the title was originally “director of player personnel,” but team president Bill Giles said that Thomas would have free reign to hire and fire personnel, sign players and make trades… to a point. “The only time I’d stop him from doing anything would be if there were big financial considerations involved,” Giles said. “I don’t want him going out and signing Cal Ripken Jr. for $2 million a year without running it by me.”
One of Thomas’ first major decisions was to fire Lee Elia as manager and replace him with Nick Leyva for the 1989 season. Leyva was later replaced by Jim Fregosi midway through 1991. Thomas’ first few Phillies teams were pretty poor and often lost more than 90 games. However, the general manager was building up the roster by acquiring the likes of Curt Schilling, Terry Mulholland, John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra and others. He used the 1986 champion Mets as a model of what a team with chemistry could do, and he was willing to bring in castoffs and oddballs like Dykstra (a member of the ’86 Mets), Roger McDowell and Ken Howell to help turn around the mood of the clubhouse.
The Phillies’ chemistry finally came together into a pennant-winning team in 1993. It won 93 games, backed by gritty types like Kruk and Dykstra, Darren Daulton and Dave Hollins, Mulholland and Mitch Williams. Thomas had been rebuffed by free agent Bobby Bonilla (who signed his infamous contract with the Mets instead). Instead of one major free agent, he instead brought in a batch of players who were not stars individually but contributed to the team’s success. Free agents Milt Thompson, Pete Incaviglia, Jim Eisenreich and Larry Anderson cost the Phillies less than $4 million combined in 1993; Bonilla cost the Mets $6.1 million in 1993 and is still costing the Mets today. Thomas was named the Sporting News Executive of the Year for his role in building the team.
Nick Leyva, who had been hired and fired by Thomas and was on the coaching staff of the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays team that defeated the Phillies in the World Series, made sure that his former boss got his due credit. “Not a lot is said about Lee Thomas [but] look at the moves he has made,” he said. “He made some bold moves; he wasn’t afraid to do what he had to do.”
During Thomas’ time as general manager, the Phillies also drafted the likes of Scott Rolen and Jimmy Rollins, setting the team up for success down the road. Unfortunately, the Phillies’ World Series team of 1993 couldn’t maintain its chemistry for long. As player salaries rose through arbitration and free agency, the team broke up and fell back under .500. It remained so until Thomas was fired after the 1997 season. At the time, he had the longest tenure of any general manager in the game after Fred Claire of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Thomas served as a special assistant to the general manager with Boston and Baltimore, with some time as a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers in between. He left the Orioles after the 2018 season, retiring from a professional baseball career that spanned 65 years. Thomas is survived by his wife Susie and sons Matthew, Scott, Deron and Daryl.