Category Archives: Hank Thompson

Hank Thompson: Played a Role in the Integration of Major League Baseball

In my opinion, Hank Thompson does not get the notice he deserves in the integration of Major League baseball. Playing with the St. Louis Browns in the summer of 1947, he followed closely on the coat tails of Jackie Robinson (after two months and two days) and Larry Doby (after two days) to break through the “invisible color line” that had kept African-American and dark-skinned Latinos out of Major League baseball.  Although the Browns released him that summer, Thompson’s talent could not be denied and he went on to have a productive eight year Major League career with the New York Giants.  Born on December 8, 1925 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the left-handed hitting Henry Curtis Thompson played a part in the historic changing of baseball’s face.

hank-thom-6

Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League on April 15, 1947 to become the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues in the 20th Century.  At that time, Hank Thompson was in his second season with the Kansas City Monarchs since returning from the military after World War II. He had begun playing Negro League baseball in 1943 as a teenaged outfielder with the Monarchs before the military draft.  The potential as a ball player he exhibited before military service was coming to fruition.  On July 5, 1947 Larry Doby played his first game with the Cleveland Indians to become the first African-American to play in the American League.

Seeing the large crowds Jackie Robinson attracted to ballparks, the St. Louis Browns purchased the contracts of Hank Thompson and his teammate Willard Brown from the Monarch. The Browns were the worst team in the American League with attendance below 1,000 fans during many home games.  The team’s management hoped having the black players would generate fan interest.  Thompson played his first Major League game on July 17. On July 20, he and Brown made history as St. Louis became the first team to field two African-American players.  Their teammates refused to accept them and Browns’ manager Muddy Ruel only used the black players sparingly.  The integration experiment did not attract the crowds as desired.  With no intention of helping to nurture their baseball talents as the Dodgers did for Robinson and the Indians would do for Doby, the Browns released both Thompson and Brown on August 23.  Although he did not get a fair opportunity with the Browns, Thompson showed promise hitting .256 in 27 games playing mainly second base.  At only 21 years old, he would get another opportunity to play in the Major Leagues.  Unfortunately, being 32 years old, Willard Brown did not.

hank-thomp-2

Hank Thompson (left) and Willard Brown (right) with the St. Louis Browns 1947

 

Thompson returned to the Kansas City Monarchs for the 1948 season and received his second chance the next year when signed by the New York Giants. He along with Monte Irvin made their Major League debuts on July 8, 1949 to become the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.  In 1950, his first full year with the team, Thompson hit .289 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs while playing 148 games mainly at third base and was considered one of the best in league at that position.  But he also played in the outfield as he did with the Monarchs.  In 1951, the Giants won the National League pennant and played in the World Series against the New York Yankees.  Thompson played alongside Monte Irvin and rookie Willie Mays as the Giants become the first team in World Series history to field an all African-American starting outfield.

When Mays left for military service, Thompson hit 17 home runs in 1952 and 24 home runs batting .302 in 1953. When Mays returned in 1954, Thompson hit .263 with 26 home runs and 86 RBIs to help the Giants win the National League pennant.  In the team’s World Series sweep of the Cleveland Indians, he hit .364 with seven walks (a four game Series record) and made a spectacular fielding play at third base in Game Three.

hank-thom-4

(Left to right) Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson

Throughout his playing career Thompson battled with alcoholism. By 1956 it dramatically took its toll on him.  He became so unproductive the Giants sent him to the minor leagues late in the 1956 season and he retired from baseball in 1957.  He died on September 3, 1969, only 43 years old.

Hank Thompson does not have a plaque in Cooperstown as does his former teammates on the New York Giants; Willie Mays and Monte Irvin. However, he should be remembered as one of the Negro League players who proved that once given the opportunity, he belonged in the Major Leagues.  His success kept the door open for others to follow.

hank-10

Former Negro League players(left to right) Ernie Banks, Hank Thompson, Gene Baker, Willie Mays

 

 

To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  To order go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown) http://www.klmitchell.com

Gene Collins: Pitched Last Negro League “No-hitter”

After viewing my previous post on Negro League baseball’s ambidextrous pitcher Larry Kimbrough, Wanda Weatherspoon wanted information shared about her relative who played with the Kansas City Monarchs; Eugene “Gene” Collins. If you have consistently read my blog posts, you know how strongly I believe Negro League baseball is forever woven into the fabric of 20th Century American History.  Wanda is proud her relative is a part of the Negro League story.

collinsBorn January 7, 1925 in Kansas City, Gene Collins came to the Monarchs in 1947 when the face of Major League baseball began to change and the Negro Leagues’ swan song started its tune. That year Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play in the Major Leagues. A 5’8”, 168 pound left-handed pitcher, Collins joined a pitching staff that included Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith, both now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  A good hitter, Collins also spent time playing with Hall of Fame outfielder Willard Brown who along with Monarch teammate Hank Thompson would briefly play for the St. Louis Brown in 1947.  By mid-summer of the next year, Paige would be pitching for the Cleveland Indians.  Buck O’Neil, Ted Strong, Joe Greene, and Manager Frank Duncan were all Monarch veterans that help break in Gene Collins to the life of Negro League baseball.

