Hank Thompsons Blues
Fresno, California September, 1969
You might not remember me, and if you did, you’d probably rather forget me. Most days, I’d rather forget myself. Problem is, I can’t.
If you saw me now you’d never believe I used to be a hero. You might even think I was a hustler. But I’m coming clean, I promise.
You see, I did things that most people only dream about, like star in a World Series.
Anybody who really knows baseball can tell you that it was me, Hank Thompson, who led the Giants to a sweep over the Indians in the ’54 series. Dusty Rhodes, sure, he helped, and Willie Mays did make that great catch.
But I was the one who batted .364, and walked seven times in four games, which set a record. As usual, or at least when I was up for it, I played a mean third base.
Hell, when they asked Joe DiMaggio which Giants’ player most impressed him in the series, he said, “In my book, it would have to be Hank Thompson. I want to tell you, that little fellow played a terrific game at third base for the Giants. Up to now I don’t think many have appreciated what a fine team player he is.”
Yeah, Joe said that all right. I still got the clipping, right here in my scrapbook.
I might be the only one who cares any more about what happened fifteen years ago, though.
These days nobody really thinks about the New York Giants any more. Just the Brooklyn Dodgers, ’cause they had Jackie.
And maybe they think about the Dodgers ’cause Los Angeles is a bigger deal than San Francisco. Or ’cause Brooklyn is more memorable than North Harlem, where we played. I don’t know.
I only wish I could occupy my time with such trifling stuff. Trouble is, a lot has happened since.
You see, I’ve been a fool more times than I care to recall. I’ve been to the bottom, hurting the ones I loved, committing crimes, doing time.
I had it all, but I blew it.
It’s too easy just to say that the good life did me in. The money, the ladies, the Scotch. Sure, I had trouble with all of ’em.
And people always ask me whether the race thing gave me problems. Of course it did. But those are just parts of the puzzle. The rest is inside of me.
Most people seem to be writing their own life stories these days, but me, I’d prefer to tell you mine. The way I see it, the second a man picks up a pen is when the lies start pouring out.
Which is why I’m sitting here at my mom’s kitchen table with this cassette recorder, just me, a pot of coffee, a couple packs of smokes, and some blank tapes.
For my own sake, I’d really prefer to record the truth. Believe you me, it’s waiting to get out.
From Chapters 34-35 (fall 1954).
Like most folks, I’m hard pressed to remember the days and dates of most things that have happened in my life, but Wednesday, September the 29th, 1954, is one I’ll never forget.
I woke up much earlier than usual, around 6:30 or so. As I looked out from my patio past the Polo Grounds and across the Harlem River, I could tell it would be one of those clammy late September days where it probably wouldn’t rain but always feel like it was about to.
Mary fixed up steak and eggs for breakfast, then we lounged around reading the morning papers. I paid no mind to the scribes and their forecasts about the troubles the Indians were set to give us. Me, I was ready to go.
Thing is, the clock can move real slow on game days, especially when it’s game one of the World Series. Really, there’s nothing to do but sit around and wait. And that made me start feeling anxious, which in usual circumstances led me to take a nip or two.
But not on this day, no sir—I knew there was too much at stake. Besides that, Mary had also parked herself right in front of the liquor cabinet.
About 10 o’clock, I headed down to the Polo Grounds. At least there I could play cards with some of the other early birds, and make the time pass quicker. Pocketing some coins from Monte and Davey Williams, I started to feel like things were looking up.
Around noon, we started suiting up, and pretty soon we took the field for batting practice. Coming through the centerfield fence, it was great to see the Polo Grounds all decorated for the game with the red, white, and blue baseball banners on the grandstands. As we warmed up, I heard some fans call out my name, which felt real good.
Near game time, Mary arrived with Win and an entourage of other dolled-up ladies. Mary normally played bridge on Wednesday afternoons, but that day she brought her club to the game.
I’d never heard such a roar at the Polo Grounds as when we came out of the dugout to take the field for the start of the game. Back in ’51, there were plenty of Yankee fans taking up seats, but this time around, we were definitely the home team.
Matter of fact, for the first time in my playing days, we were New York City’s only team in town. We now felt like baseball royalty, just like the Yankees or the Dodgers.
And unlike in ’51, I was now at third base, where I belonged. So I felt good, and the rest of the club seemed ready to play ball, too.
Come the bottom of the tenth, Bob Lemon was still going for the Tribe, when with one out, Willie walked, then stole second, bringing me to the plate with a chance for some heroics.
Instead, Al Lopez, the Indians manager, called for an intentional walk.
Now the Señor’s move made sense, seeing as I’m a lefty, and Monte, a righty, was due up next. But let’s just say that for a man itching for glory, there’s no worse fate than a damn intentional walk.
Monte, though, never came up. Leo decided to pinch-hit Dusty Rhodes, which might have been a controversial move, except that Dusty promptly smacked Lemon’s first pitch into the right field stands, which were only 270 feet away.
They called a short shot like that a “Chinese homerun,” which implied that it was cheap. But we all gladly took it, and it was time to celebrate. And you know that Dusty was ready to tie one on.
