The Unfortunate Legacy Of Gary Thomasson

“The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” —Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

In A Nutshell

Gary Thomasson was an American baseball player who lost his mojo when he moved to Japan. But despite his less-than-stellar career, his name still lives on today. Thanks to Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei, Thomasson has became an eponym for a truly bizarre type of architecture: objects that are completely useless but still carefully maintained.

The Whole Bushel

If you’ve ever lived in a major city, you’ve probably seen your fair share of architectural oddities. Perhaps you’ve spotted a handrail where there aren’t any stairs or a door that opens into a brick wall. Maybe you’ve noticed vents with nothing to ventilate or a section of fence you can easily walk around. Pictured above, you can see a skyway that no longer connects to anything, yet wasn’t demolished with its connected building, for some reason.

These are the remnants of expanding cities, but what’s confounding is many of these ridiculous doors and pointless pipes are still carefully maintained. While they serve no purpose, they’re repainted when they grow rusty or repaired when they fall apart. They also have their own name. They’re called Thomassons.

So who nicknamed these silly structures and why? Well, the culprit is a Japanese artist named Akasegawa Genpei. One day in 1972, he was on his lunch break in Tokyo when something caught his eye. It was a staircase that went up and down, like all staircases do, only there was no door at the top. They were stairs to nowhere, but what really amazed Akasegawa was the railing.

It was obvious that at one time or another, the railing had come apart, but what blew Akasegawa’s mind was someone had fixed the darn thing. Now the railing was good as new, even though there was no reason why anyone would ever use those stairs.

Mystified, Akasegawa searched the city for more worthless wonders. Whenever he found an out-of-place pole or a gate in the middle of nowhere, he’d snap a photo. He considered these doors and stairs “artistic byproducts” of the city, and soon he was publishing the pictures in a photography magazine, complete with little articles on the nature of their existence.

He also created a name for these vestigial structures. He called them “Thomassons,” after baseball player Gary Thomasson who played for teams like the Dodgers and the Yankees. While Thomasson was a fine player in the States, things changed dramatically when he signed on with the Yomiuri Giants, a team based in Tokyo. Once Thomasson arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun, he couldn’t hit a ball to save his life. People called him “the giant human fan” because all he was doing with that bat was stirring up air.

After Thomasson set the all-time Japanese strikeout record in 1981, the coaches benched the poor guy. And that’s how Thomasson served out the rest of his contract, sitting in the dugout and making money for doing nothing. According to Akasegawa, who’s a huge baseball fan, Thomasson “had a fully formed body, and yet served no purpose to the world,” but just like those fences and banisters he’d found around Tokyo, the man was still being “maintained.”

So in order to be a Thomasson, an object must be cared for even though it’s completely pointless. The concept caught on, and soon people were submitting their own Thomassons to Akasegawa for approval. In 1985, the artist published his findings in a book called HyperArt Thomasson which was translated into English in 2009. The book inspired a new group of Thomasson hunters, particularly in San Francisco, and Akasegawa’s publishers even started a website where people could submit their artistic discoveries.

Unfortunately, Gary Thomasson’s family isn’t exactly pleased with the way the ballplayer is being portrayed. After all, who wants to be remembered for being useless? Of course, as radio host Roman Mars points out, how many other ballplayers from the ‘70s and ‘80s can you remember? Thanks to Akasegawa, Gary Thomasson’s name will live on wherever people find doorknobs attached to brick walls or roads that lead smack-dab into dead ends.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Jeff Kimbel via Hyperart: Thomasson
The Believer: A Review of “Hyperart: Thomasson”
99% Invisible: Episode 129: Thomassons