There's no place like home (plate)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010
(Photos contributed) Joan Thomas stands in Busch Stadium during the St. Louis Cardinals' batting practice. Thomas, who graduated from Gehlen Catholic School in Le Mars, now lives in St. Louis where she researches baseball history and found some close ties to Le Mars -- including with Branch Rickey, pictured here, who signed the first African American to the major leagues.

Branch Rickey changed the face of major league baseball, signing the first African American -- Jackie Robinson -- to play.

But before that, he was catcher on a professional team in Le Mars.

This is just one of the stories Joan Thomas, who attended high school in Le Mars, has dug up in her research.

Now living in St. Louis, Thomas works at AT&T, but moonlights as a historian and bibliographer.

She has published three books, including "Baseball's First Lady: Helene Hathaway Robison Britton and the St. Louis Cardinals," a biography of Britton, who became the first female owner of a Major League Baseball club, the St. Louis Cardinals, in 1911.

"You become enamored about these people and want to know more," Thomas said, adding that there is plenty misinformation on historic figures, especially on the Internet.

(Photo contributed) With help of local researcher Betty Winteringer, Joan Thomas found this picture of a Le Mars baseball club. Thomas thinks they might be the Le Mars Blackbirds of 1903, the team Branch Rickey played for. Thomas' research shows some members of that team were: RF Printz, Branch C. Rickey, Bobby Alberts, Bobby Black, Jr., Hutchinson, Jim Metcalf, S.S. Gronninger, P. Klaus, Fred "the Dutchman" Helmsdoerfer, Meade, Isbell, Price and Whitney.

She wants to help get the truth out.

Thomas graduated from Gehlen Catholic School in Le Mars in 1962. She worked in Humboldt and Ottumwa, and later Omaha, Neb.

"I wanted to see the world," she said with a laugh. "I didn't go too far."

Later, in St. Charles, Mo., she decided to pursue her college degree.

That gave her a way to focus on starting a career as a writer.

"I probably wouldn't be where I am today without that," Thomas said. "I always, all my life, wanted to write."

But if you would have told Thomas years ago that she'd be writing about baseball, she might have been quite surprised.

Sure, she enjoyed the sport, but it didn't really catch her up until she moved to St. Louis.

Her first major league baseball game, in 1966, was the last time the Cardinals played in the old Sportsman's Park.

"They played the Giants and Willie May played and hit a home run that day," Thomas said.

From there, her love for baseball began to evolve.

"I really hadn't followed the major leagues that much," Thomas said. "My husband was very much a baseball fan. When we first got married he wanted to go to all the Sunday ball games and he would almost drag me there. I wanted to do something else."

But little by little, those games drew Thomas in.

"I became interested in the whole ambience of baseball. I just liked everything about it," she said. "Then it got to the point that if I was off work during the day I'd go downtown and go to the game by myself."

Her love for the sport grew alongside her love for writing.

Since then, she's published numerous articles and three books all on aspects of baseball history.

It was while she was researching for her Helene Britton book that Thomas came upon information on Branch Rickey that linked him to her own hometown, Le Mars.

"I only knew of him as a baseball executive. I didn't know what his past was," she said.

She started reading a biography of Rickey and found out he started playing for the Iowa-South Dakota League in Le Mars.

"When you went to high school in Le Mars and lived there for five years, and you find out someone like that actually played for a club there, I just had to find out more about it," Thomas said.

She wanted to make sure it was one and the same Rickey that signed Robinson years later.

"Once you get a little nugget of information about the past, you just never rest until you get all the answers -- which you never do," Thomas laughed.

So she kept digging.

Thomas found the Iowa-South Dakota league lasted only two years, starting in 1902. It was made up of six teams, including the Le Mars Blackbirds.

In 1903, the president of the league was a Le Mars attorney named J. U. Sammis.

Manager of the Le Mars club was Bobby Black, who also owned a bowling alley in Le Mars.

Black signed Rickey, an Ohio native, for his first professional season in June 1903.

"I found an article in the paper where they said they'd acquired a man by the name of Rickey to be a catcher," Thomas said. "And they said 'he doesn't play ball on Sunday.'"

And that sealed the deal for Thomas.

"Branch Rickey, he was a Methodist, and he didn't believe in going to the ballpark on Sunday, even in the major leagues," she said. "When he was a manager in the Sunday leagues, he had what they called a 'Sunday manager.'"

Thomas found articles naming Rickey as a key player for the Blackbirds, scoring the winning run in a 1-0 victory over Rock Rapids.

"Then on July 10, there was a 14-inning game at Sioux City, and it was scoreless until the 14th," she said. "The pitcher from Le Mars, Fred Helmsdorfer, he pitched all 14 innings and struck out 13. Finally, the Blackbirds scored four runs in the top of the 14th inning."

Rickey scored one of them.

The Le Mars Globe Post reported, "that game was probably the best exhibition of ball ever played in the state."

The Le Mars Blackbirds won the pennant that year for the Iowa-South Dakota League -- the final year of the league.

Each player was presented with a gold medal reading "ISD Pennant Winners" and his name and the date.

"I'm wondering if anybody anywhere has one of those medals," Thomas said. "Rickey would have gotten one of those."

From there Rickey's path took him away from Le Mars.

He played with the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles) and the New York Highlanders (now the Yankees). Later he returned to the Browns as an office executive, following that stint with six years as the Cardinals' manager.

His style of managing became the foundation of the modern farm system.

"It was after Branch Rickey came around that the Cardinals became a major force," Thomas said.

Then, in 1947, Rickey signed Jackie Robinson with the major league team the Brooklyn Dodgers, making history.

Thomas found another Plymouth County tie in her major league research.

This story starts in the tiny village of Quorn, near Kingsley, where a man by the name of Harry Gaspar was born in 1884.

He played ball for a Kingsley team.

Eventually Gaspar rose to be a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds from 1909 to 1912.

"In the first year he won 19 games for Cincinnati," Thomas said.

Later, Gaspar returned to Plymouth County, opening a photo studio on Central Avenue in Le Mars with his wife.

He formed a Le Mars baseball club, owned the Sioux City ball club and stayed active playing baseball in western Iowa before moving to Santa Ana, Calif.

Someday, Thomas hopes to write a biography on Gaspar.

She said she loves finding these threads that tie history to her home.

"I spent a couple of weeks researching these," she said. "That's how involved I get. It's like putting pieces of the puzzle together."

That's what her study on Helene Britton was like.

"Her uncle left her the St. Louis Cardinals in his will," Thomas said. "It was unheard of for a woman to have anything to do with ownership. She wasn't even able to vote at the time."

But Britton was an active owner for the team for six years, not shying away from what was then a man's world. Britton was likely also the reason Rickey came to the Cardinals, Thomas added.

"Three years ago I was contacted by her great-granddaughter because I had information on her great-grandmother she didn't know," Thomas said.

In fact, she said, few people know about Britton breaking one of baseball's glass ceilings.

"People here in St. Louis are all great baseball fans; they all love the Cardinals," Thomas said. "Hardly anyone was aware that a woman ever owned the St. Louis Cardinals. Not only that, she was the first woman to own a Major League Baseball club."

And that's part of the reason why Thomas tracks down these stories and tells them in her writings.

"I want to set the record straight," she said. "It's for the benefit of the citizens of the future."

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