Sunday, July 14, 2013

"7": Hank Thompson's Role in Integrating the American League

While Larry Doby was the first black player to officially integrate the American League in 1947, it was Hank Thompson--making his major league debut 66 years ago on July 17, wearing number 7--who was the first black to be repeatedly in the starting line-up of an American League team, short-lived as that experience was.  He would later be the first black who was not an elite player to be a regular on his team--the New York Giants--for at least five years.

"7":  Hank Thompson's Role in Integrating the American League

Hank Thompson made his first big league appearance less than two weeks after Larry Doby, starting at second base and batting seventh in manager Muddy Ruel's line-up at home in St. Louis against the Philadelphia Athletics. He went hitless in four at bats and committed an error in four chances defensively, including a double play.  The Browns had purchased his contract, along with that of star outfielder Willard Brown, from the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs, whose home base was just across the Mississippi River.  Brown made his big league debut two days after Thompson (on July 19), batting fifth and playing center field; he went hitless in three at bats in a   1-0 loss against the Red Sox, grounding into two double plays.    

Doby may have been the first black to play in the American League, but Thompson had far more playing time and was a more consequential player in major league baseball's first season of integration.  Appearing in 29 games for the Indians in 1947, Doby started only once--at first base, the day after his big league debut, going 1-for-4, and was used primarily as a pinch hitter.  He appeared in only four other games in the field, logging a total of 28 innings with a glove on his left hand (no errors in 15 chances), had only 33 plate appearances, and struck out precisely a third of the time.  Thompson started 18 games at second base, played second in another after being inserted into the game as a pinch runner, and came off the bench eight times as a pinch hitter.  He batted .256 in 89 plate appearances (20 hits in 78 official at bats), with only two extra base hits (a double and a triple), and two stolen bases in three attempts. Brown, for his part, started 18 games in the outfield (all but his first game in right field) and pinch hit in three others, batting .179 with three doubles, a home run, and six RBI.

On August 23, however, the St. Louis Browns decided to terminate their part in "Baseball's Great Experiment," as the historian Jules Tygiel titled his book on Jackie Robinson. The day after Thompson had gone 1-for-3 in a home victory against the Athletics, both he and Brown (who had not started in a game since August 14) were unceremoniously released from their contracts by the Browns after only five weeks and three days in the Big Time.  When the two players were returned to the Monarchs, their manager said they had received a "fair trial" but lacked major league talent, and Browns General Manager Bill DeWitt proclaimed they "had failed to reach major league standards."  These were precisely the sentiments that most in organized (white) baseball were inclined to believe about black players and were not displeased to see seemingly validated--possibly especially since, back East, east of the East River, a black player by name of Jackie Robinson was making his mark shivering the timbers of segregation in major league baseball.  

Perhaps Thompson and Brown were not the right players to break the color barrier in the furthest south (at the time) of all major league cities, but the St. Louis Browns were the poster team for how not to integrate.   Thompson had troubles with alcohol and the law and Brown, notwithstanding his excellence as one of the Negro Leagues' greatest players in history, may not have been sufficiently motivated.  But that said, both Thompson and especially Brown were major league-quality players.  In giving them the chance to play in the big leagues, however, Browns front office execs were less motivated by the spirit of gaining a competitive advantage for a team that had been mired in last place since only the 17th game of the season (after having finished seventh the year before) than by the desire to capitalize on the novelty of integration in hopes that having black players would boost their woeful attendance.  At the time Thompson made his debut, the Browns' average home attendance was less than 5.900 per game--by far the fewest fans to watch a major league team play ball to that point in 1947.  When the Browns decided that neither player was up to major league snuff and let them go, they may also have calculated that their presence did nothing to make Browns games any more appealing for fans to attend.  The Browns finished last in the standings and ended up averaging about 4,200 fans per home game; the next-lowest average attendance was just over 11,000 in Washington, and the Browns' co-tenants at Sportsman's Park--the St. Louis Cardinals--(a bona fide good team) averaged 16,200 at their games.

Unlike the Dodgers' careful preparation of Jackie Robinson, who Branch Rickey mandated spend a year in Triple-A to learn both the rigors of major league baseball and the potential abuse he was likely to receive, the Browns immediately put Thompson and Brown onto their big league roster with no opportunity to become acclimated to the challenges of being a black trailblazer on their major league team.  The same had been the case with Doby in Cleveland, but at least team owner Bill Veeck and manager Lou Boudreau were committed to supporting him in the clubhouse.  The same was not true in St. Louis.  A big part of the problem was the front office failure to get manager Muddy Ruel's buy-in, leaving Ruel no time to prepare for the effects of integration in the Browns' clubhouse.  Whatever small credit Browns' front office execs deserve for making an effort more venal than righteous to integrate the team, it was undermined by the fact that Ruel--who was himself from St. Louis--was not supportive of the move and did little to create a clubhouse environment within which Thompson and Brown could feel like they were accepted members of the team.

