Baseball and Burning the American Flag


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.

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William Thomas Junior in the 1940 United States Federal Census
Name: William Thomas Junior
Age: 1
Estimated birth year: abt 1939
Gender: Male
Race: Indian (Native American)
Birthplace: Maine
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
...
Household Members:
Name Age
William A Thomas 25
Dorothy E Thomas 21
Elisabeth Thomas 4
John S Thomas 3
Joseph A Thomas 2
William Thomas 1

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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.

William E Thomas Sockalexis 1958 -

It appears that Thomas' grandmother, Theresa C (Lyon) Thomas, remarried in 1947 after her first husband, John William Thomas, died.

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Louis Sockalexis in the Maine, Marriage Index, 1892-1996
Name: Louis Sockalexis
Gender: Male
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

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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.

Story of Penobscot baseball player to be told June 5 - Rockland ...

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.


RELATED LINKS:

Old Glory, by Eric Nusbaum

When Rick Monday Saved The American Flag From Being Burned At Dodger Stadium, by David Davis

Sanji Sakamoto: A Japanese American Ballplayer in the Negro Leagues

The first (and maybe only) person of Japanese ancestry to play for a Negro Leagues baseball team

1920 Los Angeles White Sox - Sanji Sakamoto, 2B

Pitcher/infielder Sanji Sakamoto was born in Japan in 1896 and migrated to the U.S. with his family in 1906. He played briefly for the L.A. White Sox in 1920, one of the top semi-pro Negro Leagues teams on the West Coast.

Prior to joining the White Sox he was a star pitcher for L.A. High School 1915-17, the L.A. Nippons, and the University of Southern California (USC) Trojans. The White Sox eventually replaced Sakamoto with Bob Fagen, second baseman of the 25th Infantry, and original member of the inaugural KC Monarchs of 1920.

White Sox Ballpark was used by both the black and Japanese local teams in the early 1920s. They often booked single and double-header games between Japanese and black teams in an attempt to draw fans of all races to the ballpark.

It is quite possible that the White Sox signing of Sakamoto was a strategic marketing move by Charles Anderson to draw Japanese fans to the ballpark.

Regardless of the reasons why he was signed, Sakamoto appears to be the first and only person of Japanese ancestry to play for a Negro Leagues/all-black team.

He later became a well-respected dentist in the L.A. area. Dr. Sanji Sakamoto died in 1971.

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Clippings from the Sanji Sakamoto scrapbook: 

Sakamoto joins the L.A. White Sox

Source: The Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File); Jun 17, 1920; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Los Angeles Times (1881 - 1986), pg. III1

Sakamoto's White Sox teammate John Riddle was a fellow student at USC, and member of the varsity football team (back row, 3rd from right).


Ancestry.com, U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999, California Los Angeles University of Southern California 1924

Sakamoto as a member of the USC varsity baseball team


The USC alumni magazine, vol. 1, no. 3 (1920 June), p20.

Sakamoto suffers ankle injury during USC game, 1921


The Southern California Trojan, Vol. 12, No. 70, April 08, 1921, p1.





The Southern California Trojan, Vol. 12, No. 79, May 11, 1921

Sakamoto is mentioned in USC Plans to Tour Japan


The Southern California Trojan, Vol. 11, No. 103, June 15, 1920, p4.

Sakamoto graduated from USC in 1921 and began his career as a successful dentist. 



Odontograms, vol. 4 (1921), the University of Southern California
College of Dentistry yearbook. p. 54.


In 1939, the Nichibei Shinbun, a Japanese American newspaper, named Sanji Sakamoto as the top Nikkei ballplayer to play in California (list compiled by sports reporter Ken Matsumoto).



Nichibei Shinbun, October 4, 1939, pg. 2, LINK to full article



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In 1963, future Los Angeles mayor, Tom Bradley honored Sakamoto and his family. Incidentally, Bradley is a native of Calvert, Texas, also the birthplace of Baseball Hall of Fame pioneer, Rube Foster, the Father of Negro Leagues.


The California Eagle, June 20, 1963. p. 6.

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U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, Draft, Enlistment and Service
Name: Sanji Sakamoto
Birth: 27 Oct 1896 - Japan
Residence: Ventura, California
Other: Ventura County




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California, Death Index, 1940-1997 about Sanji Sakamoto
Name: Sanji Sakamoto
Social Security #: 564482452
Gender: Male
Birth Date: 25 Nov 1896
Birth Place: Japan
Death Date: 5 Jun 1971
Death Place: Los Angeles

Arizona’s Negro Leagues Baseball Centennial Celebration - Feb 29, 2020


CELEBRATING ARIZONA’S NEGRO LEAGUES CONNECTIONS

SAT., FEB. 29, 2020 | 2-4 PM | FREE
GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER MUSEUM |
415 E GRANT ST. PHOENIX, AZ

SEATING LIMITED,
PLEASE REGISTER ONLINE: bit.ly/AZNL100 

FACEBOOK EVENT LINK: 

Event Speakers: baseball historians Bill Staples, Jr., and Charlie Vascellaro; former MLB outfielder Byron Browne (Cubs, Astros, Cardinals, Phillies).

Topics:
  • Bill Staples, Jr. | Arizona Black Baseball History, 1890-1947
  • Charlie Vascellaro | Cactus League Integration
  • Byron Browne | Celebrating Buck: MLB Perspective on the Negro Leagues
  • Grand Opening: Negro Leagues Baseball Exhibit
SPONSORS:
  • George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center
  • JACL Arizona Chapter
  • Nisei Baseball Research Project
  • Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
  • SABR Negro Leagues Committee
  • Chandler History Museum