Obituary: Ron Tompkins (1944-2023)

RIP to Ron Tompkins, who pitched in 40 games in the majors in the 1960s and ’70s. He is also one-half of a very sought-after baseball card. According to posts left by family and close friends, Tompkins died on February 3 at the age of 78. No cause of death was immediately available, but one report stated that he had been in poor health and was on hospice care. Tompkins played for the Kansas City Athletics (1965) and Chicago Cubs (1971).

Ronald Everett Tompkins was born in San Diego on November 27, 1944. He made a name for himself as a tall, lanky, fastball pitcher at Chula Vista High School and was named to the All-CIF Baseball Second Team as a pitcher in 1961. (Future major-leaguer Dave Morehead was picked for the First Team.) He was also named to the Metro League All-Southern Division First Team, thanks to his overall 9-4 record with a 1.03 ERA and 137 strikeouts. Tompkins was active at Chula Vista High, also serving in student government and playing on the basketball team. He already stood 6’4″ and was one of the team’s top scorers and rebounders.

Chula Vista won the San Diego Lions Club baseball tournament in 1962 when Tompkins threw a no-hitter against Escondido. He was named the MVP of the tournament. After turning in a 12-4 record and a 0.85 ERA for Chula Vista, Tompkins was offered a full scholarship to the University of Southern California. Instead, he chose to sign with the Kansas City Athletics and scout Art Lilley for an estimated $20,000 bonus. He lost 8 of 12 decisions in his first year in pro ball, but his ERA was just 2.48, and he struck out almost 10 batters per 9 innings while demonstrating good control. Sent to Lewiston of the Northwest League in 1963, Tompkins emerged as one of the league’s top young pitchers, ending up among the league leaders in wins (12), ERA (3.02) and strikeouts (193). The one complaint against him? He could be a slow worker at times. One game recap from the Capital Journal (Salem, Ore.), noted, “Tompkins accounted for much of the game’s length with his constant adjustment of his pants. He also managed to lose a contact lens at one point, further delaying the game.”

Source: The Bradenton Herald, March 15, 1965.

Tompkins won 13 games for Birmingham in 1964 and was lumped in with Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom and Paul Lindblad as the organization’s top young pitchers, according to Kansas City GM Pat Friday. By 1965, he was considered for a spot on the major league roster. “I’m not sure where I’ll be this year,” Tompkins told The Bradenton Herald (Fla.) in the spring of 1965. “I’m going to give it all I’ve got down here this year, and if I go to [Triple-A] Vancouver I’ll give it all I have there. You never know when they’ll need someone in Kansas City.”

Tompkins went a disappointing 6-15 in Vancouver in 1965 but still joined the A’s in September. He made his debut on September 9 against the California Angels. Tompkins came into the seventh inning in relief of Wes Stock, with a runner on second, and he retired Jim Fregosi and Willie Smith to get out of the inning. In the eighth, he loaded the bases on a single and a couple of walks before getting pulled in favor of Jack Aker. Aker allowed an RBI single to Fred Newman to let a run score. Tompkins pitched better in his other outings, including 3 scoreless innings against Boston on September 18. Tompkins was given a start against the Washington Senators on September 22 and lasted 3 innings. He gave up a run in the first inning on a triple and groundout but didn’t allow any other runs. He also fanned Dick Nen to lead off the second inning for his first MLB strikeout. In 5 outings with the A’s, Tompkins worked 10-1/3 innings, gave up 4 runs for a 3.48 ERA and struck out 4 batters. He was one of three A’s pitchers who started a game before their 21st birthday — Hunter and Don Buschhorn being the others. No other team did that again until 2018, when the Atlanta Braves got starts from Mike Soroka, Bryce Wilson and Koby Allard.

Tompkins spent each of the next two seasons back in Vancouver. The Kansas City A’s weren’t very good, but they had a crop of excellent young starting pitchers (Hunter, Odom, Jim Nash, Chuck Dobson, Lew Krausse), and it was difficult for any other starter to get a shot in the rotation. Tompkins won 12 games in 1967 and 10 in ’68, but he never got a chance at the majors. Much to his relief, the A’s sent him to the Cincinnati organization in October of 1967. He spent just one season with the Reds, going 8-7 with a 3.53 ERA as a swingman in Triple-A Indianapolis. But he did receive a bit of fame with the move. The Topps 1968 Rookie Stars baseball card for the Reds features Tompkins and catching prospect Johnny Bench. Depending on the condition of the card, it can be worth several hundred dollars.

