Dec 8, 2012

1954 World Champion New York Giants Third Baseman: Hank Thompson (1947-1956)

Henry Curtis Thompson was born December 8, 1925 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The five foot left handed infielder/outfielder played in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs throughout the nineteen forties.

He was drafted into the army during World War II and saw action at The Battle of the Bulge. He returned to baseball, playing for the Monarchs in 1946 coming in fourth in the league in HRs. That season, Kansas City with Thompson & team mates Buck O’Neil & Satchel Page beat the Newark Eagles in the Negro League World Series, for the Championship title.

In 1947 Thompson integrated into the major leagues, with the St. Louis Browns three months after Jackie Robinson, becoming baseball's third black player. He was in a historic game, that season at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, when he & Larry Doby became the first two black players to oppose each other in an MLB game.

Thompson didn’t hit well starting out his MLB career and returned to the Monarchs, where he came in third place for the Negro League batting title. In 1949 his contract was purchased by the New York Giants & Thompson became the first black player to play in both leagues. Another first occurred when he faced off against the Brooklyn Dodgers Don Newcombe, as he became the first black hitter to ever face a black pitcher in an MLB game.

Thompson joined the club on July 4th 1949 and after going 0-3 that day, quickly went on a six game hit streak He hit his first MLB HR on July 16th in the second game of a twin bill at the Polo Grounds. At the end of August he homered in three straight games driving in runs in five straight games. On the year he hit .280 in 75 games with 9 HRs 10 doubles & 34 RBIs.

In 1950 he became the Giants regular third baseman, and would lead all NL third basemen in errors, coming in second in assists & fourth in putouts. He also set an NL record with 43 double plays by a third baseman, topping Hall of Famer Pie Traynor’s mark.

At the plate he hit .290 with 20 HRs 17 doubles 6 triples & 91 RBIs with a .391 on base %. He was 8th in the league in walks (83) and 10th in steals (8) as well. On August 16, 1950, Thompson hit two inside-the-park HRs in the same game, something that wouldn’t be done for another 22 years until 1972.

In the Giants 1951 Pennant season, Thompson had an off year, as he was limited to only 87 games. In May he had his best stretch hitting five HRs from May4th through May 13th, with the Giants winning all those games he homered in. On June 14th he drove in both runs against the St. Louis Cardinals in Larry Jansen's 2-1 four hitter. Injuries limited him to two weeks in July & just fourteen games over August & September.

In the three game Playoff series with the Brooklyn Dodgers he only made two pinch hit appearances going 0-2. On the season Hank batted just .235 hitting 8 HRs 8 doubles 4 triples & 33 RBIs. He was a teammate of the 1951 Playoff hero Bobby Thomson, and the New York Press dubbed them "the Tom Tom twins”. Hank was also a favorite of manager Leo Durocher, and “Leo the Lip” constantly warned Thompson about his ongoing drinking problem.

Post Season: In the 1951 World Series Hank played in all five games against the AL New York club. He only had two hits in 14 at bats, but he did draw five walks & scored three runs. In Game #1 of that 1951 World Series he made history once again.

He replaced the injured Don Mulller and started the game in right field alongside Willie Mays & Monte Irvin. The trio made history that day as they became baseball's first all black out field in the history of the game.

In 1952 Hank was playing mostly as an outfielder, he hit .260 with 17 HRs 13 doubles 9 triples & 67 RBIs. Some of his biggest games that year came against the Boston Braves. On June 30th he hit a pair of HRs off Max Surkont helping the Giants to an 8-7 win in Boston. The next day he hit a three run shot, leading to a 6-3 Giants win. On August 11th he drove in four runs against the Braves in Boston. Then when they came to New York four days later, he hit the game winning HR off Lew Burdette in the home 8th inning.

In 1953 he returned to have a big month of May after missing a bit of ime injured. He hit six HRs with 13 RBIs in ten game span over the last week and a half of the month. On July 5th he had a huge day in a 20-6 Giants win over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Thompson hit two HRs, including a 5th inning grand slam off Joe Black, while driving in a total of seven runs. That week he drove in runs in six straight games, in the midst of an incredible stretch where he drove in at least one run in twelve of fourteen games.

He would have put up more numbers but he got injured again on August 31st, missing three weeks of September, as the Giants fell to a fifth place finish. That year he had his best year to date at the plate hitting 24 HRs, with 15 doubles, 8 triples (8th in the NL) scoring a career high 80 runs, & posting a career high .400 on base % . Thompson also hit over .300 (.302) for the only time in his career. Playing third base, he posted a .956 fielding %, fifth in the league.

