Tony Thebo: A Jewel on the Diamond

Anthony “Tony” Valle Thebo was born of baseball royalty, at least in Lamar County circles. George, Tony’s father, is the unheralded pioneer of the game in Paris, having introduced the city to baseball when he emigrated from Canada after the Civil War. Over the next thirty years, George watched proudly as both the Thebo family and baseball found a home in Paris.

The second of George Thebo’s three sons, Tony was born in 1881 and tagged along as his father attended impromptu amateur games held in open lots and pastures around Paris. By the mid-1890s Tony had taken up the game himself, mentored by his older brother’s friend, future Texas Leaguer Ben Shelton. Local baseball cranks soon took note of Tony’s skills in the field and on the bases, and by century’s end, Texas League clubs clamored to sign him to a contract.

Officially, Tony Thebo debuted professionally in 1902, a year after his father’s death. Family legend, though, says Tony actually began his career a couple of years earlier under an assumed name, his conservative Catholic mother refusing to hear of him mingling with notoriously heavy drinking and rowdy ballplayers. Regardless, Tony’s name first appears in the Texas League record books as a member of his hometown’s 1902 franchise. Following a season in the Cotton States League, Thebo returned to the Texas League in 1904 and became a mainstay, playing in eight cities over the next decade.

Newspaper accounts describe Tony Thebo as a speedy outfielder who could throw a runner out at any base from seemingly anywhere on the field. His weakness was at the plate, where Tony was said to sport an underhand swing that lifted short fly balls to waiting outfielders. While his .228 career batting average likely cost Thebo any shot at the big leagues, when he did get on base, Tony distracted opponents with the speed that served him so well defensively. His 90 stolen bases in 1908 remain the “modern” Texas League record over a century later.

Interestingly, Thebo’s most productive season was 1917, his last as a full-time professional. Returning to play in Paris for the first time in 15 years, he hammered 19 home runs and accounted for 217 total bases in the Class D Western Association. After a three year hiatus, Thebo attempted a comeback in the Mississippi State League, but at 39 years old, he appeared in only 14 games.

By 1922, Tony Thebo had retired from baseball, living with his wife Anne in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and working as a cotton inspector. His job eventually led the couple to move to Temple, where Tony lived the remainder of his life, dying of a heart attack in January, 1966. He is buried next to his wife in Temple’s Hillcrest Cemetery.

While Tony Thebo’s name continues to be listed in the Texas League record book, his family’s name has not appeared in a Paris directory in decades. In Evergreen Cemetery, though, a small number of Thebo headstones are grouped tightly, including that of George, who not only introduced Paris to baseball but whose son had one of the longest professional careers of any Northeast Texas native.

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