Former GM Lee Thomas, architect of '93 Phils, dies at 86

August 31st, 2022

When the Phillies hired Lee Thomas on June 21, 1988, the new general manager faced a daunting task.

The team he was taking over was well on its way to losing 96 games. He would be working with a constricted payroll. And he was the third person to hold the position in less than a year. His immediate predecessor, Woody Woodward, had been fired two weeks earlier after less than nine months on the job.

Thomas, who passed away after a long illness Wednesday in his adopted hometown of St. Louis at the age of 86, was unfazed. He began revamping the roster through a series of shrewd moves.

It all came together in 1993 when the Phils went from worst to first, going nearly wire-to-wire to win the National League East and upsetting the heavily favored Braves in the NLCS before falling to the Blue Jays in the World Series.

“Lee was a great man and will be missed incredibly,” Phillies Chairman Emeritus Bill Giles, then the club president, said in a statement. “I will never forget all the fun we had watching the 1993 Phillies National League championship team that he put together. Through his leadership, Lee has left an indelible mark on Phillies history.”

Said Ed Wade, who succeeded him as general manager: “Genuine, no question about that. A man’s man. You could tell by his friendships and relationships what kind of guy he was. You talk about people like [former All-Star and big league manager] Jim Fregosi and Whitey [Herzog] and all those guys. They respected him for his passion and his will and his honesty and everything else that goes into it. He was everything you could ask for, particularly in the situation he walked into in Philadelphia.”

That cast of colorful characters captured the imagination of the region and remains one of the most popular clubs in team history. Thomas brought in 20 of the 25 players on the postseason roster including Lenny Dykstra, Curt Schilling, Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams, Dave Hollins, John Kruk and Danny Jackson through trades, free-agent signings and Rule 5 Draft picks.

For that he was named Major League Executive of the Year, becoming just the second former All-Star so honored, along with Al Rosen (1987 Giants).

The first noteworthy step in the rebuilding process came on June 2, 1989, when Kruk was acquired from the Padres for outfielder Chris James.

Two weeks later, after a Father’s Day game at Veterans Stadium, two major deals were announced. First, closer and 1987 Cy Young Award winner Steve Bedrosian was sent to the Giants for pitchers Terry Mulholland and Dennis Cook and third baseman Charlie Hayes. Then popular second baseman Juan Samuel went to the rival Mets for Dykstra and closer Roger McDowell.

“There were so many deals where he always got an extra piece,” Wade said. “And often that extra piece turned out to be something special. Tommy Greene was a throw-in. He was just a good arm. And I remember at the end of Spring Training. I think we had already left Clearwater. We were having conversations with the Astros and were about to make the Curt Schilling for Jason Grimsley deal. At that point, just two pitchers who were out of options.

“When you look back on things and see the sense of feel and the instincts he had for the type of player who would fit into our environment and what they were capable of doing, I think it was uncanny.”

Going into the ’93 season, Giles wanted to make a splash by signing free-agent right-hander David Cone. Thomas convinced him that using that money to address multiple needs made more sense. Then he traded for Jackson and David West and signed Pete Incaviglia and Milt Thompson (who platooned in left), Jim Eisenreich (who platooned in right) and set-up reliever Larry Andersen. “It was kind of like they had the puzzle with some missing pieces. And it was like they knew exactly what those pieces were and where they went,” Andersen said.

Thomas was hired by the Phillies after a successful run as director of Minor League operations for the Cardinals, beginning after the 1980 season. He was credited with a pivotal role in helping St. Louis win the World Series in 1982 as well as pennants in 1985 and 1987.

Giles made the decision to bring Thomas to Veterans Stadium. “He got along with people so well,” Giles explained. “He had a good sense of humor. He had a lot of confidence. He just was such a good guy. Easy to like and everybody liked him.

“He had the experience of knowing a lot of people when he was playing ball. He had good contacts. That’s the important thing. He knew a lot of people in the game that he could call for advice when you were talking about a trade. He would know them well enough to talk turkey with them. He was a good communicator that way.”

