Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Hochman: Breaking the Barrier in St. Louis -- in 1947

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Hochman: Breaking the Barrier in St. Louis -- in 1947

Article excerpt

Just 93 days after Jackie Robinson, St. Louis had a Jackie Robinson.

It's true. On this very day, 70 years ago, Hank Thompson became the third African-American to play in Major League Baseball.

Brooklyn's Robinson broke the color barrier in that spring of 1947, and a dozen days before Thompson, Larry Doby debuted for Cleveland. And on July 17, 1947, Hank Thompson started for the St. Louis Browns, the American League team that became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954.

In town here, many know the name Tom Alston he was the first black St. Louis Cardinal, back in 1954. And perhaps you recall a recent column about Charlie Peete, an African-American who, for the 1957 season, would have been the first everyday black Cardinals starter but he died in a plane crash the winter before.

Yet seven years before Alston, it was St. Louis' Browns who fielded Hank Thompson, a name faded in St. Louis history and tainted in sports history, following his post-baseball demise, which included multiple robberies and jail time.

"When you think of him," said local sports historian Ed Wheatley, "you think of opportunity, but also sadness."

The 1947 Browns' brass owner Richard Muckerman and general manager Bill DeWitt Sr. signed two African-Americans from the Negro Leagues: Thompson and Willard Brown. The latter made his debut two days after Thompson.

The same brass cut the players before season's end.

Wheatley has co-written a book, "St. Louis Browns The Story Of A Beloved Team." He shared from research that the Browns would've had to pay the Kansas City Monarchs additional money if the two Negro Leaguers played through the 1947 MLB season.

And while the tenure of Thompson and Brown seemed sour, the reality is that "St. Louis was the most southern city in the major leagues, and we didn't have just one African-American player, but two," Wheatley said . "They were here only a little over a month, and then they were cut. So it's really hard to say what would've happened if they had stayed longer. ...

"People only hear Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. But these guys, they broke glass ceilings by playing, and the Browns broke a glass ceiling by having two guys on the same field. It was also breaking the ceiling in the most southern of all towns, and almost a decade before teams like the Yankees and Red Sox had one player."

Indeed, the Yankees didn't diversify until 1955, when St. Louis' own Elston Howard first put on the pinstripes. And Boston infamously was the last team to integrate, waiting almost until the 1960s. It was July 1959 when Pumpsie Green first played in front of the Green Monster.

Hank Thompson made history before he made history. Three years before St. Louis, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He returned home, barnstormed with Satchel Paige's All-Stars and then rejoined the Monarchs for the start of the 1947 season. …

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