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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