Thompson & Thomson

The following is from a speech I recently gave at the Brookline Rotary club.

How many of you have heard of Hank Thompson?

Now I’m not talking about the country music singer whose career spanned seven decades and who sold more than 60 million records worldwide.

I’m talking about Hank Thompson, the baseball player.

Mr. Thompson was a baseball pioneer. He was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and at 17 played for the infield and outfield for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro American League.

In 1943, at age 18, he was drafted into the Army and was a machine gunner at the Battle of the Bulge. Discharged on June 20, 1946, he immediately returned to the Monarchs

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Three months later, on July 17, Thompson became the first black player for the St. Louis Browns, the second black in the American League and the third black player in the majors. Indians outfielder Larry Doby, you might recall, was the first black player in the American League making his debut July 5, 1947.

Two days after Thompson joined St. Louis, Willard Brown made his debut as the second black player on the Browns. The following day, July 20, Thompson played second base and Brown played center field for the Browns in a game against the Boston Red Sox marking the first time that two black players appeared in the same major league lineup. On August 9 in a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians, Thompson and Doby became the first black players of opposing teams to appear on the field at the same time.

Hank was released by the Browns, returned to the Monarchs and then signed with the New York Giants. On July 4, 1949, the New York Giants called Thompson up from their Jersey City farm club. By signing with the Giants, Thompson became the first black baseball player to play in both the National and American leagues. On July 8, Thompson and Monte Irvin became the first black players for the Giants. Thus Thompson became the only player to participate in breaking the segregation barrier on two different teams.

Another first occurred when Thompson batted against Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe. Newk had made his debut on May 20, 1949. Thus, Thompson became the first black batter to face a black pitcher in the majors.

Let’s jump ahead to 1951, the most famous pennant race in baseball history.

On July 18, 1951, the New York Giants third baseman, our friend, Hank Thompson was in a slump and hitting .239. On top of that, he had been spiked and the Giants, who were in second place, 7.5 games behind the Dodgers, needed a replacement.

Sitting on the bench was an outfielder who had lost his job to the rookie Willie Mays. Now this guy on the bench had some infield experience and after he took over third base on July 19, 1951, he hit .357 the rest of the season and limited Hank Thompson to just 17 at bats, the rest of the way. The new third baseman’s name was Bobby Thomson who died last week.

Thomson was born October 25, 1923 in Glasgow, Scotland, one of seven players from Scotland to play in the majors.  Bobby grew up on Staten Island and signed with the Giants’ organization for a $100 bonus in 1942 out of Curtis High School. He joined the major league team in 1946.

Back to 1951 where it got worse before it got better for the Giants. On Aug. 11, the Brooklyn Dodgers were leading the National League by 13 games.

On Sept. 9 the Giants visited Brooklyn and played a game at Ebbets Field, which would affect the Giants’ chase of the Dodgers in that pennant race. With the Giants leading, 2-1, in the bottom of the 8th inning, Jackie Robinson was taking a long lead off third base, and Andy Pafko hit a hard grounder down the third-base line, Thomson grabbed the ball tagged Robinson and threw the ball to Whitey Lockman at first. Double play, inning over. With the 2-1 victory the Giants were five and a half games behind instead of seven and a half games out. The losing pitcher that day was one Ralph Branca.

“That’s the greatest play that I’ve ever seen a third baseman make,” Giants skipper Leo Durocher said later.

The Dodgers were still leading by six games with 16 to play. But by the end of the last day of the regular season, the Giants had made up the difference by finishing the season with a 37-7 ending and the two teams were now tied.

What many people fail to remember is that the National League held a best two-of-three to determine the champion. The first game was won by the Giants 3-1 thanks to a two-run Bobby Thomson homer and a solo shot by Irvin off the starter and losing pitcher, Ralph Branca. The Dodgers won the second game 10-0.

The third game would decide it all.

My father was a New York Giant fan and he was a glove salesman. He often told me how he was on a sales call in Brooklyn on Wednesday, October 3, 1951 and he stopped to join the crowd in front of a store that had a television in order to watch the 9th inning of that third game. The game that would determine the pennant, the game in which the Dodgers led 4-1 going into the 9th inning.

The inning began with a single by Al Dark followed by another by Don Mueller. Irvin popped-up and there was one down. Whitey Lockman doubled to drive home a run but Mueller broke his ankle sliding into third base. A stretcher took Mueller off the field and Giants manager Charlie Dressen pulled pitcher Don Newcombe and brought in Ralph Branca to face Bobby Thomson.

Branca’s first pitch was called a strike.

Above my computer, where I write baseball each day are a number of pictures, right in the middle is a photograph of that moment in baseball history signed by Thomson and  Branca, moments after the ill-fated pitcher delivered the second pitch.

The time was five to four and moments later the score was 5 to 4 as well as Thomson hit a fly ball down the left field line. Ernie Harwell shouted “It’s gone!” for the television audience, with my father watching, and then held his breath because he felt he had called it too soon. The ball sailed over Andy Pafko’s head for a home run. Russ Hodges went into his “Giants win the pennant” cry, the most famous home run call in history.

Thomson had hit the “Shot that was Heard ‘Round the World,” giving the Giants the 1951 pennant. Red Smith writing the next day in the New York Herald Tribune of in a column entitled, “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff,” started with this:

“Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

And ended with this:

“The second pitch — well, when Thomson reached first base he turned and looked toward the left-field stands. Then he started jumping straight up in the air, again and again. Then he trotted around the bases, taking his time.

Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.”

Some postscripts to our story:

First, maybe this will help you win a free beer someday, but the batter in the on-deck circle for the Giants behind Thomson was Willie Mays.

Thomson and Branca became inexorably joined from that point on. They appeared on television shows and made all sorts of appearances together for over 50 years. Frequently Branca was quoted as saying, “I lost a game, but I made a friend.” In fact, when the San Francisco Giants planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event, Thompson declined to attend the festivities. “They were going to have Ralph and me ride around in a cart,” he said at the time. “Ralph doesn’t need that.”

You remember Mueller broke his ankle? Manager Leo Durocher decided in the World Series not to move Bobby Thomson back to the outfield but to put Hank Thompson there, creating major league baseball’s first all-black outfield, with Mays and Monte Irvin.

The World Series needs to be addressed. It may come as no surprise to you that the Giants faced off against the New York Yankees. The Giants won Game 1, 5-1 at Yankee Stadium.

Game 2 was also at the Stadium and something took place that would affect baseball for many years to come. By the time, the 1951 World Series came along, the Yankees had a rookie who had broken into their lineup as the leadoff batter. His name was Mickey Mantle. While Mickey was a shortstop in the minors, the Yankees were set at the position with Phil Rizzuto and Mantle’s cannon for an arm was made for the outfield.

The Yankee centerfielder was a guy you have heard of, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, playing his final season because of painful heels. Mantle became the right fielder with the understanding to use his speed to compensate for any lack of mobility that Joe might be showing.

Now whether it was Mickey’s incredible talent, youth or simply the fact that he would be taking his position but Joe wasn’t very kind to Mickey. When Mantle arrived, he was so shy he couldn’t say a word to DiMaggio unless the big guy spoke to him first and DiMaggio did nothing to accommodate The Mick.

In Game 2 of the Series, in the top of the 5th, a fly ball was hit to right-centerfield. Both Mantle and DiMaggio went after it and Joe called for it at the last moment. Mantle suddenly stopped short as his cleats caught a drainage cover in the outfield grass. His knee twisted awkwardly and he instantly fell. Witnesses say it looked “like he had been shot.” Joe finally talked to the rookie as he bent over the injured Mantle and said, “Don’t move, they’re bringing a stretcher”.

The Mick spent the rest of the World Series watching from the hospital recovering from torn ligaments and much of the off-season wearing a brace and never had the same speed and never the same health in his legs.

Oh, and the NY Giant who hit that fly ball? Willie Mays.

The Yankees won that game and the next three as well and won the Series 4 games to 1.

Hank Thompson played with the Giants for the rest of his career, which ended following the 1956 season.

Bobby Thomson played for the Giants from 1946 to 1953. Thomson was traded before the 1954 season to the Milwaukee Braves, who planned to start him in left field. But Thomson broke his ankle, and the Braves opened the season with a 20-year-old rookie — Hank Aaron.

Thomson rejoined the Giants in 1957 and before his career ended following the 1960 season, he also played for the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles.

In case you are wondering, the last team to integrate was the Boston Red Sox, 12 and a half years after Jackie Robinson’s debut when on July 21, 1959, Pumpsie Green finally got into a game for the Sox.

But the Red Sox could have been first.

In 1945, columnist Dave Egan and the Boston City Council were pressuring the Braves and Red Sox to integrate. Sox GM Eddie Collins insisted that the team was blameless. In his 12 years with the club, he explained, “we have never had a single request for a tryout by a colored applicant.”

That was easy to fix. Legendary black sportswriter Wendell Smith brought three Negro Leaguers to town: .338-hitting second baseman Marvin Williams, outfielder Sam Jethroe (1950 NL Rookie of the Year with the Boston Braves)…and rookie shortstop Jackie Robinson. During their workout with the Sox a voice in the distance, widely believed to be Collins’, but rumored to have been Joe Cronin or Tom Yawkey himself who shouted “Get those N****** off the field.”

Even after Robinson joined the Dodgers, the Red Sox rejected black players. The general manager of their AA team in Birmingham, Alabama alerted them to a prospect on the Birmingham Black Barons whose contract could be bought for only $5,000. Even though the Red Sox’ local scout echoed the rave reviews, GM Joe Cronin wasn’t interested…and so Willie Mays became a Giant.

One more little loose end to be tied up:

So my father was watching this game in Brooklyn and as soon Thomson hit his homer the locals were furious. My father the Giant fan, silently rushed to the subway. He maintained his calm and collected manner until he was well clear of Brooklyn and safely back in Manhattan where he broke out in a big smile and a loud whoop.

The Giants had won the pennant.