The greatest Canadian athlete you’ve never heard of

Fred Thomas played baseball in the Cleveland Indians farm system and football with the Toronto Argonauts. He was also one of Canada’s greatest basketball stars. But racism kept his story on the sidelines
By Sam Riches - Published on Jul 11, 2019
coach
Fred Thomas worked as a teacher and coach for more than 20 years after his playing career had ended. (Photo courtesy of the University of Windsor Archives, Tony Techko Collection)

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There were two international nominees in the Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame’s 1994 class. One was Pele, nicknamed the “King of Football,” once the highest-paid athlete in the world and so beloved in his home country that the Brazilian government declared him a national treasure. The other was Fred Thomas, a 6’3”, 175-pound athlete from Windsor who never played a game in a leading sports league.

At the mid-September induction ceremony, Paul Thomas, a pioneering Canadian basketball coach (no relation to Fred), stood at the podium at the Cobo Conference Center, in Detroit. He told the audience that, while they were likely familiar with the accomplishments of the other nominees — a group that included NFL Pro Bowler Mel Farr and NBA player and coach Ray Scott — it was Thomas who was “special among the special.”

Thomas, the audience learned, had been gifted with the ability to master any sport he pursued. While attending Windsor’s J.C. Patterson Collegiate Institute in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, he was the star of the football and track-and-field teams and led the school to the All-Ontario basketball title. According to an undated handwritten note in Windsor University’s Tony Techko Collection, Al Newman, his football coach, remembered watching Thomas wallop a home run that landed on the roof of the school. In 40 years of coaching, he’d never see a ball hit farther.

Thomas would go on to play baseball in the Cleveland Indians farm system and football with the Toronto Argonauts; he was also one of Canada’s greatest basketball stars. But his story has gone largely untold and uncelebrated outside his hometown. When he died, in May 1981, at the age of 57, he had not yet been inducted into any sports hall of fame. He’s since been recognized by Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame, the University of Windsor Alumni Sports Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, (as well as the Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame). He has yet to be inducted into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame or Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Canadian sports historian William Humber, author of A Sporting Chance, a book about Black athletes in Canadian history, says it was racial barriers that prevented Thomas from becoming a national star and that have kept his story on the margins. “People get lost to history,” he says. “When they’re not recognized in their own day, they stay that way.”

Thomas grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression and competed in a deeply racist sporting landscape — Thomas and his teammates were often turned away from restaurants, and Patterson teams were refused entry to tournaments. Black athletes, Humber says, simply weren’t given the opportunity to succeed: “Unfortunately for Fred, he came up just at the beginning of integration. Today, he would have been a star in any of those sports.”

Now, though, Thomas may finally get his due. Last year, he was nominated for Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, the nation’s highest sporting honour, starting the clock on a three-year consideration window. “He’s an incredibly worthy candidate. I’m tempted to say that he was the Black Lionel Conacher,” he says, referring to the celebrated multi-sport athlete after whom the Canadian Press’s outstanding male athlete of the year award is named. “But the truth is, Lionel Conacher was the white Fred Thomas.”

After graduating high school in 1943, Thomas put his athletic pursuits on hold to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Shortly after he earned his wings, World War II ended. Thomas enrolled at Assumption College (now the University of Windsor), where he earned a reputation as one of Canada’s best basketball players.

In 1945, his final year at Assumption, Thomas helped lead a team of local stars past the famed Harlem Globetrotters — at the time, widely considered the best team in the world — in front of a packed Kennedy Collegiate gym. “He was a constant thorn in the side of his visitors,” Windsor Star sports reporter Ken Fathers is quoted as saying in a 1952 article. “His terrific speed enabling him to leap high into the air after burning down the floor to break up passing plays. His performance was amazing and the most amazed were the confused Globetrotters.”

By the time Thomas graduated from Assumption, he had scored 2,059 points, which put him third on the all-time NCAA scoring list. According to an undated Windsor This Month article, his four years at the school were known regionally as the “Thomistic Era.”

“There was probably never a Canadian basketball player who so dominated the key area and was so deadly with the hook shot as Fred,” Fathers wrote. “He played the game with the grace of a swan and the agility of a gazelle.”

On July 3, 1948, though, Thomas was focused on baseball: he’d just arrived in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, after having been plucked out of Quebec’s Independent Provincial League by the MLB’s Cleveland Indians. The next day, a cloudy and windless July 4, Thomas played right field in a doubleheader for the Wilkes-Barre Barons, Cleveland’s minor-league farm team. When he stepped onto the field, he broke the Eastern League’s colour barrier. He went hitless in his debut, but, in the nightcap, he connected on a pair of singles, drove in a run, and stole a base.

