The Turbulent Life and High Times of Hank Thompson, Major League Baseball’s Third Black Player
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Few players in baseball history ever embodied Gwendolyn Brooks’ classic poem–every single line– the way Hank “Machine Gun” Thompson did. Thompson was a talented ballplayer and a pioneer, the third black player ever to grace major league fields. Although he had a solid career, he has unfortunately been forgotten by modern fans. There’s a reason.
Trouble found Hank Thompson early and often, although when he later had a few stiff belts, he didn’t exactly hide from it. You could say Hank had a tough childhood; and you’d be guilty of a gross understatement.
Hank’s old man was an alcoholic who took a leather strap to his kids whenever he felt the need. But mostly, he just wasn’t around. By the time Hank was five, his father was gone forever. Thereafter the totally segregated streets of North Dallas, the city’s impoverished African-American section, became his home. This was a time when everyone was expected to know his place; separate but unequal was the law of the land. Sneak over to play on the wrong playground and someone would call the cops. The nearby Moorland YMCA had the only pool in town black kids could jump into on sweltering summer days. Kids who looked like Hank weren’t allowed to go to the Texas state fair, even though they lived within walking distance of the fairgrounds. They let them in one day each summer; it was called “Negro Day.”
Hank’s mother worked hard to pay the bills, frequently leaving the house before 6 AM and returning after sundown. Left in the care of his older sister and brothers, Hank had little direction. School held no promise or interest for him. While he later said he skipped school to play baseball, this is most likely a middle-aged man’s euphemism. The only kids out during school hours were other truants and older guys who had dropped out. These became his peers. And it’s doubtful they spent most of their time playing ball.
At age 12 Hank did a stent in the Gatesville State School for boys, a Texas reform school near Waco; reportedly for chronic truancy but there was also an arrest about that time for stealing jewelry out of a car. Gatesville was an overcrowded place for the state’s throw-away kids and had a reputation for ruthlessness—both from the guards and from the other delinquents.
Released from Gatesville as an early teen, Hank was back on the streets of North Dallas, finished with school forever. The pool halls and jazz joints of the notorious Deep Ellum section of town became his haunts. He later said he began drinking by 15. He liked the taste.
But Hank Thompson could play ball. At the time, fast-pitch softball was the game in North Dallas. Playing in the rec leagues and church leagues, Hank quickly got a reputation due to a quick, short stroke –like a Joe Louis punch–that launched impressive home runs. A skinny Dallas kid named Ernie Banks, five years younger, was so impressed with Thompson’s swing that he later claimed he spent an entire summer trying to emulate it.
By the age of only 17, Hank was playing professionally for the fabled Kansas City Monarchs. He was given the nickname “Machine Gun” due to the rapid-fire line drives that flew off his bat in practice. After a solid first season, he was drafted into the Army in March of 1944. Hank served in an all-black engineering unit commanded by white officers and spent the occasional night in the stockade for drunkenness. His unit made it to Europe in time to participate in heavy action, particularly during the Battle of the Bulge, where Thompson manned a machine gun. “If there was ever a moment that I did something for society, that was it,” he said in 1965. “But you can’t make three good days balance off the rest of a man’s life.”
Discharged from the Army in 1946, Thompson returned to the Monarchs and became one of their stars. The 5-9, 170 pound Thompson generated serious power and consistently hit between .300 and .350. Still only 20 years old, he picked up the habit, which he would keep for years, from some of the older players of carrying a gun. It would be a habit that he would later regret.
In July, 1947, just three months after Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, Thompson and Willard Brown were purchased from the Monarchs by the St. Louis Browns for a 30-day trial. The deal was that if the two proved their worth, at the end of that time they would stay with the Browns and the Monarchs would receive more money.
But the Browns were a public fiasco masquerading as a baseball team. A perennially last-place team that drew less than 5,000 a game, by far the lowest in the majors, their owners continually sold off any decent players to make ends meet. The Browns’ vice-president and general manager, Bill DeWitt, had watched with envy as the Brooklyn Dodgers attendance figures skyrocketed after the addition of Jackie Robinson. He ordered his head scout to round up some black players who could play major league baseball.
Unfortunately for Thompson and Brown, their trial was as bumbling and poorly planned as the Dodgers trial for Jackie Robinson had been well-orchestrated. Whereas Robinson was carefully scouted, for talent, temperament and habits, was given time in the farm system to acclimate–and also for teammates to acclimate to him—and was given the unquestionable full support of the front office, Thompson and Brown were merely thrown in with the lousy team. It was a situation which was so destined to fail that some have questioned the Browns’ motives.
While Brown and Thompson had obvious talent, it is also evident that they were the types Branch Rickey had warned about with his oft-used line that, in order for the great experiment of integration to work, the first blacks in major league baseball had to be of a special character as well as playing ability. The 32-year-old Brown, whose on-field exploits were as legendary as any player in the Negro Leagues, and who would later be named to Baseball’s Hall of Fame solely on those exploits, had a reputation as a head-strong guy who played hard only when he wanted to. Thompson was known as a hothead and was already an alcoholic. Neither quite fit Rickey’s criteria.
The manager of the Browns was Muddy Ruel, a former catcher from St. Louis, who went on record as saying he didn’t want the two black players. Teammates did not welcome the pair. “No one on the club would have anything to do with us,” Thompson said in a Washington Afro-Americaninterview in 1950. “They wouldn’t speak to us and they wouldn’t even warm up with us. If Brown wasn’t around and I asked another player to warm up with me, he’d just shake his head.” Thompson’s only company, besides Brown, was a bottle of Dewar’s.
Thompson got the first chance to play, on July 17, 1947, less than two weeks after Larry Doby had taken the field for Cleveland, narrowly missing the distinction of becoming the first black player in the American League. He went 0-4 and made an error at second base. Brown debuted two days later. They settled into a routine whereby the two—heavily advertised of course–would play the first game of a series then, unless they did something spectacular, they would sit. Both became frustrated watching their inept new teammates flounder while they sat the bench. Brown remarked that his old Monarchs could thrash this Browns team without even trying.
Veteran sportswriter Sam Lacy, of the Baltimore Afro-American, who usually called things as he saw them in racial issues, interviewed Ruel a couple of weeks into the trial. He came away believing the two would get a serious evaluation. “Each time he spoke of Brown or Thompson, it was as though either or both were just two new men—not two colored men,” he wrote.
But it was not to be; neither got much of a chance. Thompson played more, 27 games in all, and hit .256. Brown, despite impressive displays of power in batting practice, only got 67 at bats and hit .179. The Browns attracted a few more fans on the road, but home attendance failed to increase.
Although the .256 Thompson hit was considerably better than the Browns team batting average of .241 for the year and Willard Brown had more ability than the rest of the team put together, both players were returned to the Monarchs. Bill DeWitt told the media they “had failed to reach major league standards.” When viewed from afar, the trial appeared to be solely a quick attempt to increase attendance and when that failed the two were dumped. DeWitt was a man of questionable racial tendencies who later as the owner of the Cincinnati Reds ordered rookie Pete Rose to stop hanging around the colored players and demonstrated his ability to judge “major league standards” when he pawned off Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson in one of the worst trades in baseball history.
In the spring of 1948 Hank stopped by Dallas to visit his sister on his way to the Monarch’s spring training camp in San Antonio. While in a bar with his brother-in-law, Hank ran into an ex-sandlot teammate named Buddy Crow. The two had never liked each other and Crow taunted Hank about his abbreviated major league career. Words quickly turned nasty, tempers flared and Crow whipped out a knife. Hank later said he had seen what Crow could do with a knife before when he had filleted someone’s stomach open and intestines spilled out on the floor. He didn’t want to chance that happening to him. He pulled his gun and fired three shots into Crow’s chest. Crow lay dead on the floor of the bar and Thompson fled. The next day, at his sister’s urging, Hank turned himself in. He was allowed to post bail and two days later joined the Monarchs in San Antonio. The case was later dismissed as justifiable. He expressed remorse in 1965 saying, “seventeen years later I still haven’t gotten over it.”
Hank’s play on the field continued to attract notice. He was purchased from the Monarchs by the New York Giants in February, 1949. It speaks to the 23-year-old’s talent and potential that he helped integrate two different teams. He was sent first to the Giants’ Jersey City farm team to acclimate himself. When he was brought up to New York in mid-season, arriving along with Monte Irvin, who had also been signed from the Negro Leagues, he became the first black to play in both leagues.
This time everything was different. Rather than playing in the southernmost city in baseball, Hank joined a team who played their games in the Polo Grounds, in upper Manhattan, next to Harlem. The Giants manager was Leo Durocher. While Leo was many things, he was not a racist; the only color he cared about was green—the color of the money to be won for a pennant. Leo had played an important role in Jackie Robinson’s acceptance with Brooklyn earlier. Hearing about a petition some Dodger players were circulating protesting Robinson’s presence, Leo called a late-night team meeting and told them where they could stick their petition.
On the day of the arrival of Thompson and Irvin, Leo gathered his team in the clubhouse and told them, “This is all I’m going to say about race. I don’t give a damn about what color you are. As long as you play good baseball, you can play on this team. We got Monte and Hank here. They got good credentials. I’m sure they’ll help us get out of fifth place. We’re all one team.” And no one dared buck Leo’s policy.
Monte Irvin was a perfect older settling influence for the young Thompson. Irvin, 30 years old in 1947, was a strong character who would later become one of the most respected men in baseball. “Every once in a while Thompson would get out of line and Monte would get on his case,” second baseman Bill Rigney later said.
Hank’s initial game as a Giant, July 8, 1949, was another first of sorts. When he faced Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe it was the first time two black men faced each other in a major league game.
Hank’s reputation as a tough character preceded him. Everyone knew he had killed a man. Teammates gave him room, especially when he had been drinking. But otherwise, he and Irvin were readily accepted. “Things have been smooth,” Hank told a reporter for the New York World Telegram in April, 1950. He added that he had been getting along well, on the whole, with the Giant players. “There’s always one or two smart guys no matter where you go. A couple of them spoke out of turn to me even this spring and I told them where to get off.”
Other than the “one or two smart guys,” Thompson and Irvin had it much easier than most of their contemporary pioneers in baseball integration. Irvin later noted that, as far as teammates, the Giants of that era had almost no racial tension. It was a unique blend of personalities in which the two, and Willie Mays who joined them in 1951, were accepted merely for their ability to help the club. “Once you put on that uniform, it wasn’t between black and white,” said Irvin. “It was the Giants against the Dodgers. The name of the team on the front of your uniform mattered more than the color of your skin.”
Speaking of the young Willie Mays, legend has it that Thompson gave Willie his first taste of hard liquor—and the reeling Mays had to be carried from the room.
Thompson thrived for the Giants. Described as an acrobatic fielder, Hank could play infield or outfield, but settled in at third base. In 1950 he set a major league record for most double plays by a third baseman in one season (43) and had a solid year at the plate hitting .289 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs.
He was severely spiked in 1951 and missed much of the frantic stretch run by his teammates as they overtook the Dodgers. He got a second chance when Giant right fielder Don Mueller broke his ankle sliding into third base just before Bobby Thomson’s historic home run in the playoffs. For the World Series, Durocher put Hank in the outfield (instead of moving Bobby Thomson from third to his more natural position in the outfield). Many people felt Durocher, who never missed a chance to stick it to the establishment, purposely did this to have three black men play in the outfield together for the first time in baseball history—and they did it in venerated Yankee Stadium no less.
