by Mark Jent
*This is the fourth story in a series of my quest to meet as many of the remaining Brooklyn Dodgers as possible. At the end of this story you can find links to the other adventures.
Every good mission has its ebbs and flows. There are moments when you are crushing it and then there are times of drought and waiting.
Such is the case in my quest to meet as many of the living Brooklyn Dodgers as possible before it’s too late. In 2009 (Newcombe) and 2013 (Lasorda) I checked a couple off the list before there was really even a list as they were just encounters that just so happened to be men who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Towards the end of 2016 I actually developed what I refer to as “The List,” where I created a spreadsheet and listed all 25 men who were living at that time who had once played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I had the name column, the address column, years played column and then the notes column that listed anything of significance. I guess you could say that 2017 is really when “the quest” began. That year I knocked three off the list – Erskine, Haughey and Landrum. I was crushing it, in my own little way. Yet over the past two years I have found myself in this season of drought in being aggressive with my pursuit. We found ourselves in career transition, we launched two new family-owned businesses (Simply A Fan and 2×2 Global) and honestly the timing just wasn’t great for me to be galavanting around the country chasing old guys who played baseball 60 years ago.
Yet, it is more than a personal ambitious mission to pursue this bucket list. Yes, it is something I am passionate about, but it is something that I also believe can encourage those I visit while bringing back memories for those fans who lived through the golden era of baseball. For those boys who played stickball on the streets of Brooklyn. For those fans who sat in the bleachers at Ebbets Field as kids. And for those of us of a younger generation who were born two decades after the wrecking ball tore it down, but who have come to appreciate its rich history and tradition from yesteryear.
Some missions have an indefinite time frame. If you want to check off the National Parks, go for it – they aren’t going any where. If you want to visit every state, knock yourself out. If you want to learn a new language, then bueno! But if you want to meet the living Brooklyn Dodgers, father time is not slowing down for you to check it off your bucket list.
The Brooklyn Dodgers played their last game on September 24, 1957. You can do the math. Men who were then in their 20s and 30s are now, 62 years later, in their 80s and 90s. So whereas some life goals have an indefinite time to pursue, the clock on mine is ticking. This is evident by the fact that “The List” has dwindled from 25 to 15 in two years!
About 10 days before our recent Epic East trip (Sept 12-14), as I was putting the finishing touches on planning the final details where we would hit three games in three parks in three days, I had an idea. I pulled out “The List” just to check the whereabouts of the remaining 15. If any were in the area (and still alive since my last research), now was the time to check another off the list. Our travel took us to Baltimore on Thursday, Washington D.C. on Friday and Philadelphia on Saturday. Sure enough, as luck would have it, 2.5 hours west of Philadelphia, the last stop on our trip, was where Charlie Thompson lived. At the time I had the town where he supposedly lived, but no other details of his home address or home phone number. For that matter at his age, I had to first verify he was still alive! So the search for finding Charlie Thompson began that Sunday night at 8pm and culminated 14 hours later on Monday at 10am when he answered his home phone. (Thank you Google!)
I called. He answered. I had a positive hit. My entry point is usually something along the lines of “My name is Mark Jent and I’m a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers Nostalgia Society and I’m on this quest…” All of which is true, albeit the Nostalgia Society is just a Facebook Group – but hey, I’m still a member of it!
He sounded glad to accept my personal invitation of inviting myself into his house. I offered to take him to lunch or dinner, but he politely declined saying “We only get out of the house these days for doctor’s appointments.” “Fair enough,” I said, “we’ll come to your place!”
Because I have the best wife to ever walk planet Earth, Beth approved and agreed for me to extend the Epic East trip by a day (20 hours to be exact) to make this visit. So plane tickets were rescheduled, a hotel was booked and a rental car reserved. She knew the importance of me checking another off The List. (I think she’s secretly hoping for early retirement from royalties on my book one day when I write about my bucket list quest.)
Our Epic East trip was amazing – Camden Yards, touring the house where Babe Ruth was born, meeting Boog Powell, seeing my Dodgers beat the Orioles, sightseeing in D.C., getting a bobblehead giveaway at National Parks, sightseeing in Philly and more. Although all of it fits into the category of awesome, there is a totally separate category for me when it comes to meeting one of the remaining time machines of Brooklyn baseball.
