Hank Thompson was one of the first players signed to a Topps contract but battles with crime and alcohol plagued an otherwise charmed life.
In the 1952 Topps set, names like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Eddie Mathews may stand out for their value but collectors who love cards that tell stories–good and bad–can’t ignore Thompson. He has quite a history, even though his life ended at an age when many players would be easing into retirement.
Thompson was arrested twice as a teenager, once for jewelry theft and a second time for truancy. While not tremendously noteworthy at the time, that information would portend the more serious trouble to come.Thompson was a skilled player, though, and at age 17, the Kansas City Monarchs discovered him in his native Oklahoma and signed him to a contract in 1943. He became a star but World War II interrupted his career. Thompson served his country as a machine gunner at Battle of the Bulge, a major win for the Allied Powers over Nazi Germany.
Making his big league debut with the St. Louis Browns in 1947, just three months after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Thompson made a brief cameo as one of the first African American players in MLB history. He played in 27 games, primarily at second base, although third base became his primary position later in his career.
After he was released by the Browns in August, Thompson headed back to the Negro Leagues in 1948 only to be signed by the New York Giants and come back to the majors in 1949. That summer, he faced Brooklyn Dodgers Don Newcombe, thus marking the first confrontation between an African-American pitcher and hitter in Major League Baseball history.
By the time his first big league card was produced, Thompson was already an established starter who hit 20 home runs and posted a .391 OBP in 148 games for the Giants in 1950. Known for his strong arm, Thompson was well-liked by fans in his successful nine-year MLB career.
His 1952 Topps card (#3) comes in two variants, one with the text in black on the back and the other in red. It’s technically not his rookie card, however, as Thompson also appeared in the 1950 Bowman set. He would appear on Topps and Bowman issues throughout his career, with his final appearance in the 1957 Topps set.
Thompson’s best season came when he smacked 26 home runs for the New York Giants in 1954 and helped them win the World Series.
In 1948, he killed a man (Buddy Crow) outside of a Dallas bar but Thompson claimed Crow had come at him with a knife and the case was labeled justifiable homicide.
As time went on, however, he had more brushes with the law. Being charged with auto theft and robbing a woman were not enough to throw Thompson in prison as he continued to draw more free passes in legal society than he did at the plate in baseball.
Thompson still continued to press his luck. In 1961, he robbed a bar with a gun while drunk and still managed to avoid a lengthy jail sentence after Giants owner Horace Stoneham and MLB commissioner Ford Frick requested that the judge give Thompson probation.
Finally in 1963, the gig was up for the former Giant who was convicted and served time due to an armed robbery he committed in Texas that year. Sentenced to ten years in prison, he served just three thanks to good behavior. Thompson later blamed much of his trouble on alcohol and during speaking engagements that came his way, encouraged youngsters to avoid his mistakes. He later became a playground director in Fresno, CA.
Hank Thompson was just 43 when he died of a seizure in 1969. Because of that, his autographs are a bit hard to find and somewhat expensive.
Click here to see Thompson’s cards and memorabilia on eBay.