In the Giants 1954 World Championship season, Hank was the team's second best slugger, behind League MVP Willie Mays. He certainly played in the shadows of the tremendous season Mays had, but Thompson still had an impressive season. Thompson hit a career high 26 HRs (9th in the NL) drove in 86 runs, he drew a career high 90 walks (4TH in the NL) scored 76 runs & batted .263 with a .389 on base %. 

He began the year on Opening Day at the Polo Grounds, with a 5th inning HR, breaking a 2-2 tie against Carl Erskine & the rival Brooklyn Dodgers. On June 3rd he hit three HRs driving in eight runs at Sportsman’s Park in a game against his old St. Louis Browns team. The Giants won it 13-8 behind Thompsons big day. He also had four hits & a walk that day. Two days later he hit a two run off Cincinnati's Ron Peranowski & drove in four runs on that day in a 7-0 Giants win over the Reds. 

On June 15th he struck the Reds again, as he hit a three run walk off HR in the bottom of the 9th inning off Jackie Collum. From July 24th through August 4th he hit five HRs & drove in 16 runs in the midst of a seven game hit streak. He began both, the month of July & August off with two HRs in each of the first four games both times.

On September 4th he hit a grand slam HR off Brooklyn's Preacher Roe, in a big 13-4 Giant win. He then hit HRs in the next two games as well, driving in nine runs during that stretch. The Giants won the NL pennant beating Brooklyn out by five games.

Post Season: In the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians, Thompson hit safely in all four games . In the first Series game he singled off Bob Lemon in the 3rd inning to tie up the games, as the Giants went on to a 5-2 victory. After getting a hit in game #2, he doubled & drew a pair of walks in Game #3 at New York.

In Game #4 he drew three walks, including a bases loaded walk off Hal Newhouser in the 5th inning. The Giants swept the Indians & were the Worlds Champions. In the Series Thompson batted .364 (4-11) with a double, two RBIs and led the all players in the Series scoring six runs. He scored a run in each game, including two in Games Three & Four.

He also set a World Series record by walking seven times in a four game Series, which gave him a .611 on base %. He was second to series hitting star Dusty Rhodes who posted a .714 on base % in six at bats.

After the Giants Championship season, 1955 was a forgetful one as the team finished third & those rival Dodgers went on to another pennant. Thompson's numbers fell as well batting .245 with 17 HRs & 63 RBIs. Strangely he was second on the club to Mays who hit 51 HRs (best in the league) & drove in 127 runs. Needless to say Thompson went unnoticed. At third base that year he led the NL in errors (22) playing in 124 games.

1956 would be Thompson's his last full year with the Giants, his heavy drinking & hard living was catching up with him, he was just 31 years old. He hit .245 with 8 HRs and 29 RBIs in 83 games finishing out his playing days.

In his nine year career he hit .267 with 801 hits 129 HRs, 104 doubles 34 triples 493 walks 482 RBIs, 492 runs scored & a .372 on base % over 933 games. At third base he played 655 games with a ,941 fielding %. He also played 102 games in the outfield & two games at short stop.

Retirement: After baseball, he got divorced and became a New York city cab driver. Unfortunately Thompson had his share of problems & had a hard time for the remainder of his life. Drama: In 1948, he shot and killed a man in a Dallas bar, but served no time as it was ruled justifiable homicide.

Ten years later in 1958 he hit a woman and was accused of taking three dollars from her purse. She was the wife of the Ink Spots musical group's singer Billy Bowen.

On February 26, 1961 at 1:30 AM, Thompson walked into a bar called Bill’s Place, on Amsterdam Avenue in the Washington Heights section of Harlem, in the shadows of the old Polo Grounds. Thompson was drunk & depressed. He asked the bartender “Do you know who I am” while holding a gun to his head. When the bartender said no, Thompson held him up. A few years earlier in this same bar he sold his 1954 World Series ring, for $250.

Letters from Giants owner Horace Stoneham and baseball commissioner Ford Frick convinced a Judge to hand down a sentence of probation. Then in 1963 he stole two pistols from a friend’s print shop and robbed a liquor store. This time, he went to jail for a few years.

In 1968 he moved to Fresno, California and became a city playground director. A movie of his life was planned but never happened. He died of a seizure at age 43 in Fresno, California. There was only a private ceremony for the former Giants pioneer and World Series winner.

No comments: