O’s Martin didn’t know JR, but grandpa did

They were teammates with the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs

April 14th, 2021

A version of this story was originally published in April of 2020

One day soon, when gets his man cave in order, he plans to line the walls with framed jerseys from his high school, college and big league days, alongside priceless connections to his family’s past. Those in that last category will include four custom replica Kansas City Monarchs jerseys Martin took home from the Negro League Museum, all with the number “5” stitched to the back. The museum gave Martin the uniforms to honor his maternal grandfather, Walter “Bancy” Thomas, who played for the Monarchs in 1944 and '45.

“I am definitely going to frame them,” Martin told MLB.com via phone from his home in the Tampa, Fla., area. “It would be cool to have those memories, to put them together.”

They are memories destined to come into focus for the Orioles infielder every year around this time because of one particularly famous teammate Thomas had on those Monarchs teams: . Before signing and eventually breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, Robinson played for the Monarchs in ’45, his lone season in the Negro Leagues. Bancy Thomas batted in front of Robinson on Opening Day that season, his second of two as Kansas City’s everyday right fielder.

That history makes Martin one of the few recent big leaguers with a personal link to Robinson, whose No. 42 was retired across baseball in 1997. MLB has celebrated Jackie Robinson Day with league-wide tributes every April 15 since 2004.

“For me personally, it gives me an extra push and drive,” Martin said. “Those guys, what they had to go through was so tedious. I can’t imagine playing under those circumstances. I look at the position that I’m in right now -- I’m able to play freely and have open opportunity, and that’s all because of people like them that gave us opportunity.”

A 5-foot-9, 175-pound outfielder who also pitched occasionally, Thomas debuted in the Negro Leagues with the Detroit Stars in 1937. He joined the Monarchs in ’44 and was a key member of the ’45 team that included future Hall of Famers Robinson, Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith.

Thomas spent parts of five seasons in the Negro Leagues, appearing for the Memphis Red Sox and Chicago American Giants in 1946 and the Birmingham Black Barons in ‘47. He played for the Eastern League’s Wilkes-Barre affiliate in ‘48 before finishing his career with the Carman Cardinals of the independent Manitoba-Dakota League in 1950, '51 and ’54.

He died at age 77 in 1991, three years before Martin was born. But Martin said that his mother, Deborah, often told him stories about her father.

“My parents always say he’s where I got my baseball gene from,” Martin said. “Growing up, my dad always had me reading and being educated on the Negro League players. He always had me reading stuff and watching film and little [things] to stay educated about our people.”

Asked what it means now to carry on that tradition, Martin said, “It means a lot.”

“I am learning more and more about him all the time,” Martin said. “Growing up, there are things that don’t hit you until you get a little older. I definitely appreciate that, because it’s a part of me, my family and our culture. Stuff like that needs to be passed down or it will be lost with time.”

Martin, who grew up in Tampa but whose family hails from Detroit, said he remembered the significance of watching Tigers’ games on Jackie Robinson Day as a kid. He was able to take part in it for the first time as a rookie on April 15, 2019, when Martin started at shortstop in the Orioles’ 8-1 win against the Red Sox. Martin called the experience “very special.”

“Growing up, it was like I had no excuse not to fight,” Martin said. “These guys made sacrifices so I am able to -- everyone of color -- play freely. I think that’s greatly appreciated, and we need to take advantage of that because they went through a lot.”