Did I mention that Mr. Thompson is 95 years old and the second oldest Brooklyn Dodger? He was a catcher and played in only 10 games for Brooklyn in the 1954 season. In total he was in the Dodgers organization for nearly a decade. He later played for the Kansas City Athletics in ‘56 and ‘57 before ending his career with the Detroit Tigers in ‘58. There are not a lot of details about his career to be found, but one interesting tidbit – he is known as the first catcher in major league baseball to wear his glasses while catching a game. Fascinating! Even though his career in Brooklyn was brief, he was on The List, so therefore, I wanted to meet him.
So this past Sunday at the conclusion of Epic East, my best baseball traveling companion and fellow Dodger fan, Patrick Cameron, and I made the 350 mile roundtrip trek from Philly to Lewistown, Pennsylvania – population 8,000. I was surprised at the lack of recognition for Mr. Thompson as we pulled into this quaint coal-mining town. No sign, no bronze statue, no Little League field named after him – nothing. Do these people not appreciate baseball history?!?!
Patrick and I spent two hours visiting with Mr. Thompson, his wife Lois and their caretaker Peggy. The Thompsons have been married for 77 years next month! He has had some health issues this year, but his mind is still extremely sharp as evidenced by the fact that he recounted story after story during our time together.
He signed with Brooklyn in 1948 and spent the next six seasons in their vast minor league system that consisted of over 20 teams and 700 players. He was long-time roommates with Tommy Lasorda, who he still keeps in touch with today. Although he had never played the position before, when he made his major league debut in April of ‘54, he recounted how Dodgers hall of fame manager Walk Alston put in him the outfield for the first and second games of his career! He shared memories with us of him and Jackie Robinson. Although Thompson was a nearly career minor leaguer at that point, Jackie and him would throw batting practice to each other and take turns hitting the ball into the net.
He recalled being introduced to an 18 year old, wild-throwing bonus baby named Sandy Koufax. The southpaw couldn’t throw a strike to save his life. After Koufax’s rookie season, the Dodgers front office brass asked Thompson to go play winter ball in Cuba with Koufax to help him work on his command. He gladly obliged and became Koufax’s personal catcher during that winter league season. He chuckled as he told the story of teaching Koufax how to throw a spit-ball, “He was struggling with his control, so between batters I walked out to the mound and said, ‘Sandy, just get a bit of saliva on your hands, rub it on the ball and let it loose,” said Thompson. “Wouldn’t you know that the next pitch there was spit flying all off that ball on the way to me behind the plate. It landed for a strike and the umpire asked ‘What did you tell him?’ To which I said, ‘Nothing.’” He belly-laughed recalling the moment.
The Compassion of Rickey
He fondly recalled his relationship with Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey. Best known as the man who took a step of faith and signed Jackie Robinson, Rickey showed care and concern for all his players. Early in his career while Thompson was toiling in the minor leagues making a meager salary while his wife was back home in Pennsylvania keeping home life in order. He was ready to call it quits, go home and get a better paying job. Once Branch Rickey got wind of it, he went to Thompson and asked what it would take to keep him with the club. Thompson told him he needed a raise to $3,500. On the spot Rickey gladly gave it to him. In addition to the raise, Rickey told him that wherever he went grocery shopping to just “put it on my tab” and “send me the bank note for your mortgage and I’ll take care of it.” Now almost 70 years later, Thompson’s smile showed how grateful he was for Mr. Rickey.
His World Series Ring
When Brooklyn won their first and only World Series in 1955, even though he wasn’t with the team that season, by being in their system for such a long time, Thompson received a World Series ring! As a sign of appreciation for what he had done for his career, he gave the ring to his father. Years later when his father passed away, Charlie looked for it in his father’s belongings, but was never able to find his prized possession.