The Reds lost Tompkins to the Atlanta Braves in December of 1968 during the minor-league draft. The Braves also snagged third baseman Darrell Evans in the same draft. Now on his third organization, Tomkins wasn’t bitter that he hadn’t been given a real shot at the majors. “I got a couple of real good chances when I was with Kansas City, and I got my best shot last spring with Cincinnati. I can’t complain about that. I just didn’t throw the ball well,” he said.

Source: The Vancouver Sun, August 6, 1966.

Tompkins hoped to make the Braves staff as a reliever. “I’ve rubbed elbows with enough major leaguers to be one myself. Now, I think it’s time I made it,” he said. It wasn’t meant to be with the Braves, though. Tompkins was assigned to Triple-A Richmond, where he relieved in 31 of his 36 appearances and struggled to a 4.93 ERA. He was then traded to the Kansas City Royals in October of 1969 for pitcher Dave Wickersham. He failed to make the Royals in the spring of 1970 and was returned to the Braves in early April. After 12 appearances with Richmond, the Braves sent him to Portland, the Triple-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers in the Pacific Coast League. He pitched well in relief to close out the season and was claimed by the Chicago Cubs in the minor-league draft in December of 1970. And the Cubs… kept Tompkins on the major-league roster for all of 1971.

A Richmond newspaper wrote, “It was a big laugh that the Cubs drafted Ron Tompkins, one of the real nice guys in baseball but a sore-armed pitcher.” Tompkins had that blurb taped to his locker for spring training in 1971 whenever he needed a little motivation to do his best. He had switched his delivery from an overhand thrower to a submarine pitcher, which meant less stress on his sore arm. He pitched well in spring training and impressed Cubs manager Leo Durocher enough to make the Opening Day roster. Tompkins struggled in his first few outings but allowed just 2 earned runs in 7 appearances in May. Soon, he became one of the top relievers on the Cubs staff. He recorded 3 saves in the month of June. The first one, against Cincinnati on June 2, involved him throwing 2 perfect innings. Only one ball left the infield, and Tompkins retired his fellow Top Rookie, Bench, on a grounder to shortstop. (Bench may be the more famous name on their shared baseball card, but he was 0-for-2 lifetime against Tompkins with a walk.)

Tompkins struggled a bit as the summer wore on. Given the fickle nature of his manager, he soon found himself in Durocher’s doghouse and pitched sparingly in July and August. Still, the year was a validation of sorts. “I had been in baseball for several years, and I had always wondered what I could do against major-league hitters,” Tompkins explained in August. “Well, early in the season I was the No. 1 in the bullpen and I was getting people out. I proved to my own satisfaction that I could pitch up here.”

Tompkins had a strong September to finish the season with an 0-2 record, but with a 4.08 ERA and 96 ERA+ in 35 games. He fanned 20 batters and walked 21 in 39-2/3 innings. By 1972, he had improved his submarine delivery and hoped to demonstrate it for the Cubs in the majors. Instead, he was sent to Triple-A Wichita of the American Association. He had the best year of his professional career, with a 1.65 ERA and 20 saves, but the Cubs didn’t promote him. He was invited to spring training in 1973 but injured the index finger on his right hand in a lawnmower accident on February 14. He needed five stitches and wasn’t able to throw the ball at all in the spring. He returned to Wichita in 1973 for what was the final season of his professional career. He was 7-7 with 5 saves and a 4.58 ERA, and he walked more batters (61) than he struck out (49). Tompkins retired after that season at the age of 28.

Tompkins pitched in 40 games over parts of 2 seasons in the majors, all but one of which was in relief. He had an 0-2 record and 3 saves, with a 3.96 ERA. In 50 innings, he struck out 24 batters and walked an equal amount. He had a career WHIP of 1.280 and an ERA+ of 98. Tompkins also won 90 games over 11 seasons in the minor leagues, with 32 saves and a 3.54 ERA.

Source: The Bradenton Herald, March 10, 1967.

Tompkins had been a commercial real estate agent in his offseasons, and he continued that role in retirement from the game. He had two sons, Mark and Bryan, from his former wife Cherri. Beyond that, Tompkins’ life was quite private, and I could not find much about him. If more information becomes available, I will update this story. For now, I will leave with a quote from Tompkins from the July 15, 1971, Chula Vista Star-News. In the article, Tompkins admitted that he had thought about retirement from baseball many times before he found some stability in the Cubs bullpen.

“But you develop a love for the game after so long and just keep going. It can be a tough life… there’s a lot of traveling involved and at times you have to take a lot of abuse, so you have to love it to stay with it.”

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