February 5 – Happy Birthday Lee Thomas
When I started following the Yankees in 1960, their best minor league outfield prospects required patience or a willingness to relocate. That’s because the parent club had Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, both in their primes, solidly stationed in center field and right, while in left they used a trio of highly skilled veterans that included Yogi Berra, Hector Lopez and Bob Cerv. There was simply not enough playing time available at the big league level for young promising outfield prospects like today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant to develop. As a result, they either stayed in the minors a very long time or they were traded to other teams to shore up weaknesses New York had in other areas.
Lee Thomas was one such prospect. The Yankees signed him right out of high school in 1954. He spent the next seven seasons climbing up the alphabet ladder of New York’s farm system, impressing everyone along the way with his patience at the plate, his ability to hit for average and his power. In his final two minor league seasons he averaged 27 home runs and 115 RBIs per season with a batting average right around .320. His only negative was a sometimes violent temper that would earn him the nickname “Mad Dog.”
By the 1961 Spring Training season, he was so good and so ready that first-year Yankee manager Ralph Houk had no choice but to put him on the Opening Day roster. But this was the same 1961 Yankee team that most baseball historians consider to be one of the great teams in MLB history, which is why during the first six weeks of the regular season, the only action Thomas had seen was two pinch-hitting opportunities. Finally, Roger Maris approached the rookie and told him he was too good a player to sit on the Yankee bench or get sent back down to triple A. Thomas explained what happened next in an interview documented in the book “The Yankees in the Early 1960′s,” authored by William J. Ryczek. On a flight to LA for a series against the Angels, Maris approached Thomas and told him he and Mantle had a plan to take care of the rookie. When the Yankees started batting practice in LA’s old Wrigley Field, the original home of the expansion team, Mickey, Roger and two other Yankee starters gave up their time in the batting cage so that Thomas could have an extended session in front of the watchful eyes of Angel skipper, Bill Rigney. These extended sessions continued for the next two games as well. Thomas took advantage of the showcase by smashing the ball all over the park. He said he hit at least fifteen home runs during those sessions and sure enough, before the Yankees left town, the Angels made a trade for the rookie.
Even though the deal meant a full-time big league starting position for Thomas, he admitted he hated leaving the Bronx Bombers. He knew that 1961 team was special, he knew they were going to win it all and he wanted to be part of it but it just wasn’t meant to be.
Thomas immediately became a star for the struggling expansion Angels. He hit 24 home runs for them in 1961 and in ’62, he made the AL All Star team and ended the season with 26 HRs, 105 RBIs and a .290 batting average. He appeared to have found a permanent home with the Halos but all of a sudden, he stopped hitting. Thomas’s average fell seventy points in 1963, and his home runs and RBIs that year dropped pretty much in half. When his slump continued into the first part of the 1964 season, the Angels sent him to the Red Sox for Boston outfielder, Lou Clinton.
The change of scenery seemed to help revive Lee’s bat a bit. He hit 13 home ruins for Boston during the final two thirds of the ’64 season and drove in 42 runs. The following year he did even better, with 22 home runs, 71 RBIs and he raised his batting average up to a more respectable .271. He probably thought he had found a new home in Beantown right up until ten days before Christmas in 1965, when he found out he had been traded to Atlanta for Braves’ pitchers Dan Osinski and Bob Sadowski.
He floundered horribly in Atlanta, and was hitting just .188 by the end of May when he was told he had been traded again, this time to the Cubs. After a season and a half in the Windy City and a final year playing with Houston, Thomas was gone from the big leagues for good. Thomas then got into managing at the minor league level for a few seasons before moving up to the big league front office of the Cardinals where he was named the organization’s Farm Director. He then got the Phillies’ GM job in 1988 and kept it for nine years. Thomas then returned to Boston where he served as assistant GM under Dan Duquette. He was born in Peoria, IL on February 5, 1936.