For seven innings on May 22, 1949 Collins gave up no hits to the Houston (formerly Newark) Eagles. With Kansas City leading 14 – 0, the game ended after the seventh inning and some credit Collins with pitching the last no-hitter in Negro League baseball.  Some research indicates without detail he had pitched a no-hitter earlier while with the Monarchs.

Five of Gene Collins’ young Monarch teammates during his 1947 – 1949 time with the club went on to play in the Major Leagues as racial integration continued in professional baseball; Gene Baker, Elston Howard, Hank Thompson, Curt Roberts, and Connie Johnson. Collins himself began his minor league career with the Chicago White Sox in 1951.  Similar to other teams in the American League, the White Sox took a slow approach to racial integration.  Although the “invisible color line” had been erased, there were still racial barriers that African-American and dark-skinned Latino ball players had to face (quota for number on a team, utility player roster spots for white players only) that hindered many of their careers.  The only African American pitchers in the American League until the late 1950s were two of Collins’ former Monarch teammates:  Satchel Paige who pitched for the Indians (1948 -1949) and the St. Louis Browns (1951 – 1953) and Connie Johnson (White Sox 1953 – 1955 and Baltimore 1955 – 1958).  After spending two years in the lower minor league levels of the White Sox organization, Collins played the remainder of his career in Mexican and Caribbean leagues.  He never played a game in Major League baseball.

The second book I am currently writing deals with the plight of former Negro League players like Gene Collins. With the Civil Rights Movement’s initial beginnings as its backdrop, the book tells of the final demise of Negro League teams as the integration of Major League baseball gained unstoppable momentum in the 1950s.

I invite Wanda and anyone else who knew Gene Collins and would want to add more about his life to provide me your information and I will do another post about him.

To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  To order go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown) http://www.klmitchell.com

The story of former Major League player Nate Colbert reflects how the baseball dreams of African-American boys changed as a result of Jackie Robinson erasing Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” in 1947.

Colbert August 1

Nate Colbert (right) after game on August 1, 1972

 

On May 2, 1954 in a doubleheader against the New York Giants; St. Louis Cardinal right fielder Stan Musial hit five home runs.  There were 26,662 in attendance that Sunday afternoon at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium to see him do what no other Major League player had accomplished.   In the first game, Musial hit three home runs and drove in six runs in the Cardinal’s 10 – 6 victory.  He hit 2 homers and drove in three runs in the nightcap, but the Giants won 9 – 7.

In the stadium that spring afternoon with his father was eight year old African-American Nate Colbert.  I am sure little Nate was excited about seeing his favorite Cardinal ballplayer, “Stan the Man”, set a Major League record with those five home runs. But Colbert that day also saw Cardinal rookie first baseman Tom Alston, the first African American to appear in a Major League game for the St. Louis Cardinals.

For the first time in the franchise’s history, the 1954 Cardinal team had African-Americans players. The 28-year-old Alston made his Major League debut on April 13, earlier than Brooks Lawrence (June 24) and Bill Greason (May 31), the other two African Americans on the team.  A good defensive first baseman, he had a hot bat against the Giants in the doubleheader witnessed by little Nate.  In the first game Alston got four hits including a home run, his third of the young season, and two RBIs.  The second game he hit a bases loaded double (3 RBIs) in the Cardinals’ first inning.  He ended the day batting .313

Stan Wally Tom

St. Louis Cardinals Wally Moon (left), Stan Musial (center), and Tom Alston (right) after May 2, 1954 game

Little Nate also saw that day three former Negro League baseball players who appeared in both games for the Giants: Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Hank Thompson. Irvin and Thompson in 1949 were the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.

Hank Monte Willie

New York Giants Monte Irvin (left), Willie Mays (center), and Hank Thompson (right)

Fast forward this story to 1964. 18 year old Nate Colbert is signed by the Cardinals, but they lose him to the Houston Astros in the 1965 Rule Five draft and he never plays a game in the uniform of his hometown team.  The Astros then trade him to the San Diego Padres in 1969.

On August 1, 1972; in Colbert’s fourth season with the Padres, he ties the record he saw Stan Musial set in 1954.  Colbert hits five home runs in a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta.  He hits two home runs and drives in five runs as the Padres win the first game 9-0 and hits three homers driving in eight runs in his team’s 11 -7 victory in the nightcap.  For the second time in his six years with the Padres, Colbert hits 38 home runs in 1972.

nate colbert

Nate Colbert gets congratulation from Padres’ batboy after hitting home run on August 1, 1972

Little Nate Colbert’s Major League career did not come close to that of Hall of Famer Stan Musial.  To tie or break a record in baseball; however, is considered a great accomplishment.   And Colbert being present to see the record set that he would eventually tie makes this a unique circumstance.   However, Colbert got the opportunity to be able to do what he saw his childhood favorite Cardinal ballplayer do because of what he also witnessed that May afternoon.

By seeing Tom Alston, Willie Mays, Hank Thompson, and Monte Irvin play that day; Colbert witnessed the new day in Major League baseball that was occurring. It had dawned in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball.  It was a new day in which the baseball dreams of little Nate Colbert and other African-American boys were no longer confined to Negro League baseball.  A new day that would produce stories like Nate Colbert’s and others as the racial barriers in professional baseball were pulled down in the 1950s and 1960s.

All photos provided by Google Images

To order “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”, go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown)

%d bloggers like this: