Ex-Indian Valmy Thomas dies at 81

Valmy Thomas died at his home in the Virgin Islands, five days before his 82nd birthday. The fun-loving catcher finished his major-league career with the Indians, playing 27 games for Cleveland in 1961. Though not the greatest player, Thomas epitomized men who love the game of baseball, dedicating his life to it. A few years ago, he shared some of his interesting stories with Indians Ink:

Valmy Thomas Has Had Quite A Storied Life

By Chuck Murr

Valmy Thomas knew a good coverup long before Tricky Dick Nixon's boys ever dreamed of trying to get away with one.

Unlike the disgraced President's Watergate gang, Thomas never got caught. At least that's his story and he's sticking to it.

Thomas has nearly as many stories as he had hits in a five-year career in the big leagues that ended in 1961 with the Indians. He played the final 27 games of his rather nondescript time in the majors for the Tribe, hitting .209 (18-for-86) with two homers and six RBI as the backup to all-star Johnny Romano.

In 252 games overall for the New York and San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland, he batted .230 (144-for-626) with 12 homers and 60 RBI -- as the only player in history to play exactly five big-league seasons in five different cities.

That's just one of several oddities in his incredibly interesting life, which includes being an underwater demolitions man in the Navy, having a holiday named for him, witnessing Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba, being banned from baseball, nearly dying after getting shot, hosting his own radio and TV shows and running for public office in his beloved Virgin Islands.

Let's get to those stories, told by Thomas with a lilting accent and gleam in his eyes ...

"Yes, I was a catcher if you can believe that," said the 5-foot-9 Thomas, who actually wore a thin chest protector underneath his uniform, even when he went to bat. "I weighed 162 pounds soaking wet after eating a five-course meal, so I had to find ways to protect myself.

"The way they have these beautiful baseball fields today, you could not do my favorite play. But in Puerto Rico or Cuba in the 1950s, even in the American minor leagues, the infields were all dirt and rocks. Ahh, those were the days.

"You see, there's no way I gonna block the plate against some great big man trying to score no matter what. I always ask this: 'There is a runner on second base and the batter hits the ball to the outfield. So what are you watching?'

"You are watching the ball, of course. Everybody does. So when all the eyes are on the baseball, I did my best work. I'd scrape my feet and cover home plate with dirt, then stand off to the side to get the throw. The big fella, he comes in running and snorting like a bull. He slides right at me, I tag him and the umpire yells out. Now the big man is really mad. He jumps up and starts screaming, 'I beat the tag, I beat the tag!' "

Then Thomas, his voice rising in pitch in his sing-song calypso-like Caribbean accent, simply smiles and points, saying: "Yes, you beat the tag ... but the plate, she is over there!"

His eyes twinkle at the memory and Thomas, at age 78 even more frail than in his playing days, his hair white, can't suppress his whimsy. "Where is the foul line?" he asks, peering over his eyeglasses. "It does not exist. It is the fair line. I have been meaning to write to the rules committee. There are many things I must correct."

Though born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Thomas proudly proclaims being the first Virgin Islander to play in the majors. His parents lived in the capital of St. Croix and had gone to Puerto Rico only so his mother could have better medical attention to deliver her son. They quickly returned home and Thomas grew up in what he calls, "the best place on earth."

As a schoolboy, he often made life less enjoyable for other youngsters in a battle to claim one of the few baseball diamonds in a nation that embraces cricket and soccer.

"We gathered rocks and hid in the bushes," he recalled. "When those other boys walked to the field, we threw the rocks at them. We didn't aim at their heads, but they were hopping, skipping and jumping all the way home.

"I loved to hit on that field. The outfield went down hill. You hit it past the outfielder and you could walk around the bases. The outfielder, he'd disappear, chasing the ball."

He spent 1943 to 1949 with the U.S. Navy in Puerto Rico, still finding time to play the game he learned to love "a year before I was born."

Naturally, he accumulated more stories -- such as a game in Colombia where he played the outfield and noticed two native Indians wearing nothing but loincloths coming out of the forest and standing by the outfield fence.

"I had one eye on the ball and one eye on them," Thomas recalled. "I saw them throw something over the fence. I couldn't tell what it was. When the inning was over, and I went to take a look and I will tell you, Jesse Owens couldn't catch me when I saw what that thing was -- a snake! I told the manager,‘You want a left fielder, you send somebody else, ‘cause I ain't goin' back out there!' "

In 1951, he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but after hitting .296 with nine homers and 48 RBI in 91 games in the low minors, he "retired" rather than take a $50 pay cut from his $400 a month salary.

"I played in the Dominican Republic, one game on Saturday and two on Sunday and made $1,100 a month," he recalled. "I could live like a king on that money and I was having fun because the fans loved the games and loved the players.

"You think you have rivalries in America? In the Caribbean, you have a taxi driver who is for Licey. They wear the blue hats. If you want a cab and are wearing red, he is never going to pick you up. Red is for Escogido. You better find a driver who likes the red team. Or change clothes."

Thomas' voluntary retirement ended in 1955 when he reported back to the Pirates' minor-league system at the request of New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham. He had to do this in order to be eligible for the minor-league draft, where the Giants selected him and sent him to their farm club in Minneapolis for 1956.