But lucky for me, Mary had arranged for us all to go back to our place after the game. So Monte and I joined Win, Mary and her bridge gals for some highballs and chicken salad sandwiches.
The next morning, Mary helped me pack my suitcase for Cleveland, and gave me a few instructions while she was at it.
“Now, Henry,” she said, “I have no reason not to trust you, right?”
It was more of a command than a question.
“Don’t worry, baby,” I tried to assure her, “I’m going to Cleveland only to win a championship, and we’ll celebrate like kings and queens when I return.”
“Yeah, sure,” Mary replied, “but you just remember two things.”
“What’s that?” I asked, playing ignorant.
“The more the Giants are in the headlines, the more the gossip hounds will be looking for stories. And I could fill their columns for more than a few days.”
“C’mon, baby,” I said, “how’s about I try to make the headlines, and we both let the hounds chase down stories from somebody else?”
Mary had made her point loud and clear, but, really, it didn’t faze me one bit. I knew that everything would be just fine between us, at least once we went out and won the series.
Come Saturday afternoon’s game in Cleveland, we were set to finish off the Tribe. For the second day in a row, Leo and Laraine’s glamorous pals, Danny Kaye and Toots Schor, sat in box seats near our dugout. Kaye had sung the national anthem for game three, and now Jeff Chandler was there to sing it for game four.
Everyone knew Chandler from the movies as Cochise, but in reality his name was Ira Grossel. So a Jewish guy from Brooklyn changed his name to something Protestant, and now he portrayed Indians. Funny how that works.
Kaye was Brooklyn, too, and we all kind of had the sense that Leo really wanted his championship to be with the Dodgers, and that we were the next best thing. But so what? That day we were set to succeed where the Dodgers had only failed.
Come the bottom of the ninth, Johnny Antonelli was on the hill closing it out for us, and Dale Mitchell stepped to the plate with two outs. He popped one up towards me, and I moved over into foul territory.
I looked up into the Cleveland haze, and watched the ball drop right into my glove. I squeezed it, jumped real high, then went straight for the pitcher’s mound to join the celebration.
“The Giants win the World Series” doesn’t have a real catchy sound, but it’s got a real good ring, if you know what I’m saying.
But the ring is a long story, which I’ll tell you later.
For now, let’s just say there was some real good times to be had. The champagne started flowing in the locker room, and it kept bubbling all the way back on that night’s Capital Express back to LaGuardia.
Yeah, we were on top of the world all right. And man, did I ever like the view.
I still can’t believe how many fans were at LaGuardia when we got back that Saturday night. Must have been a few thousand at least.
They were banging drums, blowing horns, making all kinds of noise. A bunch of them even busted through the police barricades and came running out to meet the plane.
It’s all kind of blurry for me, though. See, we all lived it up real good on the plane, Mr. Stoneham and myself in particular. Between us, we must have downed three-quarters of a bottle of Dewar’s.
Rather than step off the plane waving to the crowd, I more or less stumbled off it, reaching for the handrail to keep my balance. Mary met me at the bottom of the stairs, and helped steer me in the right direction.
We made our way through the hordes, and got on the bus for the Biltmore Hotel, where there was a big reception for us in the grand ballroom.
From what Mary, Monte and Win said later, it was a Roman feast, full of oysters, shrimps, steaks, and all manner of fancy desserts. But as you probably guessed, I didn’t spend too much time at the buffet table.
Instead, I was at the bar, running through single malts like water. I have no idea who I was talking to or what I was saying. But none of it mattered.
At least not till early Sunday afternoon, when I woke up realizing I had hung more than a few on. For a World Series champ, I sure smelled like a bum.
But you know what? Hair of the dog is the only way to shake the real bad ones off.
So I nursed my way through the afternoon into the early evening, when it was time to get slicked up and go out again. This time Mary and I set out for some of the spots near 125th.
We started off at Frank’s, where I more than made up for missing the Biltmore buffet by stuffing myself full of oysters followed by a tender lamb chop. From there we went to Smalls, then over to the Braddock.
Everywhere we went, food and drink was on the house. I shook a lot of hands, kissed lots of pretty ladies on the cheek, and toasted with everyone in sight.
I was now Hank Thompson, World Series star, and you best believe I was enjoying the limelight.
After midnight, Mary started reminding me about the parade the next day, but I had no intention of calling it a night. I talked her into coming with me over to the Lenox Rendezvous on 114th, where Hal Paige and the Whalers always played the hard New York City blues.
Soon as I walked in, Paige and company did a real dirty version of “When the Saints Come Marching In,” in my honor. Hell, I wasn’t just baseball royalty—now I was being treated like some sort of religious figure.
Naturally, the only way to celebrate my sainthood was to throw back some more drinks. I was loving every minute of it, but Mary was getting a little more than bored propping me up. How she managed to get me out the door and into a cab, I have no idea.
I was miserable during the victory parade the next day. I pulled my Cranston brim down tight, to block out the sun. But the stopping and starting of the car damn near made me lose what was in my stomach.
Nobody paid much mind to my condition, though. I got a nice hand when they called my name down at City Hall. Thankfully, I was able to step towards the crowd and give them a tip of my Cranston.
