A. C. "Titanic" Thomas

Our game has seen some legendary characters. Only a handful are left who remember perhaps the most amazing one of all time, A. C. “Titanic” Thomas. Titanic made his living hustling. He hustled cards, golf, horseshoes, bowling, billiards, trap, skeet, rifle, pistol and live pigeons. But he loved best to hustle at shooting tournaments. They say he never finished the fifth grade, and at 17 he claimed to be an assistant to the famous Capt. Adam F Bogardus. He always credited the captain for giving him his start in shooting, which spanned some 70 years. He traveled with Bogardus until the old gentleman called it quits. Titanic never learned to call it quits.

    He was a handsome devil and an impeccable dresser who drove only the newest cars. Generally, he traveled with two attractive women, both of whom were substantially younger than he was. These were the days of puritanical thinking, so he referred to them as his wife and her sister. Few were fooled. Many thought they accompanied him to help break the concentration of those he was playing or betting with. And oftentimes they did. Friendly, pretty women can do that you know.

Big money poker games were played at all the major trap and pigeon shoots in those days. Titanic was in most of them. Nick the Greek, who claims to have won and lost over 50 million in his day, said in his book. “There wasn’t a card game Ti Thomas couldn’t play, and he was the best stud poker player I ever saw.”

No one really knew how good a shooter he was because he seldom entered important tournaments. As far as we know, he never attended the Grand American. We do know he won the Arizona 16-yard state championship four straight years from 1951 through 1954. But he preferred to just show up at a gun club and bet some poor soul $100 to $1,000 he could beat him. Titanic always seemed to win by a single target. And, generally, he would con the same guy again by saying, “Hey, you almost got me. Let’s do it again. Same bet.” And they would, and Titanic would win by a single target again.

He was one of the most famous gamblers of his time and was frequently in the company of Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the 1919 Chicago v. Cincinnati World Series.

Few shooters said he wasn’t honest, but a lot of shooters said he was “shady.”

Dick Shaughnessy of Massachusetts, the man I have long-considered to be the best combined trap and skeet shooter ever, remembers Titanic very well. Dick, now 80 years old, recalled a skeet shoot in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s on the Maryland-Delaware line.

He said, "Somehow L. S. Pratt, who won the first National Skeet Shoot at Cleveland in 1935, got involved in running a big money shoot and invited me to attend. Pratt was friends with Titanic, who was at the shoot with two beautiful babes.

Anyway, there was this big Calcutta and the auction was held after the first 50 targets. I was at the top of in game back then and a big favorite win. We all shot low gun position those days. Somehow someone got the trap-boy and slipped him four wooden or rubber targets, which I hit a ton but of course didn’t break. Targets were hand-loaded on the trap in those days. I ended up with 46 of the first 50. Before the Calcutta stared, I walked out on the field find the targets I hit so hard that didn’t break. However, they said retrieving lost birds wasn’t allowed and they ran me off.

The auctioneer sold me cheap because I was down four targets at the halfway point. Titanic ended up buying me. I broke the last 50 straight and won the shoot. Titanic made a pile of money on me. I knew somehow he was responsible for the four targets I hit so hard that didn't break. That’s the way he operated"

Bob Allen, Trapshooting Hall of Famer from Iowa, had this to say about Ti Thomas in his new biography, Shooter, the Life an Times of Bob Allen.

For years, I heard of his prowess as a gambler particularly in golf. I first met him at the Kansas State Shoot in Wichita back in the ‘50s. While we were in line to enter he said, "Let’s have a bet to make it more interesting." He suggested $5 on each 25-bird event, It would seem like a cinch for me to beat him as I was in my prime back then with a 98% average to his, which was about 92%. Knowing his reputation. I told him five bucks was a little rich for my blood, but I’d bet him a dollar an event. He didn’t want any part of that, so we had no bet.

Around 1960 I got a phone call from Titanic asking if I would shoot with him as his partner against two guys from Missouri. There was a $5,000 bet involved, and if we won he’d split it with me. I found out that one of the two shooters was from Hannibal, Mo., and his name was Harrison. I believe it was Leo Harrison’s dad who was a pretty well-known skeet and trapshooter back in those days. I always meant to ask Leo about this but have never done so. I refused the whole deal, as I didn’t want my reputation mixed up with Titanic's.

I’ve heard many golf stories about him, but the best one was a bet he cooked up with a group of wealthy oil men. He bet three men $10,000 each he could drive a golf ball a mile. All three took him up on it. Ti told them he’d let them know when he was I ready to do it. The old fox waited until Like Geneva in Wisconsin was frozen over with glass smooth ice and a strong wind was behind his back.

The story is he called the three to watch. He was a very good golfer and could easily drive 300 yards. The ball he hit over the ice on Lake Geneva exceeded a mile and kept on rolling until it reached the opposite shore. Ti won the bet!

In still another caper, he secretly learned to play gold left handed at a public golf course where no one knew him. After he perfected his left-handed game, he touted up a big wager with more wealthy oil men telling them they were so bad he could beat them left-handed. They jumped at the chance, and some big-money bets were made. Old Ti was again a jump ahead and easily beat them.

Jimmy Robinson, in  his 1980 book The Best of Jimmy Robinson had these things to say about Titanic:

The late Benny Bickers of Dallas, a gambler and bookie by trade and a member of my Sports Afield All American Skeet Team, was one of the top ten skeet shooters in the world. He always carried a 98% average while Thomas generally wound up the year at 92% or lower. Back in the 50s, the two tangled in a skeet shoot, and Benny spotted Ti a target or two each event, and the game was on. They shot a full afternoon, and Titanic took him for 10 grand. "I should have known Ti had the edge," Benny told me that evening at the night club. "Anybody who bets with him has to have a hole in his head."

Once he bet $5,000 he could throw a water melon over a five-story building. He bought a melon, climbed the stairs to a taller building next door, threw the melon over and won the bet. He told Jimmy Robinson, "No matter how good I was I always liked to have an edge. I've been known to go around with my arm in a sling while getting up a golf match and then have a miraculous recovery on the first tee. But there were times no trick would work, and you just had to put your head down and play. George Von Elm, then a famous golfer, hustled me into a $15,000 game with a fellow that I had to shoot a 65 to beat. At the time, they thought I was a 20 handicapper. You should have heard the hollering. Another time at the Ridgelea course in Ft. Worth, I had to shoot a course record of 29 on the back nine to beat Byron Nelson."

Unfortunately, history has lost track of A. C. "Titanic” Thomas. If his last days were spent in a nursing home, I’m sure he would have cooked up a scheme that relieved patients, nurses and doctors of some worldly goods. I’d be disappointed in him if he hadn’t.

But this we know. Most of the people who now make up our great sport are of the plain vanilla type. Peaceful coexistence and complacency have eliminated boastful talkers and those who survived on nerve and skill. And this is too bad. The lackluster folks now moving through life are a far cry from the Titanic Thomases of old. Many of us missed out by not knowing his kind. Some will say, “I’m glad I missed out.” Not me. I think he brought a lot to the party.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 June 2010 09:36