Obituary: Tim Thompson (1924-2021)

RIP to Tim Thompson, a catcher for several teams in the 1950s and a scout for several decades after his playing career ended. He died on October 25 in his home in Lewistown, Pa., at the age of 97. Sadly, his wife of 78 years, Lois, died on October 27, also at the age of 97. Tim Thompson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1954), Kansas City Athletics (1956-57) and Detroit Tigers (1958).

Charles Lemoine Thompson was born on March 1, 1924, in Coalport, Pa. According to this wonderful article by Anne R. Keene, Thompson’s father, Maurice, played ball on coal mine teams. A newspaper article from 1956 stated that Maurice was in training camp with the St. Louis Cardinals on the day Tim was born. The elder Thompson quit baseball and went back to Pennsylvania. Tim Thompson played in the coal mine teams, too, but he never joined his father in the mines; one day’s work there convinced him to find a job above ground. Maurice was his first batting coach, and he did a good enough job that Tim’s future batting coaches in the minors pretty much left well enough alone.

Source: Daily Press, March 21, 1954.

After Thompson graduated from high school, he and Lois got married. Thompson joined the U.S. Navy when he turned 18 and became, according to his obituary, a blimp pilot. He flew patrol missions over the Pacific and organized athletic programs at Moffitt Air Field in California. After the War, Thompson went back to Pennsylvania and the coal mine teams. Thompson’s play in Pennsylvania caught the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who signed him to a professional contract and assigned him to the Class-D Cambridge Dodgers of the Eastern Shore League in 1947.

Right from the start, Thompson was a fierce hitter. Though the 23-year-old hit just 3 home runs for Cambridge, he had a .349 batting average with 20 doubles and 14 triples, driving in 129 runs and getting on base at a .420 rate. He even had surprising speed for a catcher, swiping 15 bases. Cambridge reached the playoffs, and Thompson drove in three runs in the first game of the championship series against Seaford with a double and two singles. Over the next few years, Thompson continued to hit his way higher up the Dodgers organization. He reached the Triple-A Montreal Royals as early as 1949, but he didn’t play a full season at the highest level of the minors until he joined the St. Paul Saints of the American Association in 1951. There he batted .296 while sharing catching duties with Dick Teed, whose major-league career would consist of 1 at-bat with Brooklyn in 1953.

Thompson spent most of the next three seasons with the Montreal Royals of the International League. He consistently hit right around .300 and even showed a little power in 1953, when he cracked 10 home runs.. Though he was a remarkably consistent hitter in the minors, there was a big block in his way. Brooklyn had Roy Campanella behind the plate, and Rube Walker had established himself as a capable backup. Had he been a part of nearly any other organization, Thompson would have been given a chance in the majors in relatively short order. As it was, he didn’t reach the Dodgers until April of 1954, a couple of months after his 30th birthday.

Campanella injured his wrist and hand during spring training in 1954. He tried to play through the pain before undergoing surgery in May, and then he rushed back and was generally terrible that season. The Dodgers started the season with three catchers on the roster — Campanella, Walker and Thompson. The rookie Thompson, however, wasn’t given that many opportunities to play. He had a couple of appearances in late April, sat for a couple of weeks and then pinch hit on May 14. He hit an infield single off St. Louis pitcher Vic Raschi for his first major-league hit. A couple of days later, he started the second game of a doubleheader against Cincinnati and was 1-for-4 with an RBI double off Bud Podbielan. Those were his only two hits of the season in 10 games and 13 at-bats, and he was sent back to Montreal in once Campy had come back from his surgery.

Thompson continued to hit well in the minors, batting .313 with St. Paul in 1955. He finally got a chance to stick in the major leagues when the Kansas City A’s acquired him in a trade in 1956. For a time, he was the backup catcher to Joe Ginsberg, but less than a month into the ’56 season, he was given the opportunity to start a few games. He worked both ends of a doubleheader on May 5 against the Washington Senators, and he was hitless in the first game but was 3-for-4 with 2 doubles and 3 RBIs in the nightcap. Then he had 4 singles and an RBI against Baltimore on May 16, raising his batting average by more than 100 points. He kept hitting well above .330, and by the middle of June, he was chasing Mickey Mantle for the AL batting title… not bad for a 32-year-old rookie with 10 major-league games to his name before the start of the season.