Hank came back strong in 1952 and strung together three more solid seasons. In 1953 he hit .302 with 24 home runs. In 1954, he was second on the team with 26 homers and 86 RBIs. Perhaps Hank Thompson’s greatest moment in baseball came during the 1954 World Series, the surprise Giants sweep over a Cleveland team that had set a record with 111 wins.
Hank scored six runs and had a hit in each game, hitting .364 overall. He also broke Lou Gehrig’s record for most walks in a Series, getting 7 to give him a .611 on base percentage.
Although Hank lacked the electric charisma of Mays and the commanding presence of the universally respected Irvin, making him much less popular with the national media, he was a hero to the hometown Harlem fans nonetheless. After the Series, he got a raise to $16,000 a year.
But Hank Thompson, loose on the streets of Harlem with a pocketful of money was not a good mix. There were high times; high living. Every night was Uptown Saturday Night. Hank bought a sweet Lincoln Capri. He had a closet full of $200 custom-tailored suits. He was spotted flashing hundred dollar bills around. When he was in a good mood, he might spring for a round for an entire bar. When he was in a bad mood . . .
Stanley Glenn, a former Negro League teammate, later described him as “a little bit off center. He had a drinking problem and a woman problem. He was like a time bomb.”
In 1963 Gary Schumacher, the veteran public relations man for the Giants, said, “He always had a drinking problem. When he drank, he would do things that you just couldn’t explain. It was like a shade came down over his mind.”
After a home game Hank would head straight to a bar and have two or three scotches “to get the game out of my system.” Then he might get a steak dinner, head home and “drink a fifth of Scotch or maybe two fifths.” While he claimed to never drink before games, he admitted that often come game time he felt “weak as a kitten.”
Problems with drink were not uncommon in baseball at the time although the term alcoholic was never used. Teammate and 1954 World Series MVP Dusty Rhodes was said to be unable to hit without a hangover, although, as far as anyone knows, he never tried. Over in Brooklyn, Don Newcombe was fighting a losing battle of his own with the bottle, a battle that would derail a potential Hall of Fame career.
The high living began to take its toll. Hank’s career, and life, started to unravel. In 1953 there was a 4 AM incident on a Harlem street involving a cab driver, a sawed-off bat used as a weapon and 14-stitches in Thompson’s head.
Hank fought often with his wife and she eventually left him. “I guess I was mainly to blame,” he explained later. “I was drinking heavily.”
His skills and physical condition deteriorated. He missed an annoying number of games with a series of minor injuries. In 1956, he was out for a time after a serious beaning. By then he was almost through anyway. His batting average had sunk to .235—the fourth consecutive year it had dropped. Demoted to Minneapolis, he continued to waste and eventually quit in mid-season 1957. He was 31 years old.
Without an education, he drifted from job to job; occasionally driving a cab, most of the time hustling work doing what he knew best–as a bartender. Several times he was fired for taking money from the register. And he continued to commit felonious assault on his liver. He sold his 1954 World Series ring to a bar owner for drinking money.
There was a series of run-ins with the law; never planned capers, but usually alcohol-fueled spurious affairs. In 1958 he was arrested for auto theft. During a night of heavy drinking, unable to get his car out of a lot, he had taken another car from a Harlem public garage that had the keys in it. Later that night, at a party, he loaned the car to two friends. When they were picked up by the police, Thompson went to the station to clear them and was arrested himself.
In 1959 he was arrested for assault on a woman in New York City. While going through divorce proceedings, he had taken up with a married woman, Ruth Bowen, the wife of former Ink Spots singer Billy Bowen. When she showed up with a black eye after a drunken night of brawling, Hank spent a week in jail.
In 1961 he had his most serious brush with the law to date—for armed robbery. Thompson, who had been drinking heavily, entered a Harlem bar at 1:30 AM. It was a bar he had frequented in the past. He pulled a .22 pistol and announced, “This is a stickup. Put the money on the bar.” His haul was $37. He then herded the bartender and ten patrons to a rear room and fled. Unfortunately for Thompson, a patrolman nearby noticed him fleeing and, after a short chase and brief scuffle, arrested him. “You are a very serious disappointment to thousands of baseball fans in this city,” the judge told him at the bail hearing. Baseball commissioner Ford Frick and Giants owner Horace Stoneman wrote to the judge on Thompson’s behalf and he was given probation, escaping jail time.
