He never got the recognition he deserved, even when he was playing, because, in the 1920s and 30s, black baseball players were regarded as little more than side-show freaks. He didn't get it after retirement, either, because Clint [The Hawk] Thomas isn't one to bray or well on what might have been.
So, for the past 40 years, Thomas mas been content to work in the West Virginia statehouse. He makes coffee for the state legislators, supervises messengers for the Senate, and hires the janitors. Nobody suspected that, once upon a time, he was a professional baseball player of extraordinary ability.
"I don't believe in talking," said Thomas yesterday, chuckling softly. Besides, if I'd started saying that I used to be a ballplayer, everybody would say, 'Well the office found out about this honor, they started calling everybody to find out if it was a fake."
Today, at the age of 83, Clint Thomas finally got the recognition he so richly deserves -- not because of anything planned by organized baseball, but because of the efforts of a newspaper publisher in this little farming town on the banks of the Ohio River.
A few months ago, the publisher Tom Stultz, noticed in a newspaper story about great old Negro players that Thomas was a native of Greenup. Intrigued, he found Clint's brother and learned that, indeed, Clint Thomas "used to play a little ball."
The brother, as modest as Clint failed to tell Stultz that Cling had a lifetime batting average of .350, that he slugged more than 400 home runs and had 4,000 hits in 19 years, and that he was one of 25 blacks originally nominated by an old timers committee for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He learned all that only by calling Monte Irvin in Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's office.
"Sure, I know Clint," said Irvin, himself a product of the Negro leagues."He was the black Joe DiMaggio."
"That did it," said Stultz yesterday. "Here's a guy who ought to be endorsing coffee-makers and nobody had ever heard of him. I was really touched by the fact that here was a guy the world had forgotten for 40 years."
So Stultz took it upon himself to do what organized baseball had never done -- honor Clint Thomas. He planned a luncheon, a boat trip and a banquet. And, with Irvin's help, he began calling as many of Thomas' contemporaries as he could find, along with various baseball figures of the past.
Today, on a warm, sunny, baseball-perfect day, they all gathered at Stultz's home to homor "The Hawk." It was an occasion significat enough to merit a larger stage. Yankee Stadium would have been nice. Or, even better, the Hall of Fame. And yet, to Clint Thomas, it was as wonderful as a tickertape parade down Wall Street. In a moment of perfectly excusable hyperbole, he declared that, "This is the greatest thing that ever happened to black ball players."
When the guest of honor arrived just before noon today, he was met by Judy Johnson, a former teammate on the Philadelphia Hilldale team that won the Negro championship in 1925 and '26. Johnson, who played third base, is one of the products of the old "negro Leagues who has been granted admission to the Hall of Fame.
Thomas' eyesight is so poor that he did'nt recognize Johnson at first. Then, after they embraced, Johnson gently helped his old teammate up the steps of Stultz's home and ushered him into the living room, where he was greeted warmly by a bunch of his contemporaries. including Paul [Jake] Stephens, shortstop for the Hilldales, and Buck Leonard, known in his time as the "Black Lou Gehrig."
"Sit down, old man," said Stephens through toothless gums.
"What you mean, old man?" laughed Thomas.
Later, as the old-timers were swapping memories and insults, A.B. [Happy] Chandler walked in. As the then commissioner of baseball, Chandler smashed the color barrier in 1947 by giving Branch Rickey permission to let Jackie Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dogers.
Chandler was followed into the room by a white player who accomplished what the blacks could only dream -- Bob Feller, the Hall-of-Famer who pitched for the Cleveland Indians. In his heyday, Feller often organized postseason barnstorming trips with black players.
"Oh, yeah, they could play." he said said. "Look at Satchel Paige. He didn't get into the big leagues until the end of his career and he was still something. I think Joe DiMaggio went one for 39 against him."
The famed Paige didn't arrive until late this afternoon, but a couple of other blacks who got the chance to play in the big leagues -- Irvin and Earnie [Mr. Cub] Banks -- got there in time to take the boat ride. Irvin representing the commissioner's office, said organized baseball might start doing something on a regular basis -- benefit game, perhaps -- to honor and help the old black stars who were born too soon. And Banks, of course, walked around smiling and talking about -- what else? -- the Cubs.
When somebody said that Banks had arrived, Thomas beamed.
"Where is he?" he said.
"Right here, Clint Thomas," said Banks.
"You were the hardest hitter in baseball," Thomas said.
Banks put his arm around the oldtimer and hugged him.
"And the way the guy played center field, you could catch every big hit in sight," Banks said, softly. CAPTION: Picture, Baseball greats Judy Johnson left, and Quincy Troups keep close watch on Clint Thomas as he takes his old stance during reunion of Negro league players in Greenup, Ky.AP