The buildings throughout Marist College campus bear the names of many remarkable people, including philanthropists and long-time benefactors of the school. Perhaps there is none more profound than the man whose name embellishes the School of Communication and Arts building, Lowell Thomas.
Thomas was a pioneer of the radio and television broadcast industry. His soothing voice and charming wit surfed the airwaves for 46 years. Commentating for CBS and later NBC, he also was known for his world travels, in which he profiled some of history’s most intriguing characters, such as T.E. Lawrence—the inspiration behind Lawrence of Arabia—and the Dalai Lama in Tibet.
Aside from being a radio and television personality, Thomas was a sportsman himself. He enjoyed skiing throughout his travels and assisted in the development of ski resorts in both Vermont and the Adirondacks. However, his true athletic passion lied in baseball. Not only was he an avid player, but he also managed men’s softball clubs and constructed a softball diamond on his property in Pawling, N.Y.
In the mid-1930s, during the height of the Great Depression, Lowell Thomas began assembling softball clubs to participate in “benefit games.” These events often raised money for foundations such as the United Service Organization and the American Red Cross, among others.
Thomas’ club was cleverly named “The Debtors and Creditors.” His teams often consisted of, and played against a variety of prominent figures, including: Babe Ruth, Robert Ripley, founder of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” boxer Gene Tunney, Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of President Roosevelt and a host of other politicians, former ballplayers and public personas.
The club played benefit games throughout the East Coast, some of which were hosted on Thomas’ property in Pawling. Most notably were matches held between Lowell Thomas and the President at the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These battles often attracted distinguished guests, such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who knew Thomas well and enjoyed being a spectator.
The first of these matches was held in July of 1933. Thomas assembled his usual motley crew, as President Roosevelt selected his favorite White House correspondents, Secret Service agents and presidential staffers to form his club, the “New Dealers.” Thomas and President Roosevelt continued to collaborate for softball games on an almost yearly basis throughout the 1930s.
During this time, the two men established a friendship forged on the baseball diamond. But away from the diamond, they rarely saw eye to eye. According to the Hudson River Institute, Thomas openly opposed the Roosevelt administration, often using his radio show to speak out against the New Deal and “liberalism.” In fact, Lowell Thomas changed the name of his club to “The Nine Old Men” as a sarcastic reference to the nine Supreme Court justices that Roosevelt attempted to overpower with his court-packing scheme in 1937, through which he attempted to add six more justices that would approve of his New Deal policies.
However, as the United States entered World War II, the burden of the war left little time or energy for Roosevelt to continue with baseball. Roosevelt notified Thomas of this through a letter in which he wrote, “Dear Lowell, I am afraid Hitler has ended our ball games for the duration…As ever yours, F.D.R.” Thomas continued to play.
Now the focus of Thomas’ benefit games shifted to the war. War bonds were sold at each of these events, and proceeds went toward organizations like the Air Force Academy. During one game in August of 1943, allegedly nearly $41,000 in war bonds were purchased by attendees.
Although Thomas’ relationship with Roosevelt is relatively unknown to the public, it is an important piece of history, in both sports and politics. Today, when the idea of the President being friends with a journalist seems like an anomaly, Thomas and Roosevelt built their friendship on a common passion for baseball. Although it was often turbulent, as one might expect when a politician befriends a critic, it stands as an example of how sport brings people together.
Edited by Marco Schaden and Lily Caffrey-Levine