After the bar hold up Stoneman gave him a job cleaning the swimming pool at the team’s spring training site in Arizona. It was a short-lived gig. With New York played out, Hank moved back to Texas in the early 1960s but his luck didn’t change.
In 1963 in Houston, drunk and needing money, Thompson held up a liquor store with a stolen gun. He made off with $90 but was quickly spotted by police. After his appearance in court, a contrite Thompson told a reporter he had made an estimated quarter of a million dollars in baseball in salary and endorsements but lost it all to “liquor and gold diggers.” He added “Tell those young fellows out there that have a chance to play big league baseball to keep the gold diggers away from their money.”
Hank was given a 10-year sentence. Hard time; in a place for hardened criminals. He was sent to Eastham, the turd of the Texas penal system. The rurally isolated complex in Houston County housed the rough cases. Back in the day, it had temporarily held a restless young man named Clyde Barrow. The prison profited from the prisoner-assisted harvest of the cotton plantation on the grounds. Prisoners who didn’t work hard were beaten or stuffed into tiny tin sweat boxes. The work was hot—Texas hot—days of 105 degrees. No wonder Barrow called the place, “that hell hole.” Things hadn’t change much over the decades. In 1986 Newsweek called Eastham “America’s Toughest Prison.”
But Hank Thompson was a model prisoner. After six months of what his supervisor called “exemplary behavior” he was transferred to the Ferguson Unit. Compared to Eastham, Ferguson, built in 1962 for less violent offenders, was a vacation paradise. Thompson was assigned to the rec department and, in time, made a trustee. His job was directing athletics for first-time offenders 17-21 years old. He joined alcoholics anonymous.
In 1965 he gave a prison interview for a Sport magazine article entitled, “How I wrecked my life and how I hope to save it.” He seemed to express genuine remorse. “I kicked society in the teeth and now I’m glad society is paying me back,” he said. “The only person for me to blame for being here is me. I’m in jail, not my father. Don’t ask me to blame society, or the fact that I’m a Negro in a white world. I blame drink. I’m the guy who did the drinking.”
He acknowledged that the road ahead would be difficult, but vowed to sick with AA on the outside and be a better man. “You might say the count on me is two strikes and I’ve only got one swing left.”
It would be nice to think that Hank Thompson kept his promise and turned his life around. And by all accounts, he did. He was released from prison early for good behavior in 1967. He moved to Fresno, California to be near his mother, got married and found a good job, playground director for the city rec department. His boss later said, “He did a tremendous job. He was dedicated and helped quite a few boys who could have gone wrong.”
He occasionally made his way down to San Francisco to watch his displaced old team, and visit his ex-teammate Willie Mays, a man whose career and life went another direction. He played in the 1969 old-timers game, his first time on a baseball field in years, and appeared to enjoy himself. He talked of getting a job in baseball.
In October, 1969 he suffered a seizure at home, was rushed to the hospital and never regained consciousness. His wife and mother were at his bedside when he passed away. The official report was natural causes, perhaps a heart attack. He was 43 years old.
Hank Thompson was a good baseball player, an important pioneer in integrating the game, a World Series hero and, maybe, a guy who learned from his mistakes and turned his life around. He quit school; he drank gin (though he much preferred Scotch whiskey); he lurked late and shot straight; and, whatever the hell it is, if it was a vice, he probably jazzed June.
He definitely died much too soon.
But he should be remembered.
Doug Wilson is the author of biographies of Fred Hutchinson, Mark Fidrych, Brooks Robinson and Carlton Fisk. Visit him at http://dougwilsonbaseball.blogspot.com/