- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The baseball world celebrates Jackie Robinson this week, but this column isn’t about him. It’s about some of the Other Guys, some of the other black players who broke into the big leagues in 1947 — though they’re hardly ever mentioned, Robinson’s shadow being so all encompassing. Let’s spend a few minutes this morning — because it’s only fair — with Willard Brown and Hank Thompson.

They’re the flip side of “The Jackie Robinson Story.” While Robinson received endless coverage because he crossed the color line first — and did it in the most public of places, Brooklyn, N.Y. — Brown and Thompson got barely a passing glance when they joined the bottom-feeding St. Louis Browns three months later. And while Jackie had a storybook season that ended with him playing in the World Series and winning the first Rookie of the Year Award, Willard and Hank lasted just 37 days with the Brownies before they were waived simultaneously … just as they had been signed simultaneously.

Robinson has become the symbol of the black athlete’s struggle against oppression, but he wasn’t the only one to feel racism’s sting that first year. Consider Thompson’s plight: He was batting .256 when St. Louis decided to let him go. In his last game, a 7-5 Browns victory, he had gone 1-for-3, laid down a successful sacrifice bunt and handled 10 chances at second base without a bobble. Not that it mattered. The next day, he was headed back to the Negro Leagues — his place in the lineup taken by .222-hitting Billy Hitchcock, the future Orioles manager.

In a 1965 story in Sport magazine, Thompson recalled asking Bill DeWitt, the club’s general manager, for an explanation. DeWitt’s uneasy reply: “There are things I can’t discuss.” (And besides, it was the St. Louis Browns. Who would even notice?)

The two trailblazers had come to the Browns from the Kansas City Monarchs — Buck O’Neil’s team. It didn’t take them long to make an impact. In a matter of days, Thompson singled home the deciding run to complete a doubleheader sweep of the Red Sox, and Brown had four hits and three RBI in a rare win over the Yankees.

There weren’t many moments like that, but there were a few. Such as the day Brown hit a two-run, inside-the-park homer in the eighth inning against Tigers ace Hal Newhouser. “It was the first homer by a Negro in the American League,” the United Press reported. “Then another Negro, Henry Thompson, walked, stole second, took third on an out and scored the winning run on a passed ball, giving the Browns their first win over Newhouser in 16 decisions since opening day of 1945.”

Another time, Brown saved the team from an embarrassing loss to its Newark farm club by homering in the ninth. Unfortunately, he was already 32 when his big chance came, and 32-year-old outfielders — of any hue — weren’t exactly in great demand. (His .179 batting average in 21 games didn’t help, either.)

But Thompson — now he was a prospect. Though just 21 that season, he clearly wasn’t cowed by the competition. In 1949 the New York Giants gave him another shot, and he developed into a kind of poor man’s Joe Morgan — a smallish (5-9, 174) left-handed-hitting infielder with surprising power (one homer every 23.3 at bats) and an ability to draw walks (.372 career on-base percentage).

As for his glove, it might not have been golden like Morgan’s, but it was reliable enough. Years after the Giants swept Cleveland in the 1954 Series, Indians manager Al Lopez said, “Nobody gives their third baseman, Henry Thompson [who had switched positions by then], much credit, but he made some of the greatest plays I ever saw.”

So Thompson got to win a World Series — and also had a front-row seat for Bobby Thomson’s shot-heard-round-the-world in the ‘51 National League playoffs. All in all, a pretty eventful career.

Brown’s last few seasons, however, were much quieter. A month after being released by St. Louis, he could be found playing for the Monarchs against a team of gagsters known as the Indianapolis Clowns. The Clowns’ first baseman: none other than Goose Tatum, the legendary Harlem Globetrotter. (In a belated attempt to make amends, a Special Committee voted Brown — posthumously — and a half-dozen other Negro Leaguers into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.)

Only one black player got to be Jackie Robinson, but any number of others — such as Brown and Thompson — did their part for the cause. Or to put it another way: The integration of baseball was no one-man show. It took a village.

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