Hank Thompson eventually made good as a major league player, but with a team (the New York Giants) and a manager (Leo Durocher) who gave him the opportunity to succeed.  Along with Monte Irvin, who like Willard Brown was one of the all-time greats in Negro League history, Thompson integrated the Giants in July 1949.  Durocher immediately made him the Giants' second baseman for the remainder of the season, with Thompson making his Giants' debut leading off at Ebbets Field against Jackie Robinson (batting clean-up, also at second base) and the Dodgers.  The next season, after the Giants had acquired Eddie Stanky to play second, Thompson became the Giants' third baseman.

Hank Thompson was a starting position player for the New York Giants for seven seasons.  He never made a National League All-Star team.  The contemporary player to whose his career most resembled, based on similarity scores developed by Bill James, was Chicago Cubs' third baseman Randy Jackson--(exactly, who he?).  But of the first eight black players to emerge as major league regulars for at least five years--Robinson, Doby, Campanella, Newcombe, Thompson, Irvin, Minoso, and Mays in that order--Hank Thompson alone among them was not a superb talent, too good to be denied even once the color barrier had been broken.  Hank Thompson may be mostly forgotten today, and an afterthought in the drama of major league integration, but he was one of the first trailblazers.  With all due respect and recognition of Larry Doby--who went on to have a legitimate Hall of Fame major league career--Hank Thompson ought to be remembered as the first black to be a regular in the starting line-up of an American League team, short-lived as that opportunity proved to be.

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Last on The Fourth of July--The 1973 NL Champion New York Mets

Abandon hope, all ye who be Mets fans?  This Baseball Historical Insight revisits the 1973 New York Mets winning the National League pennant after being dead last in their division on July 4.   

Last on The Fourth of July--The 1973 NL Champion New York Mets 

Missy the Met Fan recently wrote, "It's really hard to stay a Mets fan these days."  That sentiment was likely shared by more than a few of the Shea Stadium faithful as our nation prepared to celebrate its 197th birthday  forty years ago.  The Mets were actually in Montreal, Canada, on Independence Day/USA in 1973, starting the day in last place, nine games under .500 at 33-42, 11-1/2 games behind the first-place Cubs in the National League's Eastern Division, and two behind the fifth-place Pirates.  The Mets had come to this date in a funk, having lost 13 of their previous 18 games, including three in a row.  They would lose on July Fourth, too, dropping them 12-1/2 off pace.  There was no reason to believe the Mets were not heading toward another dispiriting season.

The 1973 Mets were not a very good team, and really had not been since capturing the baseball world's imagination in 1969 by overcoming a large mid-season deficit to the Chicago Cubs on their way to winning the very first National League Eastern Division title, a National League pennant, and a World Series triumph over the heavily-favored and (let's be blunt) much better Baltimore Orioles--all after having finished ninth out of ten NL teams the previous year.  After winning 100 games in that magical 1969 season, the Mets won only 83 games in 1970, 83 games again in 1971, and 83 games yet again in 1972--finishing third in the NL East each time.  And in 1973, they wouldn't even win that many.  Their 82-79 record to win the division in 1973 set a new low for winning percentage by a first-place club that would stand until the suspended-by-strike 1994 season and the advent of three divisions and the wild card era.   As unimpressive as their record was, however, the Mets went on to topple the (let's be blunt again) far superior defending-NL champion Cincinnati Reds, who won 99 games, in the League Championship Series and took the World Series to seven games against the much better Oakland Athletics before, finally, losing to a superior team.

The 1973 Mets' weaknesses centered on their offense, which had been their weakness the three previous years as well.    Except for Rusty Staub in right, the Mets outfield in 1973 was underwhelming to say the least.  Left fielder Cleon Jones had missed most of the first three months of the season and did not play well.  Center field was patrolled jointly by Willie Mays--at 42, a mere shell of the superb and transcendent player he had once been--and 24-year old Don Hahn, who was never more than, at best, a marginal big league player. The Mets' infield of John Milner (1B), Felix Millan (2B), Bud Harrelson (SS), and Wayne Garrett (3B) was relatively stable, but nothing to brag about either and is an historical afterthought at best, except for Mets fans of a certain age or students of baseball history.  The 102-loss San Diego Padres were the only one of eleven other NL teams in 1973 to score fewer runs than the Mets' 608, have a lower slugging percentage than the Mets' .338, and have a lower on-base-plus-slugging average than the Mets' .653.  Over 161 games, the division-winning Mets outscored their opposition by only 20 runs.

