By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
Recalling A Forgotten Pioneer
Who remembers Hank Thompson?
Willard Brown, the fourth black player to reach the majors, received his belated due during the summer of 2006 when he joined Doby and Robinson in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
And what of the third black player from the epic summer of 1947, which changed baseball forever?
Henry Curtis Thompson was the third man in, spending five weeks with the St. Louis Browns. The twisting story of his brief and hard life ranges from the high of two World Series appearances with the New York Giants to the low of doing time in the Texas penal system.
“He was a whirlwind of talent, a Tasmanian-devil type of player,” said Larry Lester, a member of the Hall of Fame’s screening and voting committees for Negro Leaguers. “But he could be described as a headache. He had some problems off the field.”
A rough beginning
As the momentous 1947 season unfolded, Browns general manager Bill DeWitt Sr. told his young son about the Negro Leagues players whom the Browns were considering: Thompson and Brown of the Kansas City Monarchs and Piper Davis of the Birmingham Black Barons.
“He saw them as good players,” said Bill DeWitt Jr., the current Cardinals chairman. “He firmly believed they had an opportunity to help the Browns. He really didn’t care about the color of their skin. He wanted the best players.”
Brown had shown prodigious power. Davis was a superb second baseman and contact hitter.
Thompson had joined the Monarchs in 1943 as a 17-year-old outfielder with speed and line-drive power. Teammates quickly tagged him “Youngblood.” Why?
“He had a lot of little kid in him,” catcher Sammy Haynes told Lester. “But he had a temper and liked to play rough.”
That was consistent with Thompson’s background, which differed greatly from the college-educated Robinson’s.
As a teenager, Thompson was arrested twice. He was acquitted of theft but served four months in the Gatesville (Texas) Reform School because of truancy. He was also, Dr. Jules Tygiel wrote in “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” an alcoholic.
“He liked his beer and his cocktails,” Hall of Famer Monte Irvin said. “He liked to have fun.”
Here and gone
Thompson went into the Army in 1944 and served in the Battle of the Bulge as a machine gunner with the 1695th Combat Engineers. After World War II, he returned to the Monarchs and established himself again as a .300 hitter, attracting the Browns’ attention.
Ownership liked the idea of adding black players because Robinson had established himself as a huge gate attraction. The sadsack Browns needed something to attract paying customers. Buried in the American League’s second division, they drew 478 people to a day game in early July at Sportsman’s Park.
On July 16, the Browns signed Thompson and Brown. The next morning, a Rocky Graziano-Tony Zale middleweight title fight had top billing in the Post-Dispatch sports section over the Browns’ transactions.
The new Browns received a chilly reception. Outfielder Paul Lehner threatened to quit. No teammate would throw with Brown and Thompson, forcing them to warm up together. Manager Muddy Ruel refused to answer questions about his new players.
Thompson made his initial appearance on July 17, playing second base in a 16-2 loss to Philadelphia that attracted a paid turnout of 3,648. After the game, Thompson told reporters it was “the happiest day of my life.”
Brown joined the lineup two days later, making the Browns the first team to field two black players at the same time. (The Cardinals did not have a black player until Tom Alston in 1954.)
Barely a month later, Thompson and Brown were gone.
The Browns released them on Aug. 23 because they “had failed to reach major league standards,” DeWitt Sr. said. Brown hit only .179 with one homer in 67 at-bats. Thompson hit .256 in 78 at-bats, 15 points higher than the team average.
Attendance had not risen as the club had hoped. There were no overt incidents, but a city still gripped by segregation turned its back to the new players.
The Browns were also guilty of failing to do their homework. Brown was several years older than his listed age of 32. Thompson’s temper and drinking caused problems.
“Thompson had a drinking problem … that prevented him from achieving his potential,” Tygiel said. “The main problems seem to be the Browns were never committed to the players. They signed them in hopes of boosting the gate. When this did not happen, they released them.”
A Giant step
Brown never played in the majors again. Thompson returned to the Monarchs after another violent incident. He shot a man in a Dallas bar in what was ruled justifiable homicide.
Thompson played well in his return to the Monarchs and also had a good winter in Cuba, catching the eye of the New York Giants. Thompson returned to the majors on July 5, 1949, becoming the Giants’ first black player. He is the only player to integrate two clubs.
With the Giants, Thompson had a strong support system. Irvin joined him and was his roommate. And manager Leo Durocher, according to Irvin, called a meeting when the newcomers arrived and told the club, “If they can play baseball and help us put some money in our pockets, then we want them with the Giants. Let these guys play and treat them like you would anyone else.”
Durocher’s stand helped make the Giants the most nurturing team for black players. The players took to Thompson. He became friends with Alvin Dark, the white shortstop from the deep South.
Thompson moved from third base to replace the injured Don Mueller in right field for the 1951 World Series, joining Irvin and prodigy Willie Mays in the major leagues’ first all-black outfield. Thompson also played in the 1954 World Series, hitting .364 in the sweep of Cleveland.
Thompson spent eight seasons with the Giants, twice getting votes in the Most Valuable Player balloting. He hit .267 in his career with 129 homers. In 1950, he broke Hall of Famer Pie Traynor’s record for most double plays in a season by a third baseman.
“Hank was a very talented player,” Irvin said. “People liked Hank. The Browns made a big mistake with him.”
A rough ending
In 1957, the Giants demoted Thompson to the minors. His alcohol-driven demons had caught up to him. At age 31, Thompson was finished. He quit in July.
“Nothing was ever more serious than baseball,” Thompson told Sport magazine in 1965. “Yes, one thing. Drink.”
Thompson floundered without the structure of baseball. He bounced from job to job, went through a divorce and had more brushes with the law.
At various times, Thompson was charged with assault, auto theft and armed robbery. He got off each time, usually with the help of Giants owner Horace Stoneham.
The drinking continued unabated. Admittedly “half-drunk,” Thompson robbed a Houston liquor store in 1963. He was picked up that night and later sentenced to 10 years.
Paroled after four years, Thompson moved near his mother in Fresno, Calif. A second marriage and a job working with kids at a playground brought him new purpose. Thompson was on an upward swing when he suffered a heart attack in September 1969. He never regained consciousness.
“It’s sad for anybody who falls on hard times, but especially a teammate,” Irvin said. “He was on his own for a long time: no wife, no kids, no money, no job. It was tough on him. But he should be remembered for what he did.”
Thompson was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery of Fresno. His headstone makes no mention of his baseball career, citing only his military service. His obituary merited two paragraphs in the Post-Dispatch.