The Strange Story of the Sundown Kid: Troubled Milwaukee Phenom Danny Thomas
Danny Thomas, whose Brewers career – and life – ended strangely and suddenly.
The world made more sense to Danny Thomas when he was on the baseball field. Not always enough sense, but when things were going well, it was a respite from his demons. When he struggled on the diamond, however, his problems overwhelmed him. A longing search for inner peace eventually put him out of step with the game. He sacrificed his career for his God, but found religion to be no more of a permanent fix than baseball. In the end, there was no fix for Danny Thomas.
Danny Thomas bounced around a lot as a kid, from Birmingham to Mobile to southern Illinois and to the rough outskirts of East St. Louis. He described his mother as a “religious fanatic” who dabbled in all kinds of faiths before settling with the World Wide Church of God (WWCG), a sect of Fundamentalist Christianity that had been founded in the 1930s as an over-the-air radio church. For a time, Danny joined his mother in the church, but lapsed when its decree that no member shall work between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday interfered with his baseball schedule.
Thomas was a high school standout and became one of the most highly-regarded amateur players in the nation at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. In the June 1972 amateur draft, the Brewers drafted the 21-year-old Thomas sixth overall.
For his first three years in the minors, Thomas could not fulfill his potential. At Shreveport in 1973, he struck out 126 times in 458 at bats. The power he displayed in college wasn’t to be found. He struggled to utilize his speed on the bases. In 1975, however, he seemed to finally put it all together. He swung more and missed less. The mind-body aspects of hitting caught back up with him, and he began making good contact and driving the ball. Then, one hot summer night an umpire made a call he didn’t like. He stewed over the perceived slight, his fiery temper building. He waited until after the game, stalked the ump down in the parking lot, and leveled him with a blow to the face. Thomas was suspended for two months and his prospect status seemed to be lost for good.
For 1976, Thomas was assigned to the AA level Berkshire (MA) Brewers where he elevated the game he had shown in Shreveport. For 115 games, Thomas took all of his anger out on Eastern League pitchers. He hit .325, slugged .614, he cracked 29 homers and stole 15 bases while being thrown out just twice. He won the league’s triple crown and was named its most valuable player. He was called up to Milwaukee for the final month of the season. With the basement-dwelling Brewers getting little production from their left fielders, the team installed the rookie as a starter and saw him turn in a very respectable performance. He hit .276 with good power and plate discipline. The Brewers were sure they’d found their left fielder of the future. After the season, they sent him to a winter ball league in Venezuela.
Down south, the expectations he’d bred with his play during the season began to overwhelm him. He couldn’t relax on the field, so overwhelmed with anxiety that he had trouble throwing the ball in from the outfield. The personal demons he had managed to keep at bay throughout the year took over. One night, he swallowed a handful of muscle relaxers and passed out. His wife found him and saved his life by rushing him to a doctor’s office. The Brewers brought him back to Milwaukee where he spent three weeks in a hospital. They paid for his treatments and found his wife and small daughter an apartment. His progress was slow. He snuck away from the hospital one day and was found by police wondering along a Milwaukee freeway. After he was discharged, the Brewers found him labor work to occupy his time. He walked off the job on his second day. Eventually, he went back to East St. Louis with his wife, where he checked into another hospital. For four months, he was in and out of the care of psychologists. Somewhere along the way, he rediscovered the teachings of the WWCG.
Against his doctor’s wishes, he checked out of his latest hospital in February 1977 to join the Brewers in Arizona for Spring Training. Back with the team in the dry sunshine, Thomas was content and at ease. “I had some personal problems,” he told reporters. “I don’t know if you’d call it a nervous problem. The head shrinkers call it ‘a severe form of depression.’” He had sworn off pills and alcohol and was expected another child that fall. He hit the ball well that spring but was aware that his off the field issues might have dampened the team’s enthusiasm over his talents. A trip back to the minors was possible, but Thomas was upbeat. “I’ll play anywhere,” he said. When camp was over, Thomas was named the team’s starting left fielder.
