Robert Burns Thurman
- Bats Left, Throws Left
- Height 6' 1", Weight 205 lb.
- High School Wichita North High School
- Debut April 14, 1955
- Final Game April 21, 1959
- Born May 14, 1917 in Kellyville, OK USA
- Died October 31, 1998 in Wichita, KS USA
Bob Thurman was a professional baseball pitcher, outfielder and pinch-hitter. He played in the Negro Leagues, the Puerto Rican winter league (where he was a star), and for a few years at the end of his career, in Major League Baseball with the Cincinnati Redlegs. He is a member of the Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Fame.
Several baseball reference books give Thurman's date of birth as 1921. However, like so many Negro Leaguers, Thurman took some years off his age in order to interest scouts in developing him as a prospect. In fact, 1917 is the correct year of his birth, as he himself admitted after his playing career was over. Therefore he made his major league debut at the age of 38, and was still in the big leagues at 42.
Thurman played semipro ball with various teams in the Wichita, KS area before entering the U.S. Army at the beginning of World War II. He was stationed in New Guinea and Luzon and saw combat action in the Pacific Theater. When he was discharged in 1945, the Homestead Grays in the Negro National League offered him a contract. He had drawn attention for his work on an Army baseball team.
He started with the Grays in 1946, playing alongside such greats as catcher Josh Gibson, first baseman Buck Leonard and outfielder Cool Papa Bell. His pitching was not impressive (1-4), but he played in the outfield as well. He hit .408 for the season. The following year, he hit .338 with 6 home runs in 157 at-bats, playing regularly now that Bell had left the club. Bob was 0-2 on the hill.
In 1948, he posted a 6-4 win-loss record as a starting pitcher, and also hit .345 to help the Grays win the last Negro National League pennant. He finished fifth in the NNL in average and joined fellow future big-leaguers Luke Easter and Luis Marquez in the Homestead outfield. On a strong club, he had the worst record among the regular pitchers. The Grays went on to defeat the Birmingham Black Barons in the 1948 Negro World Series, but after this season, the powerhouse Grays were dismantled, along with the league. With the fall of the color barrier in the major leagues in 1947, Negro Leagues teams began to lose their star players and also their fan support.
Thurman also played winter ball in Puerto Rico, with the Cangrejeros de Santurce, where he was a great fan favorite. He led the league in homers in the 1947-48 season with 9, and the following season he had 18, tying Willard Brown for the lead, four more than Easter hit.
In 1949, he reported to the Kansas City Monarchs of the newly reorganized Negro American League. The Monarchs were managed by Buck O'Neil and their roster included stars and future stars like Willard Brown, Booker McDaniels, Nat Peeples and Elston Howard.
Thurman's big year in Puerto Rico had not gone unnoticed in the major leagues. On July 29, 1949 it was announced that the New York Yankees had purchased his contract from the Monarchs. He was assigned to the Newark Bears of the International League, where he hit three homers in his first week. For the season, he hit .317/~.384/.466 for the Bears in 59 games, before a hand injury sidelined him.
The Yankees sent him to the Chicago Cubs and he spent the 1950 season with the Springfield Cubs, also in the International League. There his batting average fell to .269; his OBP (around .373) and slugging percentage (.432) did not fall as far. His 77 walks led Springfield and his 78 RBI were second on the team behind Jack Wallaesa. The next two years, Bob was with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, where he hit .274/~.321/.462 in 1951 with a team-leading 11 steals and 10 triples, fourth in the Pacific Coast League.
Bob played in the 1951 Caribbean Series, joining Luis Olmo and Willard Brown in the Santurce outfield. He hit .364 and slugged .727, driving in 6 and scoring six to help Santurce win the title, the first ever by a Puerto Rican team. Thurman was second to Olmo with 2 home runs and third behind Stan Breard and Olmo in average.
In 1952, he batted .280/~.345/.417. Despite his seemingly mediocre numbers, his 9 steals still led San Francisco and his 9 home runs were second to Frank Kalin. The Cubs still had not integrated at the major league level.
Thurman played in the 1953 Caribbean Series with Santurce again, batting a very good .474 with a .684 slugging percentage, 5 runs and 5 RBI. He was second to Junior Gilliam on the team in average and they won the Series; Thurman had played on both Puerto Rican Series champions so far.
Dominican Summer League
Thurman had continued playing with Santurce in the Puerto Rican league. He was one of the biggest names in Latin American baseball. The Dominican Summer League was founded in the early 1950s. It was an "outlaw" league (not affiliated with major league baseball), and tried to lure big-name minor leaguers with generous salary offers. Thurman signed with Escogido in the new league and was suspended from organized baseball. He played in the Dominican Republic for two years, leading the league in homers and RBI in 1954 and also pitching occasionally.
Puerto Rican winter league
When the Dominican League joined organized baseball in 1955, Thurman was in limbo. He was still under contract to the Cubs, but they showed no interest. He was still playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, and his 1954-55 season got him noticed again. He hit .323 with 14 homers for a team that Don Zimmer called "the best winter league baseball club ever assembled."