Despite my fine play in the series, it was clear from the crowd reactions that Dusty was the new fan favorite, and that Willie was obviously our number one star. I didn’t mind it at the time, because I felt like my performance would soon be recognized.
I figured that the praise from Joe DiMaggio would help generate some interest, and better yet, some sponsorship deals. I was ready to field all offers.
“Just you wait, baby,” I’d say to Mary, “pretty soon, the phone’s gonna be ringing off the hook.”
Friends, and friends of friends, did the calling in the first few weeks. And the lucrative offers didn’t exactly come pouring in after that.
Sometimes, I guess, you need to make some initial calls yourself. Sometimes you need to sell others on the idea that they should sell you.
Dusty had no problem getting himself out there, and neither did Leo, of course. For the next two months, they did plenty of living room gigs.
Matter of fact, every time you turned the TV on, it seemed like one of them was there with Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason or someone like that. Sometimes both Leo and Dusty came on, hamming it up together.
And Willie, he was all over the place, too. But that wasn’t just because he’d had one good series. He won the MVP for the entire season, as well as a bunch of athlete-of-the-year awards.
Willie was in the papers nearly every day for the first few months of the off-season, and on TV all the time. Rumor had it that he was even offered a nightclub act in Las Vegas. I’m not sure he had any real song and dance talents, but we never did get to find out.
The upshot is that Dusty, Leo and Willie were now household names, making the rounds on the celebrity circuit with the actors, singers, showgirls, and all the rest. Me, I was still at home waiting for the phone to ring.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t living the good life. If anything, I was living too much of it.
Our World Series cut was around $9,500, which was a real nice piece of change back then. The smartest move I made that off-season—at least in terms of Mary and my relationship—was to sit right down with Mary and figure out how to spend it.
“I’ve got my eye on an item at Constable’s,” was the first thing she said. “And we should also put something towards the house in Cuba for my folks.”
So, one day late in October, we headed down to Constable’s, which is on 5th Avenue near the Public Library. We went right to the fur section, and Mary knew which one she wanted: full-length, rabbit, auburn.
It cost me a cool $5,300, which was more than the price of my Lincoln Capri. But it was a worthwhile investment, since it was sure to keep Mary happy all winter long.
We put the rest of the series share into stock in Chock Full o’ Nuts, which was a good company and an even better investment. Jackie was not yet associated with them, so, rest assured, it wasn’t a matter of us following his lead.
Anyway, I had spent my $9,500 making Mary happy, but with my salary getting up near $30,000, I was still flush through the off-season. I had enough extra flow that I could keep up with my payments to Felicia, and not have Mary on my back about it.
But sometimes you just want more. When you see other guys around you getting real serious action, you start wanting a bigger cut. It’s only natural.
To make a long story short, after two months or so of seeing Dusty, Leo, and Willie—not to mention Jackie, who still hosted his own local shows—on the TV nearly every night, I decided to seek out some more fame for myself.
So in early December I set up another meeting with Bill Stephens at the Casey Agency, intent on finding out the real score.
“Pull no punches,” I told Stephens. “When are the offers going to start coming my way?”
“Well, Henry,” he said, “the firms want Willie, and they’ll still take Jackie.”
“But there’s gotta be more room than that,” I said.
Stephens kind of fidgeted a little bit in his chair for a bit, before laying it out for me. “Ok, truth be told, Henry, you kind of scare people away,” he said.
Uh-oh, I thought to myself, word’s gotten out about Buddy Crow, and nobody wants a killer to sponsor their product. Or maybe someone’s been talking about Felicia and Frances, and my other family.
But luckily, I kept my foot out my mouth, and just spit back a “how’s that?”
“They’re looking for crossover appeal,” Stephens said. “And, quite frankly, you just don’t have it.”
Now, I’ve thought long and hard about what Stephens said, and see no other way to interpret it than this: he was telling me that I was too black. Willie and Jackie, you see, were different—they could pull in both black and white audiences.
Maybe if I was a year in, year out superstar like those two, I would have crossed over. But I doubt it. Guys who make it big off the field have some quality that most ordinary people lack. Looks, glamour, celebrity—whatever it is, I didn’t have it.
Instead, mainly what I had was black skin, an average face, and a checkered past.
When I left Stephens’s office, I felt frustrated. Here I was, real near the top—but at the same time, basically as far as I could go. No matter what I did for the rest of my playing days, the pearly gates of fame would still be closed to me.
So I stopped thinking about how far I’d come, or how much work I’d put in to get there. All I started telling myself was “no matter what I do, Jackie and Willie are gonna get all the riches and rewards, so I might as well just order up another round—and make this one a double.”
Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the only reason I started hitting the sauce real hard is because I wasn’t welcome in the limelight. You damn well already know I was ready to hit it all the time, good or bad.
All I can really say is that right then and there, something different happened. Once I hit a ceiling, the floor just dropped out on me. And I kept on falling.
Matter of fact, I went straight from the Casey Agency over to Bill’s Place, where I spent the winter hibernating on a barstool. Next thing I knew, it was early February, and I was in no shape to start spring training again.