Post Playing Career
After his playing career Thompson stayed in baseball as a scout for the next four decades. He scouted for the Dodgers, Reds, and the last 30 years of his career, he was a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals. Thompson rose through the scouting ranks in the Cardinals organization and was once the head of their scouting department overseeing 150 scouts and player development personnel. He took great pride in having found the Cardinals 2B of the 80’s Tommy Herr. His biggest catch was two-sport star OF Brian Jordan, who he convinced to quit football for a $6 million signing bonus. He retired from the Cardinals in 2002. Although not a household name, Charlie Thompson invested over 50 years of his life in major league baseball from minor leaguer, to backup catcher, to coach in the minors and as a long-time scout.
Towards the end of our storytelling time together, Mr. Thompson asked their caretaker Peggy to take us down to his basement where a lot of his awards, accolades, pictures and more were on display. Wow! There was a picture of him and Jackie shaking hands. There was a picture of him at spring training in ‘49 at Vero Beach with the Boys of Summer. And there is a picture of him wearing his glasses in uniform!
Before we left I asked if we could take a few pictures and he said yes. At the last minute before our trip I had bought a Brooklyn hat and thanks to Amazon Prime shipping, I had it shipped to our hotel in Philadelphia so it would be waiting for us upon arrival. When I gave it to him and asked him to put it on, he said it was the only Brooklyn hat he now owned. The featured image that you see of us has him in my #27 Matt Kemp jersey that I asked if he would wear for our photo session. He said he had not put on a Dodgers jersey in over 50 years. As he pulled the uniform over his shoulders, Peggy asked if he wanted it buttoned-up to which he replied, “Well I’m a ballplayer and we always have to button our jerseys!”
It was a fantastic Sunday afternoon. Here we were in a small Pennsylvania town sitting at the feet of a man who many would find to be a footnote in history, yet we were in awe of his baseball story and adventures.
Mr. Thompson is now the sixth Brooklyn Dodger I have met. Two of the six have passed away (Newcombe, Landrum), which means out of the 15 still with us, there are 11 still on my list that I’d like to check off. The holy grail is Sandy Koufax. Now 83 years young and living in Vero Beach, Koufax can often be seen sitting in the first row at Dodger Stadium. Next up on the hard-to-reach scale will be Roger Craig, who had a solid career, but for many would be best known as the manager of the Giants in the 1980s. The rest are scattered around the country – one still lives in Brooklyn, one up in the northwest, one in Florida, randomly four live in either Oklahoma and Kansas and finally, a handful are in Texas. (Scroll to the bottom to find links to stories on Newcombe, Lasorda and Erskine.)
Patrick and I left the Thompson homestead around 6:30 on Sunday evening. As we started driving back towards Philly against the backdrop of barns, silos and the rolling hills of the gorgeous Pennsylvania countryside, I realized that we had accomplished our mission. We had found, met, and conversed at length with another Brooklyn Dodger. The passion is there, the stories are just waiting to be told. The first six chapters of the book are written.
As in most bucket list quests, the two obstacles that stand in the way are time and money. The former is running out as the men on the other side of the doors I knock on are slowly leaving us one by one. Thanks to Southwest rapid rewards and couches of friends who live nearby, the latter is attainable. You’d be amazed at how long apples, mixed nuts and peanut butter crackers can sustain a 41 year old. To knock several out at once, I envision a trip to Oklahoma and Texas is in order soon.
Thank you Mr. Thompson for being gracious with your time. I’m glad to have found you.
ALL BROOKLYN DODGERS ADVENTURES
• Meeting Don Newcombe (published 2.19.2019)
• Lunch With Tommy Lasorda (published 8.8.2019)
• Breakfast With Carl Erskine (published 8.29.2019)
• Finding Charlie Thompson (published 9.20.2019)
September 15, 2019 – visiting Charlie Thompson at his home
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Mark Jent is the chief trip planner and designated storyteller for Simply A Fan. He lives in Nashville (TN) with his wife Beth, and their three kids Brooklyn, Harrison and Zach. Mark thoroughly enjoys cheering on his Dodgers, continuing his quest to meet as many of the living Brooklyn Dodgers as possible, chasing waterfalls with his family and hiking the Ganier Ridge at nearby Radnor Lake. He had an atrocious record of 5-27 as the head coach of his boy’s baseball teams in 2017-2018 before his indefinite coaching retirement.