Giant Trailblazer

Hank Thompson broke barriers in both leagues

February 26, 2013
Hank Thompson (NBHOF Library)

Throughout Black History Month in February, the Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of African Americans who made historic contributions to the National Pastime.

Hank Thompson led a complex life made up of remarkable heights and depths. He was a decorated war veteran, integration trailblazer and World Series star.

Born Dec. 8, 1925 in Oklahoma, Henry Curtis Thompson grew up in Dallas, Texas, as a street-smart kid with a gift for baseball. At 17 he left home to join the Kansas City Monarchs, an elite Negro Leagues team. Though only 5-foot-9, the left-handed batter had surprising power and, throwing right-handed, deftly played second base, third base, and shortstop. His young career was interrupted by World War II, where he earned two battle stars in the "Battle of the Bulge."

Returning to the Monarchs after the war, Thompson combined with veteran Willard Brown to lead the club's hitters. In July of 1947, baseball's historic year of integration, the American League's St. Louis Browns purchased the two stars. Thompson debuted first, appearing just 12 days after Larry Doby integrated the junior circuit. When neither Brown nor Thompson performed well over five weeks, they rejoined Kansas City.

After an outstanding 1948 season with the Monarchs and in Cuba, Thompson signed with the New York Giants to play in the minor leagues. Despite his progress on the field, his private life was in turmoil. In the spring of 1949 he shot and killed a man in Dallas. Out on bail, Thompson had an outstanding first half of the season and the Giants promoted him to play second base in the majors, becoming their first African-American player. It took two years for the court to clear the murder charge, ruling that he had acted in self-defense.

With regular work for the Giants in 1950, the 24-year-old delivered 20 homers and a team-best 91 RBIs. Moved to third base because of his strong arm, he recorded 43 double plays there to break the National League record of 41 set by Pie Traynor in 1925. Thompson struggled in 1951 and lost his starting role. But when an injury to right fielder Don Mueller opened a spot in Game One of the World Series, Thompson joined Monte Irvin and Willie Mays to make history as the major's first all-African-American outfield.

Thompson was the Giants' primary third baseman from 1952 to 1955, though he also saw time at second base and the outfield. A keen eye for the strike zone helped him post an outstanding .967 OPS in 1953, and in the 1954 World Series against Cleveland he contributed four hits, a record seven walks, and six runs scored in the four-game sweep. When Joe DiMaggio was asked who impressed him that fall, he replied "In my book, it'd have to be Henry Thompson. I want to tell you, that little fellow played a terrific game at third base for the Giants. Up to now I don't think many have appreciated what a fine team player he is."

Thompson faded to a part-time role in 1956 and the next spring was sent to the minors, where he played poorly and retired mid-year though he was only 30 years old.

Returning home to New York City, Thompson held several jobs, including a brief stint as a Giants spring training coach.

Thompson died after a sudden brain seizure on Sept. 30, 1969 at the age of 43.

Celebrate Black History Month with the Museum’s Pastime’s Pride features. Subjects include Buck O’Neil, Elston Howard, Rachel Robinson, the Evolution of Night Baseball, Welday Walker, Herb Washington, Connie Morgan, Bill White, Sam Lacy, Octavius Catto, Willie Horton, Bob Watson, Pumpsie Green, Charlie Grant, William Matthews, Don Newcombe, Vic Power, Emmett Ashford and Hank Thompson.

Lenny DiFranza is the assistant curator of new media at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum