Charles Thomas, a Black student from Zanesville, played fullback on OWU’s football team and was a standout catcher on the baseball team for three years (1903-05). He was the only Black man on either team, and he repeatedly faced racism. OWU’s student newspaper, The Transcript, notes instances when the integrated OWU team was turned away from opponents’ fields and when opponents forfeited games at OWU rather than play with a Black man on the field. Throughout his OWU career, Thomas met racial hatred and slurs with dignity.
One particular incident changed the life of Branch Rickey, Class of 1904. A fellow member of the football team who had been named student-coach of the baseball team in 1903, Rickey convinced “Tommy,” as he was known, to join the baseball team. During a road trip to play Notre Dame that year, Thomas was denied lodging at a hotel in South Bend, Ind. Rickey convinced the hotel manager to allow Thomas to stay in his room as an unregistered guest, but the event—and the sight of Thomas sitting on the bed weeping—were burned into his memory and served as his inspiration in signing Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers more than 40 years later.
In 1958, Thomas recalled his friendship with Rickey:
“From the first day I entered OWU, Rickey took a special interest in my welfare. I think I was the first Negro player on its teams, and some fellows didn’t welcome me any too kindly, but there was no open opposition.
“I always felt that Branch set them straight. During the three years that I was at OWU, no man could have treated me better. When we went on our trips, Rickey was the first one to see if I was welcome in the hotel where we were to stop. On several occasions, he talked the manager into letting me occupy a double room with him and his roommate, Barney Russell.”
On the field, Thomas compiled a .321 batting average over his three-year career at OWU and was a defensive stalwart behind the plate, at first base, or in centerfield. The Transcript noted, “more than one game has been won by Thomas’ timely mitting. He knows the game, and plays it in a cool-headed manner.” The writer said Thomas and top pitcher Cleon Webb formed “the best all-around college battery in the state.”
Charles Thomas studied dentistry at what is now The Ohio State University, graduating in 1908. He practiced in St. Louis before moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico, as one of the first two Black dentists in the state. He practiced there for 40 years and kept in contact with his friend and fellow alumnus Branch Rickey until Rickey died in 1965. Dr. Thomas died in 1971.
OWU Sports Information contributed to this report.