His baseball career would see him play alongside such greats as Al “Fuzzy” Smith, James “Cool Papa” Bell, and Satchel Paige. (He was also the second cousin of Canadian baseball star Ferguson Jenkins.) It included stints with two teams — the Detroit Senators and the Cincinnati Crescents — financed by Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters. This connection brought Thomas back to his favourite sport, basketball, and to the team he had tormented while in college.

In 1949, Thomas was invited to Chicago for training camp with the Globetrotters, although he arrived late because he’d been finishing up his season with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. He wound up accepting an invitation to play for the New York Renaissance, a famed all-Black travelling team founded in Harlem. After a season with the Rens, Thomas moved to the Kansas City Stars, a Globetrotter affiliate.

Fred Thomas
In 1949, Thomas was invited to Chicago for training camp with the Harlem Globetrotters. (Photo courtesy of the Harlem Globetrotters)

In 1950, a Canadian Press poll named Thomas the second-best basketball player in the country, behind British Columbia’s Norm Baker. In 1951, as a member of the Kitchener Panthers, he won the batting title in Ontario’s Intercounty Baseball League.

Then, in 1952, Thomas was dealt his greatest professional disappointment: he was left off the Canadian Olympic basketball team. “To this day, I don’t know why he wasn’t selected for our team because we are really only one player away from winning a medal,” Woody Campbell, who played basketball alongside Thomas at Patterson and at Assumption College, told the Star in 1981.

“He was great, as great as anyone in Canada,” said Stanley “Red” Nantais, who coached Thomas and won a silver medal with Canada’s men’s basketball team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in an undated handwritten note, also in the Tony Techko Collection.

“He was probably the premier basketball player at that time,” says Keenan Thomas, Fred’s nephew. “It was separatism that excluded him from playing professionally in the Canadian environment ... My father passed a month ago, and it was a real disappointment for him and his sisters to not have Fred included.”

A knee injury, and the surgery it required, eventually ended Thomas’s professional sports career. He returned to Canada, where he dominated smaller independent leagues, and became a teacher, coach, and department head at Valley Park High School in East York.

Miriam Wright, a history professor at the University of Windsor, says stories like Thomas’s are valuable. “It’s important to talk about that, because, in Canada, we can’t overlook these stories of racial segregation and overt discrimination.”

“I think we’re familiar with those stories in the United States, but we turn a blind eye to it, or aren’t really aware of our own history with that. Southern Ontario really was a segregated society. We think about the Jim Crow South when we think about people getting turned away from restaurants or movie theatres, or being left off sports teams because of race, but it happened here.”

Thirty-nine days before his death — and after having been diagnosed with cancer — Thomas attended a dinner in his honour at Windsor’s Teutonia Club. More than 400 friends, relatives, and former teammates attended what was then the largest event ever to be held in honour of a Windsorite athlete.

After 11 speakers had taken the podium, it was Thomas’s turn. “The moment of reckoning has come, and I’m not prepared for it,” he said. “So many nice things have been said about me today, and I don’t believe all of them. But I want you all to know that, from the bottom of my heart, I am very, very pleased that you have taken the time to spend this night with me and my family. I see all of my relatives, friends, and former teammates and realize that I’m a better man for knowing you and how lucky I was to rub shoulders with you.”

“So many of these stories have been buried,” Wright says. “African-Canadian history was not something that was considered important or was only considered in the context of the Underground Railroad story.”

“That’s why sports were so important to the Black community,” she adds. “It was a time when there were so many barriers, and sports was one place they could shine and fight back and come together as a community.”

As Thomas’s childhood friend Lyle Browning told the Windsor Star in 1994, “With Freddie, there was always a game to be played. The best way to prove the bigots wrong was to show how good you were on the court and then walk proudly out of the gym. The challenge was the thing.”

That night at the Teutonia, Thomas received several paintings, a montage of photographs from the Star, and a colour TV set. It was also announced that Glengarry Park, located near where Thomas grew up, would be renamed Fred Thomas Park.

Keenan Thomas now lives right around the corner from the park, so he sees evidence of Fred’s legacy nearly every day. “He was a gentleman,” he says. “He had oodles of talent, but he was a gentleman playing in competitive sport and, doing as well as he did, he broke some barriers.”

What about the prospect of seeing his uncle in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame? “That would be something,” Keenan says. “That would be something.”

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