Former Gretna, Louisiana, resident Pete Thomassie’s baseball career in the early 1940s was on a soaring trajectory such that he acquired the label “Mel Ott of the Southern Association” by The Sporting News. It was an especially flattering comparison since Ott, a native of Gretna, had a Hall of Fame career as one of the all-time great major-league players.
Not only did they share West Bank roots, but Thomassie had a similar diminutive size (5-foot-7 and 145 pounds) as Ott (5-9, 170), and they both batted from the left side. Thomassie could hit, too, as he led the Southern Association in batting average for the better part of the 1945 season and posted four other seasons with batting averages of .300 or better.
However, Thomassie’s career development ultimately hit a brick wall after a near-major-league opportunity, and he never realized the full potential he exhibited in his first several professional seasons. He played parts of 13 seasons in the minors from 1939 to 1953, never reaching the major-league level.
Pershing “Pete” Thomassie was born in 1921 in Waggaman, Louisiana, a small town on the west bank of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans metropolitan area. He attended Marrero High School, where he was named to the 1938 Class B All-Prep baseball team selected by The Times-Picayune New Orleans States newspaper.
Thomassie attracted the attention of Claude Dietrich, a local scout for the minor-league Atlanta Crackers, and Thomassie inked a contract with them in 1938, along with several other high school and American Legion players from the area. New Orleans was in its heyday for professional baseball then.
A Times-Picayune article in April 1939 reported that Thomassie was among approximately 100 players from New Orleans in professional baseball that year.
In 1939, Thomassie was assigned to play with Waycross of the Class D Georgia-Florida League, which had a working agreement with Atlanta. He immediately excelled as a hitter in his two seasons with Waycross, hitting .315 and .339. He was also considered one of the fastest players in the minors, stealing 33 and 34 bases, respectively, in his first two seasons. Acquiring the nicknames of “Little General” and “Pocket Battleship,” the speedy outfielder was voted the most valuable player of the league in 1940. Noted for his colorful nature, the fans in Waycross bought him a $100 watch in recognition of his honor.
New Orleans played baseball year-round back in those days. Semi-pro leagues were prevalent, where professional players, including major-leaguers, would continue to play after their regular seasons ended in September. At age 21, Thomassie was playing alongside some of New Orleans’ best players: Howie Pollet, Al Jurisich, Al Flair, and Charlie Gilbert. The Times-Picayune reported a charity benefit game on October 4, 1940, in which Thomassie even played in the same outfield with legendary Ott.
His play in 1940 earned him an opportunity to play the next season for Atlanta in the Southern Association, where he hit .299 in 44 games. However, he was sent to Class B Savannah for more seasoning, where he batted .336 in 86 games.
Thomassie again signed a contract with Atlanta, but not before he had sent back three earlier proposed contracts unsigned. The Associated Press reported the fourth contract sent by special delivery to Atlanta contained assurances he “would do his best to be a worthwhile member of the Crackers.”
By 1942, many pro baseball players began entering the military service during World War II. Atlanta’s loss of players to the armed forces allowed Thomassie to claim an outfield spot at the start the season. However, on June 20, Atlanta traded Thomassie to the Memphis Chicks for Marshall Mauldin.
Thomassie was inducted into the Army in February 1943 and was sent to Camp Wolters in Texas, where he was able to continue to play ball on the service team called the “Doughboys.”. He was the only pro outfielder on the team. While playing against former major-league pitchers in the service, Thomassie learned to hit with more power, despite his small size. He received a medical discharge at Fort McPherson, Georgia, on December 1, 1944.
Returning to Memphis for the 1945 season, Thomassie replaced Pete Gray, the one-armed centerfielder who had amazed the baseball world during the 1944 season with his .333 batting average. An outfield spot opened up when Gray was sold to the St. Louis Browns for the 1945 season and became the first amputee to play in the major-leagues.
Thomassie was a unanimous selection to the Southern Association all-star team. Leading the league in hitting at the time, a feature article in The Sporting News labeled Thomassie the “Mel Ott of the Southern Association,” calling him “a bundle of dynamite that looks small on the surface but has tremendous explosive power.”
During May of the 1945 season, he hit safely in 12 consecutive at-bats, breaking the previous Southern Association record of ten hits by Oris Hockett.
However, he left the Memphis team unexpectedly before the season ended. News accounts of his leaving didn’t explain the reason, but he returned to New Orleans and played in a local semi-pro league that fall. He had compiled a career-high .365 average with Memphis, although Gil Coan of Chattanooga ultimately surpassed him for the batting title.
The Sporting News reported in November 1945 that Thomassie was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the minor-league draft, one of only ten players selected by major-league clubs. He reached an agreement with the White Sox on February 22, 1946.
Thomassie went to spring camp in 1946 with the big-league White Sox. According to The Sporting News, however, his training was interrupted by his need to accompany his wife during their 16-month-old daughter’s illness. By then, most major-league players had returned from military service and secured their old jobs with major-league teams. Consequently, he started the season with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Triple-A affiliate of the White Sox. That would be the closest Thomassie would ever get to appearing in the major-leagues, since he was optioned to Nashville in May after playing only 13 games with Milwaukee.
With Nashville, he batted .283 for the season, including a career-high 10 home runs. On June 15, he went 5-for-5 in a game that was part of a string of eight consecutive hits in as many plate appearances. On July 8, he hit the first of three consecutive home runs on three consecutive pitches against Little Rock pitcher Bob Raney. Cy Block and Bill Manning hit the other two home runs.
The Milwaukee Brewers sold Thomassie to the Little Rock Travelers before the 1947 season, but he never appeared in a game for them. He wound up with Class D Houma of the Evangeline League, where he hit .288 in 61 games.
For the next three seasons, Thomassie played sparingly (never a full season) in the low minors, while continuing to compete in New Orleans’ local semi-pro leagues and the annual charity baseball events.
Thomassie appeared to have a resurgence in 1951 when he played a full season with the Thibodaux Giants of the Class C Evangeline League. The 30-year-old hit .351, as the Giants finished in first-place during the regular season. At one point during the season, he hadn’t struck out during a streak of 238 official at-bats.
In the minor-league draft following the 1951 season, Thomassie was selected from Thibodaux by the St. Petersburg Saints of the Florida International League, but he appeared in only 22 games for the Class B team. His 1952 season with the Lafayette Bulls of the Evangeline League was his last professional season.
As late as 1966, Thomassie was still playing baseball in local semi-pro leagues, softball leagues, and old-timers’ games.
Nolan Vicknair, a former West Bank baseball player whose career partially overlapped Thomassie’s, recalls about him, “Pete was a natural athlete, but he rarely took conditioning seriously.” Vicknair, currently 92 years old and a former minor-league player himself, remembers that Thomassie exhibited a relaxed attitude about the game, which ultimately contributed to his professional career being stymied.
In a 1995 article of The Time-Picayune about Thomassie, Louisiana’s official baseball historian Arthur Schott noted about Thomassie, “He was an excellent fielder and a good ball player. He had a good fielding arm and was good at throwing men out at bases.” Vicknair confirms that assessment saying, “Pete could make leaping catches of deep fly balls near the outfield fence, similar to what we see a lot on television nowadays.”
Thomassie’s professional career never actually approached Mel Ott’s Hall of Fame career, but he is remembered by old-timers, such as Vicknair, as one of the best ballplayers ever from the West Bank. Thomassie was elected to the New Orleans Diamond Club Hall of Fame in 1976. He died on September 17, 1979.