“I hit like my dad told me,” he said. “He said the first thing to do was put the wood on the ball. Then the whole works is in somebody else’s hands.”

The simple approach worked. Thompson had a 5-for-6 game against Washington on June 13, with 2 doubles and 3 RBIs. That raised his batting average to .377 on the year. He couldn’t keep that pace up, however. A’s manager Lou Boudreau frequently had him catch both ends of doubleheaders, because he was far and away the team’s best hitter. That kind of overuse takes a toll, especially during the summer months. Thompson started to struggle, batting .232 in July, and he finished the season with a .272/.319/.347 slash line. He played in 92 games and had 13 doubles, 2 triples and 1 home run — hit off Detroit’s Duke Maas on May 27.

The left-handed Thompson and the right-handed Hal Smith split time behind the plate in 1957. Knee problems hampered Thompson in the spring, and he struggled to a .204 batting average in 81 games, including a hitless stretch that lasted 42 plate appearances, from July 23 until August 19. On the bright side, he did hit 7 home runs, including back-to-back-to-back games in Detroit from July 5-7, off Jim Bunning, Frank Lary and Paul Foytack. Detroit must have been impressed with the power display, because he was included in a deal between the Tigers and A’s in November of ’57. It was a massive deal that saw Kansas City give up Thompson, Billy Martin, Mickey McDermott, Tom Morgan, Lou Skizas and Gus Zernial in exchange for Kent Hadley, Frank House, Duke Maas, Jim Small, John Tsitouris, Bill Tuttle and a player to be named later, who became Jim McManus. Thompson started the 1958 season with Detroit and had a hit and 3 walks in 9 plate appearances across 4 games. His contract was sold to Toronto of the International League on April 29, ending his major-league career.

In 4 seasons, Thompson played in a total of 187 games, with a .238/.293/.338 slash line. He had 123 hits that included 24 doubles, 2 triples and 8 home runs. He knocked in 47 runs and scored 49 times.

Source: Press and Sun Bulletin, July 1, 1973.

Thompson spent the rest of his playing career with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He finished the 1958 season with 20 home runs and a .303 batting average, and he continued to be a productive hitter for the Leafs through 1962. Thompson spent part of 1961 as a player-manager for the Leafs, taking over after manager Johnny Lipon was fired on August 3. He was succeeded by Chuck Dressen in 1962 but remained as a player-coach. He retired at the age of 38 and had a .293 batting average over 14 minor-league seasons.

Thompson was a part of a baseball oddity on May 3, 1961, when he and Toronto teammate Ellis Burton hit grand slam home runs in the very same inning. The Leafs scored 10 runs in the eighth inning as part of a 15-3 win over Jersey City. Branch Rickey was in attendance at the game as a guest of Toronto owner Jack Kent Cooke and remarked that it was the first time he had ever seen or even heard of such an occurrence. Thompson was a great admirer of Rickey from his days as a Dodgers farmhand,

Thompson turned to scouting after his playing career was over. He remained in Pennsylvania, as a supervisor for the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He held tryouts and, according to Keene’s article, made a name for himself as being the scout who was willing to go to the out-of-the-way places to find a potential major-leaguer. He emphasized that the kids who showed up for his tryouts shouldn’t get discouraged. Thompson himself went to four tryout camps before Brooklyn signed him, so he knew what they were going through. “I never gave up on myself,” he said.

Thompson was sometimes joined by his ton, Tim. Jr. The younger Thompson had a six-year career in the minor leagues before joining the Cardinals as a scout and also a charter plane pilot for his father. He died of bone cancer in 2007.

Thompson scouted for the Cardinals, Dodgers and Orioles until he retired at the age of 80. Some of his finds included Tom Herr, Ricky Horton and John Mabry. After retirement, he and Lois were active golfers and traveled often. They were together for more than 80 years.

For more information: Lewistown Sentinel

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