The ornery Thomas didn't like it there, either.

"The first night, Eddie Stanky was making out the lineup, and I told him ‘Don't even look my way. I am not playing in the snow. I think I have to be going south. Stanky said I was hurting my chances of going to the big leagues. I told him staying helped my chances of pneumonia!"

The Giants sent Thomas to the desert, where the hot weather in Albuquerque, N.M. agreed with him. After hitting .366, he made it to the majors the next year, but again not without incident.

"The minimum salary was $6,000 if you were on the roster and $7,500 if you made the ballclub," Thomas recalled. "Chub Feeney (Stoneham's son in law), tried to pull a fast one. He told me, ‘We like you and this and that and we're going to give you a raise to $7,500.

"As if I'm so stupid that I don't realize that's no raise, he had to pay me that. So I cussed him out, picked up the phone and called Stoneham. He was a good man. He came down and gave me a contract for $8,500."

Thomas hit .249 with six homers and 31 RBI in 88 games in the Giants' last year at the Polo Grounds in New York. The next year, he and the team were in San Francisco. His last full season in the majors was with Philadelphia in 1959. He spent parts of 1960 and 1961 in the minors, though he did see action with the Orioles and Indians.

Thomas' big-league debut came April 17, 1957, in a 9-2 Giants loss at Pittsburgh. He struck out against Pirates ace Bob Friend in his only at bat. Later, his first big-league homer was cause for celebration not only in the Giants' clubhouse, but in Thomas' native land.

On May 11, Thomas hit a walkoff homer in the bottom of the 15th inning for a 6-5 win over the Dodgers. To express the pride of the people, the Legislature of the Virgin Islands passed Resolution 57 that designated May 12, 1957, as Valmy Thomas Day.

He's still a legend throughout the Caribbean, mostly because of his exploits in winter ball. He usually played for the Santurce Crabbers, a legendary club that dominated play at the time. In December 1959, the Crabbers landed in Havana for a series -- only minutes after Castro and his troops had started the revolution.

"Nah, I was not scared," Thomas said. "I played so much there I was considered a native. But even then, Castro, he did not like Americans. We had a couple of American players and I was worried for them.

"The next night, the stands are packed and everybody has a bongo drum and is hitting it. That is the difference in baseball in the Caribbean and in America. The fans do not need to be told to cheer. They yell and scream and beat their drums all night long. There is passion for the game.

"Anyway, that night we are losing 2-1. Our big slugger hit a two-run home run in the ninth inning to win and we get word that Castro was not happy. We better go home. We got on a plane and that was that."

"That was that," pretty much sums up the end of Thomas' career in America, too. He went 0-for-4 in his final game for the Indians on Oct. 1, 1961, one day after going 2-for-5 with a homer. Though not invited back to the Indians in 1962, the Orioles signed him for their Rochester farm club, where he quickly ran into trouble.

Thomas was catching and Jim Frey, later the Orioles' hitting coach and manager of the Kansas City Royals, didn't like the calls he was getting as a hitter from the plate umpire. After two called strikes that Frey thought were way too high, he turned and said something.

According to Thomas, the umpire replied, "You better swing at the next one because no matter where it is, it's a strike on you." Thomas said Frey then shot back, "You do that, I'll take this bat and beat you to death with it."

Frey hit the next pitch and the game went on. Later, Thomas didn't like a call against him at bat, called the ump a name and was promptly ejected. Thomas became enraged. "How can you throw me out for calling you a name and the other man threatens your life and you let him play?" he said.

Thomas grabbed the umpire, who in his report said the catcher punched him. Thomas denied that and eyewitness accounts of others supported him, but league commissioner George Sisler suspended him 30 days. The umpire, Tom Lopat, brother of former Yankees star pitcher Eddie Lopat resigned, saying the punishment was too lenient.

Two months later, Thomas' tumultous life nearly ended in Atlanta, where he was visiting "a female friend." He was shot twice in the chest by the jealous husband, who then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. Thomas was in critical condition for weeks, but recovered in time to play one more winter season for Santurce.

He opened a sporting goods store, which he still owns in St. Croix, and became a member of his country's bureau of recreation, promoting baseball. After a few years, he became deputy commissioner, overseeing all recreational programs. In the early 1990s, he ran for the Virgin Islands Senate with a curious campaign slogan: "Vote for Valmy Thomas, member of the human race."

He didn't get many votes, even though he was able to air his outspoken viewpoints on his weekly TV and radio shows that ordinarily discuss sports, specifically baseball. He still serves as president of the Horse Racing Association on St. Croix, a founding member of the local Olympic Organization, a member of the International Baseball League and founder of the Little League series.

He paid his first visit to Cleveland in 46 years this past June and was amazed at the changes. "Jacobs Field is just so wonderful," he said. "I wish I had played in this ballpark, but I think all the TV cameras would catch me putting dirt on the plate. Maybe for me, it would not be so good."

Thomas and wife Lydia are enjoying retirement in St. Croix. Daughter Lisa manages the sporting goods store and son Valmy Jr., is involved in another business. "I have a boat and like to fish," Thomas said. "It is still the most beautiful place on earth."

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