His newfound inner peace came at a cost. Having rejoined the WWCG, Thomas was now forbidden to work between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday, when he was expected to meditate and attend church services. It was standard practice for teams to play Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, which meant Thomas would be unavailable for two games every week. Factoring in scheduled Saturday doubleheaders, Thomas estimated he would miss 40 games per season because of his religious convictions. “[The Brewers] were quite surprised,” Thomas said of his declaration. “They asked me to reconsider and I did. I thought about all the things I’ve been through and whether I should go back and become the old me or not. I decided there is something more important [than baseball] and said I couldn’t play on my Sabbath.”
The team vowed to work with their budding star, but it was evident from the start of the season that it was a significant inconvenience to the team to play one man short for 2/7ths of the year. For over a month, Thomas put up solid numbers, batting as high as .309 and showing flashes of power. But the impact of his Sunday-Thursday brilliance was overshadowed by his Friday-Saturday absences. On May 18, the team announced that Thomas had been demoted to AAA Spokane. Their public reasoning was that they needed to add another pitcher to team and Thomas was the odd man out.
Thomas saw it as a direct result of his refusal to violate his Sabbath. “I think my religion has something to do with it,” he told a reporter. Thomas accused the team of threatening to suspend him if he did not play Fridays and Saturdays, something the team strongly denied. The Brewers did, however, get him to agree to be paid only for days he was available, costing him about $5,000 of his $19,000 annual salary. His odd case drew national attention and newspapers from around the country wrote about him and his alleged religious persecution at the hands of the Brewers. The case even drew attention from outside the baseball world when People Magazine profiled Thomas and his struggles. “[The Brewers thought] I would hate it so much in the minors, I’d change my mind,” he told People. “The only way I’d go back to Milwaukee is if they accepted my beliefs, and I don’t think there’s much chance of that happening.”
Meanwhile, Thomas struggled mightily on the field. His batting average dipped into the low .200s and the power he had shown in Milwaukee disappeared. He tried to convert from the outfield to the pitcher’s mound to make his mandatory days off less controversial. The team accommodated him, allowing him to pitch three innings of relief (he allowed three unearned runs), before the Brewers demoted him again, this time to the AA Holyoke Millers. Thomas refused to report. “I’m a mess,” he told a reporter. “I think being sent down again would just destroy me emotionally, so I won’t go. I doubt I’ll ever play baseball again.”
Thomas sat out the rest of the season and was released by the Brewers the following spring. He caught on with the low-level independent Boise Bucksins for part of 1978 and pounded out a .359 average, but found no Major League organization willing to take a chance on him. In 1979, played briefly with the Miami Amigos of the Inter-American League. It was the last time he’d ever play organized baseball. After the season, he went back to Alabama with his wife and three daughters to live with friends.
By the time he returned to Mobile, Thomas was nearly broke. He had blown through all of his Major League money, making up for his impoverished upbringing. He worked for a while as a riveter. He worked for a company that installed swimming pools. Any peace he had gotten from the game or from his God had left him. He once told his wife that he wished he had cancer, so at least people would understand what was wrong with him. Through the early part of 1980, he was again under a psychologist’s care, but he had quit the program by that spring.
His mental state deteriorated and, on June 1, 1980, he was arrested for the horrific rape of a 12-year Mobile girl. During his interrogation, he admitted to nothing, but spoke to the officers of the pressures of success, the weight of his addictions, and mental troubles. Curiously, he talked about his career as though he had been a pitcher. Save for those three innings in Spokane, he had not pitched since college. A friend offered to hire a lawyer for him, but Thomas refused. He seemed resigned to his fate.
On June 12, he hung himself in his jail cell with strips of fabric torn from his bedsheets. He was 29 years old. Lacking the money for a funeral, he was buried in a potter’s field beside a highway. Only a handful of people came to his funeral. His parents and three of his four siblings declined to attend. “His story was Horatio Alger,” wrote Mobile Press scribe Chris Hall after his death, “but written by Edgar Allen Poe.”