Before being promoted by Cardinals general manager Whitey Herzog, Thomas spent 10 years in the St. Louis organization in a variety of roles including bullpen coach, Minor League manager, assistant director of sales and promotions and traveling secretary.

Herzog later pointed out that each of Thomas’s first-round Draft picks while running player development reached the big leagues, that he had encouraged key prospects to learn to switch-hit (six regulars on the ’85 club batted from both sides), that he pushed to convert Terry Pendleton from second base to third in the Minors (he won three Gold Gloves and the 1991 NL MVP at that position) and proposed making talented but inconsistent reliever Todd Worrell a closer (he was thrice named an All-Star and won a Rolaids Relief Man Award in that role).

As a player, Thomas broke in with the Yankees but made his mark as one of the first stars of expansion Los Angeles Angels. In a doubleheader against the Kansas City Athletics on Sept. 5, 1961, during the team’s inaugural season he went 9-for-11. In the nightcap he hit three homers, including a grand slam.

He made the American League All-Star team the following season. But that winter he underwent surgery to correct a high school football knee injury and was never consistently the same hitter again. Still, he went on to have an eight-year career that included stops with the Red Sox (where he was a teammate of Carl Yastrzemski), Braves (where he played with Hank Aaron), Cubs (with Ernie Banks) and Astros. He hit more than 20 homers in a season three times. In addition, he played one year for the Nankai Hawks in the Japan Pacific League before retiring after playing for the Cardinals' Triple-A Tulsa farm team in 1970.

Along the way his intensity earned him the nickname “Mad Dog.” Thomas told the story of throwing his golf bag and clubs into a lake during a tournament while playing for the Angels. His caddy retrieved the soaking equipment. “I threw it back in and I left,” he liked to say with a laugh.

James Leroy (Lee) Thomas was born in Peoria, Ill., on Feb. 5, 1936. He never knew his biological father. Later he moved with his mother and stepdad to St. Louis where he became a football, basketball and baseball standout at Beaumont High School. After batting .580 as a senior in 1954, he signed with the Yankees.

At the time, the Bronx Bombers were in the midst of a streak of going to the World Series nine times in 10 years. Despite being named to Double-A All-Star teams in 1958, 1959 and 1960, the outfielder/first baseman remained blocked from Yankee Stadium by a deep and talented roster that included players like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Moose Skowron.

It was Mantle and Maris who helped him get the break he needed after he finally made the Opening Day roster in 1961. On an early-season flight to Los Angeles, Maris told him the two headliners knew he could play but wasn’t going to get the chance as long as he stayed in New York. When they got to the park, Maris added, the rest of the players were going to give him most of the time in the batting cage and that he should swing for the fences to showcase his power for the Angels front office.

Days later he was traded, setting his career on a path that eventually led to hoisting the Phillies National League Championship Trophy. The magic didn’t last, though. Age and injuries caught up with the franchise and Thomas was dismissed in December 1997.

In 2008 he was inducted into the Missouri Hall of Fame.

“I loved the job. And, believe me, the minute you get a big job, whether it’s a Major League manager or general manager, the clock starts ticking, pal,” he told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in 2017. “You know it’s not going to last forever. But I enjoyed it. I loved Bill Giles with the Phillies. I liked working there. We had a lot of bad years, but we had a couple good ones.”

He wasn’t unemployed long. Dan Duquette hired him to be his special assistant with the Red Sox for the 1998 season. He retired after a stint as a scout for the Brewers in 2006, but one of Duquette’s first moves after being named Orioles general manager before the 2011 season was to reunite with Thomas.

“I knew Lee had a lot more baseball in him and that his experience as an executive would be a big asset to the Orioles and helpful to me,” Duquette said in 2014. “So we put the band back together again."

“Everybody liked Lee around the industry.”

Thomas his survived by his wife, Susan, and four sons: Matthew, Scott, Deron and Daryl. Funeral arrangements are pending.