The rise and fall of Dan Thomas

By Mark Hodapp

No one was more haunted than East Carondelet’s

Dan Thomas.

And now 30 years later, his tragic story remains

hard to believe.

A top Milwaukee Brewers baseball prospect,

Thomas suffered a nervous breakdown and turned

for salvation to the Worldwide Church of God.

He announced at spring training in 1977 that he

would not play on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday

to sundown Saturday, in observance of the

church’s holy day. “The Sundown Kid,” as he

came to be called, played in only 54 major league

baseball games with the Brewers before his professional career ended in 1977.

His life was a tragedy from

his deprived boyhood days in

Prichard, Ala., through his brief,

stormy baseball career with the

Brewers, to his arrest on June 1,

1980, on charges of allegedly

raping a 12-year-old girl.

Less than two weeks later, he

took his own life in the Mobile,

Ala. city jail on June 12, 1980.

“His tale was Horatio Alger

but written by Edgar Allen Poe,”

the Lawrence Journal-Word reported

in its Aug. 24, 1980 issue.

Ginger Patterson told the

newspaper, “He once told his

wife, Judy, ‘I wish I had cancer,

then at least people would realize

what was the matter with

me.’ ”

The Pattersons took the

Thomases in when they came to


Born in Birmingham, Ala.,

Thomas moved with his family

to Mobile as a child.

When he was growing up in

Mobile, Dan thought his mother

was a religious fanatic because

she kept bouncing from one

church to another.

“We were Baptists one day,

Catholics another and Methodists

the next,” Thomas told

People magazine.

“I didn’t take any religion

seriously then.”

Except baseball.

East Carondelet days

The Thomases stayed in

Mobile until Dan was a teenager,

then moved to East Carondelet, Ill.,

on Adams Road.

Adams Road is one of the

poorest areas of East Carondelet.

Dan Thomas attended Dupo

High School for two years, but

played on the Tigers baseball,

basketball, football and track

teams during just his junior season.

He was ineligible to play his

senior season.

Joe Haven was a close friend

with the Thomases. He remembers

having many “simple

meals” at the Thomas home.

Haven also remembers idolizing

Dan, who was a couple

years older, and looking up to

him as a “God-like figure.”

“He was like the big brother

I never had,” Haven said. “He

was like the coolest thing. He

played minor league baseball

and I loved baseball. It couldn’t

get much better than that.”

He described Thomas as

being intense and confident.

Haven remembers Dan and

his wife, the former Judy Baker,

visiting him and his wife after

he became a major leaguer. Judy,

who was a year younger

than Dan, was the 1971 valedictorian

at Dupo High School.

“But there we were, sitting in

my little living room in my

apartment,” he said.

Haven remembers Thomas

having good baseball skills and

being self confident. He was

almost “cocky.”

But Haven believes Thomas’

intensity might have led to his

downfall when he started to

self-doubt his baseball ability.

He also remembers Dan’s

dad being tough on him earlier.

While he didn’t attend many of

his son’s games, he wanted his

son to excel, Haven recalled.

“I believe that’s why he was

looking into that religion,” Haven

said. “He may had some self doubt

and was looking for answers

to other things in life and

baseball, too.”

Haven recalled when Thomas

came to Dupo, Ill., he was treated

as an “outsider” by some of his


“Dan was not the type of

guy, who said one thing and did

the other,” Haven said.

“He was a straight shooter,

whether you liked it or not. If

he didn’t like what you’d say,

he’d walk away or punch you in

the jaw.”

Haven has only fond memories

about his high school


“I have never seen another

athlete — at least at Dupo High

School — like him,” he said.

Tryout with the Pilots

Former Dupo High School

physical education and driver’s

education teacher Bob Mason

fondly recalls taking Thomas to

a Seattle Pilots baseball tryout

camp in Springfield, Ill.

“He could run with anyone

there,” Mason said.

But Thomas, who played left

field with the Brewers and first

base in college, had a hard time

making long throws from shortstop

at the tryout camp, which

also had scouts from the Reds

and Pirates in attendance, Mason


The Seattle Pilots joined the

American League in 1969, but

by the next opening day, they

had been reborn as the Milwaukee

Brewers. The Pilots were

also an oddity because they

were the only Major League

Baseball team in memory to

move after just a single season.

Thomas was not offered a

contract from the Pilots. Mason

later found out Thomas was


Itchy Jones, the legendary

coach at Southern Illinois University

at Carbondale, watched

Thomas’ tryout from left field.

Thomas later played baseball

at SIUC for two seasons under


In June 1971, Thomas played

in the College World Series,

when SIUC advanced to the final

game, losing the national

championship to the University

of Southern California 7-2 on

June 17.

Thomas ranks eighth in career

stolen bases at SIUC with

55 in two years.

Brewers draft Thomas

Thomas was picked sixth

overall in the 1972 amateur

draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.

He momentarily became a

national figure with the Brewers

in 1977 when his religion and

career came into conflict and

spilled over the nation’s sports


Thomas was called up to the

big leagues by the Brewers late

in 1976 after he won the Triple

Crown in the Eastern League,

where he hit .325 with 83 RBIs,

29 home runs and a .986 fielding

percentage. His accomplishment

would not be equalled

again in the minor leagues until

Lou Montanez garnered the triple

crown in 2008.

In October 1976, the pressure

of competition resulted in a

nervous breakdown.

After an alleged suicide attempt,

he committed himself to

an undisclosed mental hospital

near St. Louis. At the end of his

five-month stay, he asked to see

a worldwide church minister,

according to published reports.

He became a convert, and a

week later was released from

the hospital.

By spring training 1977, he

was back with the Brewers.

Thomas started the 1977 season

with the Brewers, but was

sent down to Milwaukee’s Spokane

Indians in May, eventually

with an ultimatum to play fulltime

or be suspended.

“It’s like they’re asking me,

`Do you want to stay in the minor

leagues the rest of your life?

Conform or get out,”’ Thomas

once said.

He was sent to Spokane,

Wash., where he continued to

struggle. The Brewers tried to

send him to Double-A Holyoke.

Thomas refused to report.

The next year, he won a

Northwest League batting title

for an independent Boise team.

Thomas also played with the

Waterloo Buds for one season

in the Mon-Clair League under

legendary coach Vern Moehrs.

Moehrs declined to comment

about Thomas.

Local baseball historian Rich

Fisher recalled Thomas as being

a quiet player who didn’t like to

do things with his teammates

after their games.

“And nobody could figure

him out,” he said.

“But, boy could he play


The Sundown Kid

Thomas became a national

figure after he missed a Saturday,

April 23, 1977 game with

the Brewers.

“The Sundown Kid,” as he

was later referred to, was slated

to be in the lineup as a cleanup

hitter and left fielder.

People magazine and The

Sporting News were among the

many news outlets that wrote

feature articles about Thomas

and his beliefs.

“To baseball bench jockeys,

nothing is sacred,” Tim Woodward

stated in his Aug. 1, 1977

People article about Thomas.

“To left fielder Danny Thomas,

26, everything is. So, it

didn’t take long for opposing

dugouts to switch their attack

from his name to his religion.”

Thomas told the magazine:

“If I’m good at baseball, it’s

only because God gave me the

talent. I’ll give it all I’ve got,

but I won’t play on the Sabbath.”

Thomas sent to minors

Though a good fielder and a

solid hitter (.271), Thomas was

“curiously” sent down to Milwaukee’s

Spokane Indians farm

club, according to Woodward.

The Brewers’ official explanation

was the team needed

“fresh pitching strength.”

But that wasn’t the real reason,

according to former Milwaukee

Journal Sentinel sports

editor Bill Dwyre.

Dwyre wrote: “No matter

how tolerant and ecumenical

Brewers management wants to

be, they are irked by having a

player sit out two games a


Thomas also told People he

believes he was sent down because

the Brewers management

thought “I would hate it so

much, I’d change my mind.”

But as far as his chances of

making the majors again, Thomas

said: “The only way I’d go

back to Milwaukee is if they accepted

my beliefs, and I don’t

think there’s much of a chance

of that happening.”

Remembering Thomas

Sports writer Art Voellinger remembers

Thomas fondly.

He vividly remembers seeing

the last time he saw Thomas,

he was “walking on his hands,”

while his wife was pushing their

children in a stroller along North

Third Street in Dupo.

“He was one of the most

versatile athletes I ever encountered,”

said Voellinger, who

covered minor league baseball

with The Sporting News in the


Like Voellinger, Thomas had

a love for baseball. It was only

fitting that Voellinger and

Thomas developed a friendship.

According to the Lawrence

Journal-Word, Thomas began

to experience emotional problems

soon after joining the


Thomas’ “ferocious temper”

once led him to miss half a

baseball season in 1975 after he

struck an umpire in the nose.

He was also outspoken in

critcizing pitchers who hit batters,

saying, “I think they ought

to make a rule that if a guy gets

hit and is able to get up, they

should tie the pitcher’s hands

behind his back and let the hitter

smack him in the face.”

Bud Selig, former Brewers’

president and current commissioner

of Major League Baseball,

called Thomas’ story tragic.

“I know a lot of people are

mad at us because of what they

think we’ve done to him,” Selig

said. “He’s a real nice kid who

wanted to do the right thing.”

Thomas was unsuccessful in

his later attempts to rejoin the

Brewers or sign with another

major league baseball organization

in 1978.

He then played in Boise, Idaho,

for the Independent Buckskins

in the Northwest League,

where he won the Class A

league’s batting title in 1978.

Afterward, Thomas quit baseball

for good.

In April of 1980, he underwent

psychiatric care at the

University of South Alabama,

according to several published


Haven said he saw Thomas

very little after his baseball career


Former Dupo chemistry

teacher and athletic director

Richard Bright believes Thomas

lived “a confused life” growing


The only emotional support

Thomas might have received

was from his high school sweetheart,

Judy Baker, he said.

Bright believes that confusion

ultimately “led to his demise.”

“I wish there was something

I could have done,” he said.

Nurtured in poverty, Thomas

would register his love in dollars.

Said Ginger Patterson: “Danny

went through $60,000 like

you wouldn’t believe. He went

from rags to riches to rags real


Thomas died at 29. His family

was so impoverished by then

that they were unable to afford

funeral expenses or even remain

in Alabama for his potter’s field


In later years, sports writers

such as Furman Bisher have recalled

Thomas’s once


baseball career and eventual


Sports columnist John

Blanchette of Spokane’s Spokesman-

Review described Thomas

in a 1986 column as a “troubled

soul,” saying, “no one was more

haunted than Danny Thomas.”


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