The Saratogian: Local baseball player recognized for volunteerism during 1918 influenza pandemic
BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — Late local baseball player Ira Thomas is being honored for his volunteerism during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The Respect 90 Foundation, Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon’s charitable foundation, is honoring Thomas through its July 2020 Volunteer Spotlight.
For each of the past 32 months, the foundation has honored a distinguished volunteer through its Volunteer Spotlight feature on its website. “The volunteers are the unsung heroes,” Maddon states on the Volunteer Spotlight page. “Without them, none of our efforts occur.”
Typically, the honorees are active volunteers from specific geographical areas, and the foundation makes a $1,000 donation to their charity.
However, after learning of Thomas’ selfless acts during the 1918 influenza pandemic, program organizers were inspired to break away from the norm.
“For July, we decided on something a little different,” Respect 90 Foundation executive director Rick Vaughn explained. “We’re going retro to honor a volunteer who happened to be a ballplayer who happened to serve during a pandemic…just over 100 years ago.”
Thomas, a native of Ballston Spa born in 1881, is best known for his baseball career as a catcher for the Yankees (then known as the Highlanders), Tigers and Philadelphia Athletics from 1906 to 1915. He was a .242 career hitter and managed only three home runs in his 10 seasons, but was a team captain and won two World Series rings with the A’s.
He is also recognized for getting the first pinch-hit in World Series history (in Game 1 of the 1908 Series for the Tigers vs. the Cubs).
After his playing career ended, Thomas was living in Philadelphia and working as a scout for the A’s under legendary manager Connie Mack.
“The year was 1918 and it wasn’t just World War I that brought fear. There was also the horrific influenza pandemic that infected 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time – and killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million,” the Respect 90 Foundation website says. “Philadelphia alone would lose 20,000 to the virus.
“The city was reeling following its’ ill-advised decision to host a downtown parade that spread the infection to thousands. Bodies piled up in homes, on porches and streets. Funeral homes could not keep up. With many Philadelphians unable or afraid to help, Ira, by all accounts a man with a big heart, did not stand idly by. Neither did his wife, Katherine.”
During this time, Thomas and his wife Katherine served as volunteers in Philadelphia when few could be found during an influenza outbreak that ravaged the country, the most severe pandemic in recent history.
While Katherine made masks at the Philadelphia Hospital, her husband selflessly saw to it that seriously ill, highly contagious patients got to local hospitals.
“He would drive to people’s houses and pick them up without regard for his own health and safety,” said Catherine King Eddy, a relative and family historian, in the web post.
Like with all of its Volunteer Spotlight features, the Respect 90 Foundation’s goal in sharing Thomas’ work is to shed some light on his good deeds and motivate others to do good in their communities, while helping to support nonprofit organizations.
Vaughn first found out about Thomas’ volunteer role while reading “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History” by John Barry.
Despite the century that’s passed since Thomas did this volunteer work, Vaughn thought he might make a good subject for the foundation’s Volunteer Spotlight.
“Given the fact that a baseball player during the pandemic, it really resonated with us,” he said.
The Respect 90 Foundation contacted the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown requesting some more information about Thomas volunteering his services during the pandemic.
In talking with some other baseball history enthusiasts, Vaughn found that many were unaware of this heroic part of Thomas’ post-baseball life. “That was a pretty unbelievable thing this guy did,” Vaughn said, moved to share this interesting and timely story.
Thomas also remains the lone player in major league history to hail from Ballston Spa. As a result of this Volunteer Spotlight selection, the Respect 90 Foundation is making a donation in Thomas’ name to local nonprofit Saratoga Bridges, which has provided care to people with developmental disabilities and their families in the community for more than 60 years.
The organization’s innovative programs aim to foster independence by promoting the abilities and achievements of its residents.
“I started looking at some of the nonprofits in the area there and it looked like Saratoga Bridges really does a great job with what they’re doing, and they’re affected by the pandemic with their budget,” Vaughn said on why the Respect 90 Foundation chose Saratoga Bridges
After speaking with a representative from the organization about its mission, “It was just one of those situations where it just felt right,” Vaughn said.
“This one was definitely outside the lines, but the timing seemed to be really perfect. This was one that just felt really good,” he continued.
“Saratoga Bridges is exceedingly appreciative to Rick Vaughn and the Angels Manager Joe Maddon’s charitable foundation, the Respect 90 Foundation, for their generous donation in Ira Thomas’ name to our organization,” Saratoga Bridges assistant director of communications Pamela Polacsek said, noting that the donation will support the organization’s COVID-19 Relief Fund.
“Given our foremost concern is always the health, wellness and safety of our individuals and dedicated staff, we have been vigilant in implementing protocols to ensure the spread of the virus is minimized. However, the PPEs, vital supplies and ever-changing needs as the crisis continues, have resulted in expenses none of us could have imagined. The donation from the Respect 90 Foundation will help us purchase the necessary resources to ensure our individuals and dedicated staff members remain healthy, safe, connected, creative and happy.
“While these are unprecedented times, we are confident that we will all work through it and be stronger, yet kinder, to one another. We are truly grateful to Rick for selecting us to be the recipient as the Ballston Spa connection to Ira.”