These Men Changed Baseball: Hank Thompson
Now our series changes tack. Hank Thompson was the third African-American to make the major leagues in 1947, integrating the St. Louis Browns, and two years later he would join Monte Irvin in integrating the New York Giants. Despite his immense importance in baseball history for those two acts, it is good that Thompson followed Robinson and Doby.
Thompson was born in Oklahoma City in 1925, and his family moved to Texas while he was still young. In Texas, Thompson had a variety of legal problems, including arrests for theft and truancy while a minor. In 1943 he was picked up by the Kansas City Monarchs, but he had also developed the drinking problem that would plague the rest of his life. After his rookie season, Thompson joined the army in 1944, joining a combat engineer company as a machine gunner and fighting at the Battle of the Bulge. He was discharged in 1946 and rejoined the Kansas City Monarchs. After losing the Negro League World Series to the Newark Eagles and Larry Doby, Thompson’s contract was sold to the St. Louis Browns. He debuted on July 17, 1947. They lost to the A’s 16-2. His former Monarchs teammate and future Hall of Famer Willard Brown would debut 2 days later. Thompson had a poor rookie year at age 21. He hit .256 with an OPS+ of 76 as a second basemen. He was released, along with Brown, in August, and both went back to the Monarchs for that season and the next.
In 1949, Thompson returned to the major leagues for good. The Giants shifted Thompson to third base, where he would basically stick for the rest of his career. He stuck up an OPS+ of 119 in 75 games. He would play well through 1954, with decent years in 1955 and 1956. Then his career came to an abrupt in. His statistics are provided below, courtesy of Baseball Reference.
|162 Game Avg.||162||620||521||85||139||18||6||22||84||6||86||59||.267||.372||.453||.825||118||236||8||4||6|
|NYG (8 yrs)||906||3479||2925||482||781||103||33||129||477||31||14||483||330||.267||.373||.457||.830||119||1337||44||22||34||15||6|
|SLB (1 yr)||27||89||78||10||20||1||1||0||5||2||1||10||7||.256||.341||.295||.636||76||23||2||0||1|
|NL (8 yrs)||906||3479||2925||482||781||103||33||129||477||31||14||483||330||.267||.373||.457||.830||119||1337||44||22||34||15||6|
|AL (1 yr)||27||89||78||10||20||1||1||0||5||2||1||10||7||.256||.341||.295||.636||76||23||2||0||1|
Why was Thompson’s career so short? He was an alcoholic. Thompson’s drinking problems stemmed back to at least 1943. Along with those problems, he had regular legal troubles. He was charged with murder in 1948, though acquitted as justifiable homicide. He was arrested for auto theft in 1958, armed robbery in 1961, and convicted of armed robbery in 1963. He died of a heart attack in 1969 at only age 43.
Thompson was not Robinson or Doby in any measure. He was not there equal as a ballplayer nor their equal as a human being. Nevertheless, Thompson made numerous contributions to major league baseball. He was the first African-American to play in both leagues, part of the first time in which African-American on opposing teams faced each other in a game (against Larry Doby), the first to face an African-American pitcher (Don Newcombe), part of the first all African-American outfield in the 1951 World Series. He was an integral part of the Giants World Series win in 1954, hitting .364 with an OPS of 1.066 in 18 plate appearances. Thompson had some great success, and some astounding lows. He is a reminder that the people who change the world are not necessarily fantastic people. Nevertheless, he was integral to the development of the game we have today.