I'll be honest. I did not know the name William Errol Thomas, Jr. until today. Thanks to the fascinating article "Old Glory" by Eric Nusbaum, I learned the identity of the man who on April 25, 1976, "scurried onto the field at Dodger Stadium (with his son) in the middle of a game between the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs ... knelt in the outfield grass and unfurled an American flag" and attempted to set it on fire.
In the article, Nusbaum asks two important questions about the protest: "Who were the father and the son on the field? What brought them to this desperate point?" Unfortunately, there is no clear answer about the motive (although Thomas said he was protesting his wife's unlawful imprisonment in a mental institution in Missouri. Which doesn't seem like the full story, in my opinion.)
And thanks to Ancestry.com and newspaper archives, some interesting information is available about Thomas's background. And to my surprise, I found an unexpected baseball connection.
William Errol Thomas Jr. was born in 1939, and according to the 1940 U.S. Federal Census he lived in Old Town, Maine. He is also listed as Native American.
William Thomas Junior in the 1940 United States Federal Census
Name: William Thomas Junior
Estimated birth year: abt 1939
Race: Indian (Native American)
Marital status: Single
Relation to Head of House: Son
Home in 1940: Old Town, Penobscot, Maine
Map of Home in 1940: View Map
Street: Indian Island
William A Thomas 25
Dorothy E Thomas 21
Elisabeth Thomas 4
John S Thomas 3
Joseph A Thomas 2
William Thomas 1
His father, William Errol Thomas, Sr., died in 1958, and from the information in his obituary we learn a few interesting facts:
- The Thomas family are members of the Penobscot Indian Community;
- In 1958, William Errol Thomas, Jr. was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps (thus, the flag burner was a military veteran); and
- The Thomas family MIGHT BE related to the famous Sockalexis family from the Penobscot tribe.
It appears that Thomas' grandmother, Theresa C (Lyon) Thomas, remarried in 1947 after her first husband, John William Thomas, died.
Louis Sockalexis in the Maine, Marriage Index, 1892-1996
Name: Louis Sockalexis
Residence: Old Town, ME
Spouse's name: Theresa C Lyon
Spouse's Gender: Female
Spouse's Residence: Old Town, ME
Marriage Date: 22 Jan 1947
Marriage Place: Maine, USA
Her second husband was Louis Edward Sockalexis (b. July 2, 1914), the nephew of Louis Francis Sockalexis, the historic Cleveland ballplayer. Louis Edward was born six months after his famous uncle died. Source: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/8969642
This means that starting at around age eight, William Errol Thomas, Jr. most likely heard stories from his step-grandfather about his uncle and namesake, the famous baseball player.
One has to wonder if the family connection to Louis Sockalexis was a factor as to why William Errol Thomas, Jr. chose a major league ballpark as the location to make a protest by burning an American flag?
Obviously, I don't know the answer, just posing the question ... and in doing so I wanted to share this fascinating and unexpected baseball connection.
Incidentally, after his arrest, Thomas was found guilty of trespassing at Dodger Stadium and given the option of serving three days in jail or paying a fine of $60. He chose the three days behind bars.
Rick Monday was later selected by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to lead the city's annual Flag Day parade. At the time, Monday told reporters, "I don't know how many veterans hospitals these guys have ever been in, but I visited a lot of them. I've seen a lot of fine men in those hospitals with their bodies torn up from fighting to defend that flag." Little did Rick Monday know that William E. Thomas, Jr., was also a military veteran.
Again, I do not claim to know the full motives behind Thomas' decision to pick a baseball field as the site of his flag burning protest, but if he is indeed related to the most famous Native American ever to play major league baseball, as a good friend often says to me, "There are no coincidences."
Thus, the more we learn, the more complex and fascinating this story becomes.
Old Glory, by Eric Nusbaum
When Rick Monday Saved The American Flag From Being Burned At Dodger Stadium, by David Davis