Zimmer played shortstop, Ronnie Sanford was at second, George Crowe was in first base, Harry Chiti and Valmy Thomas were the catchers and former Negro Leagues star Bus Clarkson was at third. Thurman was in right field. Willie Mays played center field and led the league in batting. Roberto Clemente was in left field and hit .344 for fourth place in the league. Sam Jones, Bill Greason and Rubén Gómez were the pitching staff. Thurman still continued to pitch occasionally. Bob played in his third Caribbean Series, each time having at least one Hall-of-Fame outfield teammate; this time, he had two. He hit .318 with a double in the 1955 Caribbean Series, which was won by Santurce, their third title in three tries with Bob always on the roster. It was his last Caribbean Series.
Thurman is the all-time Home Run leader in Puerto Rico with 120 homers, and RBIs with 566. His lifetime average is .313.
Impressed with his winter season, the Cincinnati Redlegs bought his contract from the Cubs, for a reported $2,000. He made his major league debut on April 14, 1955, the same day Elston Howard became the first black man to play for the New York Yankees. Thurman hit 7 homers in only 152 at-bats, although his average fell to .217. His OBP was poor (.296) but he slugged .408.
The following year, he hit .295/.340/.532 in only 139 at-bats, with 8 homers. On August 18, 1956 he hit three consecutive homers and a double against the Milwaukee Braves. Only four players have ever had a three-homer game at an older age (through June of 2007): they are Stan Musial, Reggie Jackson, Babe Ruth and Dave Winfield, each of whom had played at least 17 previous seasons, compared to Thurman's one. He was one of the top pinch-hitters on the team, playing 80 games despite only 29 appearances in the field. His 125 OPS+ was the best he would produce in the majors and was excellent for a bench player.
The next season he hit a home run against the Philadelphia Phillies on his birthday, May 14, 1957. He thus became the first major league player to homer on his fortieth birthday, although that fact was known at the time only to Thurman himself, since he had not yet revealed his true age. It would be 26 years before Joe Morgan became the second player to do so, and 41 years until Wade Boggs made it 3. Tony Phillips and Chipper Jones would later join the small club.
The 1957 season was perhaps Thurman's best in the major leagues. He started the year on a hot streak. On June 1st, he was hitting .351, but by the end of June his average had dropped to .259. On August 2nd, he was sent down to the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League. He hit 8 home runs in the PCL and batted .288/~.362/.538 in 28 games before being recalled by the Redlegs later in August. The Redlegs were in a slump, and Thurman helped get them out of it. In his first five games back with the team, he hit 4 home runs with 12 RBI. He finished the year with a .247/.306/.542 line for Cincinnati with an impressive 16 HR in only 190 AB.
Thurman played the entire 1958 season with the Redlegs, batting .230/.320/.382 in 94 games (41 in the field) and had a few pinch-hitting appearances with them in 1959, going 1 for 4. In his last two seasons, he was the third-oldest player in the National League, trailing Hank Sauer and Sal Maglie the first year and Enos Slaughter and Sauer the second.
Return to the minor leagues
He was sent back to the minor leagues in 1959, but failed to hit well with Seattle (.239, 1 HR, 11 RBI) or with the Omaha Cardinals of the American Association (.248, 5 HR, 24 RBI). In 1960, he hit .274 with 10 homers and 42 RBI with the Charleston Senators, also of the American Association. He also hit .211 with 1 HR and 3 RBI for Seattle that year. He was now 43 years old. In 1961, he finally retired as a player, after 21 games with the Charlotte Hornets in the South Atlantic League, in which he batted .267 with 4 HR and 16 RBI.
After his playing career
Thurman had a career .246/.314/.465 batting line in 334 major league games; his power made up for his lack of contact as he had a lifetime 100 OPS+ despite his old age when he played in the majors. He hit 35 homers and drove in 106 runs in 663 at-bats. He played 12 seasons in the Puerto Rican winter league. He is the league's all-time home run leader as of 2006, and a member of the Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Fame.
He joined the Minnesota Twins as a scout after his playing career ended, and later scouted for the Reds and the Kansas City Royals as well as the Major League Scouting Bureau. He died in Wichita in 1998, aged 81.
Sources and Further Reading
- Dick Clark and Larry Lester: The Negro Leagues Book. Society for American Baseball Research, 1994.
- Stephen Davis: 1951, 1952 and 1957 PCL seasons for Diamond Mind Baseball
- Pat Doyle's Professional Baseball Player Database
- Jorge Figueredo: Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History. McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2003.
- John Holway: The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues. Hastings House, 2001.
- Robert Obojski: "SCD profiles former Reds outfielder Bob Thurman", The Sports Collectors Digest, October 11, 1991.
- James Riley: The Negro Baseball Leagues: The Biographical Encyclopedia, Carroll and Graf, 1994.
- Rick Swaine: The Black Stars Who Made Baseball Whole: The Jackie Robinson Generation in the Major Leagues, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2006.
- Marshall Wright: The International League: Year-by-Year Statistics, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 1998.
- A.S. Young: Great Negro Baseball Stars. A.S. Barnes, 1953