What the Mets did have was exceptional pitching headlined by Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack in the starting rotation and Tug McGraw in the bullpen, whose rallying cry of "you gotta believe" came to define the season.  Seaver, Koosman, and Matlack were all three among the ten best pitchers in the National League in 1973, as measured by wins above replacement, and Seaver with a 19-10 record and 2.08 ERA had the highest individual WAR of any player in the major leagues.  McGraw was second in the league in saves with 25 (six fewer than Montreal's Mike Marshall).

With their pitching leading the way, the Mets after July 4 had the second-best record in the National League (only the Reds were better) as they overtook all five teams ahead of them in the NL East to win the division by a game-and-a-half over the Cardinals. After losing his start on July 4, Seaver had 13 consecutive starts in which he went at least seven innings and never gave up more than 2 earned runs, winning seven and losing four as the Mets' offensive production left much to be desired; Seaver lost each of his last two starts in August by 1-0.  Seaver's ERA during this stretch was a microscopic 1.19, heading towards territory last charted by Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA in 1968.  While Koosman (14-15) and Matlack (14-16) both had losing records for the year, they were superb in the final two months of the season; Koosman went 6-4 with a 2.03 ERA in 13 starts in August and September, and Matlack was 7-2 in 12 starts with a 2.66 ERA.

The Mets were still in last place with a losing 61-71 record as late as August 30, but had narrowed their deficit to only 6-1/2 games because the NL East was proving to be a very mediocre division.  MLB schedules at that time of two-division/twelve-team leagues were set up so the final month of games was all among division rivals.  That played into the Mets' hand as they were able to systematically dismantle each of the teams ahead of them in the final month.  They started out by splitting four games with the first-place Cardinals from August 30 to September 2, which didn't enable them to gain ground on St. Louis but did reduce the Cardinals' lead to one game over the Pirates.  The Mets then took eight of eleven from the Phillies (two series) and Expos to virtually kill off Philadelphia's hopes and, more importantly, move to within 2-1/2 games of the top, although still in fourth place (one game back of Montreal), with only two weeks remaining.  After winning two of three against the Cubs--

--The Mets next faced off against the now-in-first-place Pirates, who they trailed by 2-1/2 games, for five critical make-or-break games--two in Pittsburgh followed immediately by three in New York.  The Pirates had won each of the three previous NL Eastern Division titles, but were now without the leadership and talent of Roberto Clemente (who had died on New Year's Eve on a relief mission to help Nicaraguan earthquake victims), and their pitching was certainly not in the Mets' class.  Alas, when Seaver lost the first game, many Mets fans probably assumed their season was all but over.  The Mets instead won their remaining four games with Pittsburgh to finally reach the .500 level at 77-77 and take over first place--for good, as it turned out.  Consecutive wins against the Cardinals pushed St. Louis three games back, and three wins in their final five games against the Expos and Cubs were all that was needed to hold off both the Cardinals and the Pirates.  In winning 20 of their final 29 games of the season--all against the NL East teams ahead of them--the Mets averaged 4.1 runs a game, compared to their season average of only 3.8.  Their 20 home runs and .260 batting average for September was the highest for the Mets in the 1973 season.  They won their season series against the second-place Cardinals, 10 games to 8, and against the third-place Pirates, 13 to 5.

Is the example of the 1973 Mets any reason for the Citi Field faithful in 2013 to not completely abandon hope for this year?  It is useful to remember that the 1973 Mets, NL Eastern Division winner though they be, had only the fourth-best record in the National League, meaning three Western Division teams won more games, and a fourth--Houston--won the same number of games.  In the very unlikely event the 2013 Mets were to make a second-half run, they almost certainly could not rely on either of the two wild card spots, not with 11 of the 15 National League teams having better records, but would have to hope all three teams in the NL East who currently are ahead of them trend towards mediocrity.  And then there is the reality that even though Matt Harvey currently has the highest pitchers' WAR in major league baseball, he has no pitching sidekicks the likes of Koosman and Matlack that Seaver had with the 1973 Mets.