Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hank Thompson: The Third Man

Few people remember the original “Hammerin” Hank,” who played in two World Series with the New York Giants during the 1950s. Hank Thompson – not to be confused with Bobby Thomson – accomplished many firsts, as well as a significant third.

Henry Curtis Thompson had a notable life in many ways. He was born December 8, 1925, in Oklahoma City and joined the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro American League in 1943. His career was interrupted by service in World War II, where he won two combat medals as a machine gunner at the Battle of the Bulge, and resumed in 1946. Hank also played three winters in the integrated Cuban League, with and against well-known Major and Negro League and Latin players, as well as Murray Franklin, a fraternity brother of my father who had a brief pre-war career with the Tigers. Thompson would play for the Monarchs through 1948, except for a brief stint that earned him “third man” status.

Hank Thompson

Jackie Robinson, as everybody knows, was the first to break MLB’s “color barrier” in 1947, and Larry Doby was the first African-American player in the American League. The third: Hank Thompson. Futile on the field and playing before empty houses, the St. Louis Browns signed two black players in July 1947, Thompson and Willard Brown, who would later enter the Hall of Fame for his Negro League accomplishments. Thompson eventually added the first of his many “firsts” to his long-forgotten third. When Brown started his first game two days later, they were the first two blacks in one game. Less than a month later, facing the Cleveland Indians, Thompson and Doby were the first blacks playing on opposing teams. The Browns gave up on Thompson and Brown in less than two months, releasing them in late September. A second baseman, Thompson played in 27 games, with no home runs, 5 RBI and a .256 batting average. (A sidebar: Brown was the first black player to homer in the American League, an inside-the-park number using a bat discarded by teammate Jeff Heath. After Brown returned to the dugout, Heath splintered the bat to pieces. Subsequently, I found that Heath broke the bat over superstition, not racism.)

St. Louis Browns, 1947

The 5’9”, 174-pound Thompson had a strong arm and good speed, which caught the attention of the New York Giants. His call-up to the Giants with Monte Irvin in 1949 resulted in more firsts: first African-American to play in the American and National Leagues, the first with the Giants and the only player to integrate two teams. Facing the Dodgers Don Newcombe in 1951, he was the first black batter to face a black pitcher. Finally, in a bit of irony, Thompson would join Irvin and Willie Mays to form the first all-black outfield, when he moved from third base to right field, replacing the injured Don Mueller, in Game 1 of the 1951 World Series at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees would not employ their first black player until Elston Howard in 1955.

Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Hank Thompson
Yankee Stadium, October 1951

Thompson played a major role in the Giants 4-0 sweep of the heavily favored Cleveland Indians in 1954, their last World Series victory. Moving back to third base, he hit .364, scored a team-high 6 runs and walked 7 times, still a Major League record for a four-game series. He also caught the final out of game 4. The ravages of alcohol and leg problems shortened his career, and he appeared in only 83 games in 1956, his final big-league season.

1956 Topps card

Sadly, Hank Thompson is known more for his off-field travails. As a youngster, he served time in reform school for theft and shot a man to death in a Houston bar in 1948; it was ruled justifiable homicide. Money problems caused him to pawn his World Series ring. Additional brushes with the law led to probation, but an armed-robbery conviction in 1963 sent him to prison for 10 years, for which he served 4 years before being paroled. He tried to get back into baseball but was unsuccessful. Thompson died after a brain seizure at age 43 in Fresno, California, on September 30, 1969.

Look for the Fox broadcasters to drone on about Mays, Bobby Thomson, Dusty Rhodes, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Barry Bonds, If the World Series goes long enough, perhaps they will find time to tell the tales of Hammerin' Hank Thompson. If not, you heard them here.

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