Van Dyke House of David: Sandy Thompson in NOLA

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That’s right, back to Harry Crump’s Van Dyke Colored House of David of Sioux City, Iowa. This team is just fascinating, as are many of its players, like Yellowhorse Morris and others. It’s incredible the mix of athletes Crump pulled together for this barnstorming aggregation, from somewhat mythical vagabonds like Yellowhorse Morris — an Oaklander, by the way, a fact that intersects with the international baseball scene in Berkeley, Calif., — to obscure player/manager/catcher Guy Ousley (who’s so obscure that I can’t even pin down the correct spelling of his name, or whether that’s even his real name) to the topic of this post, James “Sandy” Thompson (below, courtesy of Seamheads), one of the many Van Dykes who at one time enjoyed “big time” careers in the Negro National League (and, for the 1932 season, the Negro Southern League) but who were now trying to elongate their fading hardball tenures as long as they possibly could.

sandy_thompson

Sandy Thompson came to my particular attention because, I learned, that in 1935, he managed … the New Orleans Black Pelicans! Right here in NOLA!

Obviously by then, he was on the backside of his career, attempting valiantly to stretch out his time as much as he could by being a player-manager for a “minor league” teams in the South land.

But before I get to 1935, a quick rundown of his career up until then …

It appears that while Sandy Thompson had his moments — he was a slashing, contact hitter and competent outfielder — his time in the Negro “majors” was often fairly unremarkable. In fact, as you can see from his Seamheads bio, such as it is, his birthplace, death place and dates of each appear to be unknown.

I have a suspicion and lead that he began his pro/semipro career with a team in Hot Springs, Ark. In any regard, he arrived in the “big time” in 1920 with the Dayton Marcos, one of the founding teams of the original Negro National League. He then proceeded to play for the ill-fated Milwaukee Bears, the Birmingham Black Barons, and, probably most significantly, the Chicago American Giants for several years.

Thompson appears to have frequently no more than a role player, often sitting near the bottom of the bottom order, sometimes near the top, and occasionally legging out doubles and triples. But once in a while he made a splash in the national black media.

To wit … in early 1926, Cum Posey got all bent out of joint because Rube Foster allegedly plucked Thompson from the Black Barons and placed the outfielder on Foster’s own American Giants. In his regular column/PR piece for the Pittsburgh Courier in January 1926, Posey, claiming to be “writing this article as a baseball fan and not as a baseball manager …” (Whatever, Cumberland), lambasted his managerial and business rival Foster for the move:

“How is it that Foster deliberately takes [most likely Roy] Pondexter and Thompson, the two real players of the Birmingham club, and places them on [the] the American Giants without allowing such clubs as Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis to bid for the services[?] If Foster owns these clubs it is syndicate baseball and is not deserving of public support. If Foster does not own these other clubs he is using his position to take advantage of the other clubs and is not fair to these clubs. Either way you take it, it is wrong.”

Ouch. Well, regardless of the ethical implications of Foster’s moves, the jump from ‘Bama to the Windy City benefited Thompson — that season the CAGs won the blackball national championship be defeating the Atlantic City Bacharachs in the Negro World Series.

However, in 1927 Thompson hopped back to Birmingham, and while still with the Barons in July ’28, Thompson, according to the Norfolk New Journal and Guide, “was given a 10-day suspension because he failed to show up at the park for a doubleheader between the Black barons and the Detroit Stars.” Whoops.

After that, Thompson ping-ponged between Birmingham and Chicago, then reportedly played for the Cuban Stars East in 1933. That’s when, two years later, the news came down that he was managing the NOLA Black Pels. As per the American Negro Press in March 1935:

“Formerly of the Chicago American Giants when that club was enjoying much prestige, Sandy Thompson, veteran outfielder, will take over management of the new New Orleans Black Pelicans this … season, Allen Page, owner of the club announced.”

And so intersects the careers of Thompson and one of my all-time favorite (and sorely overlooked) Negro Leagues figures, New Orleans sports impresario Allen Page. From all appearances, it looks like the 1935 season was just as much about Page as it was Thompson in the Big Easy.

That’s because the 1935 Black Pels appear to have been a massive effort by Page to reinvigorate the erstwhile Black Pelicans name with new ownership, a new park (Crescent Park) and a stacked roster that included slugger and Baton Rouge native Pepper Bassett (later known as “the Rocking Chair Catcher”) and pitching ace Lefty Glover.

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Pepper Bassett

Page spent the better part of his career attempting, and at times succeeding (see this article), in making the Crescent City a Negro Leagues hotspot by, among other actions, arranging and promoting exhibition contests between the biggest Negro National and American leagues, creating the sorely underchronicled North-South All-Star game, and, in the case of the 1935 Pels, doing his best to create a “major league” caliber team based in his beloved hometown.

Page’s 1935 effort with the Black Pelicans was capped by the landing of former big-timer Sandy Thompson, a moved that had NOLA blackball fans, including the reporters at the Louisiana Weekly, all agog. Per the March 9 issue of that paper:

“Sandy Thompson, old veteran, who has had plenty of baseball experience, will take over the management of the new New Orleans Black Pelicans. Sandy has played with some of the best clubs in the country and in many sections his name is a by-word.”

That’s how the article begins. But the entire rest of the piece talks about Page’s creation of Crescent Park and his big plans for it that year.

At first, the Louisiana Weekly devoted a great deal of coverage to the ’35 Black Pels’ early-season schedule, which included home stands against higher-level African-American league and barnstorming teams, such as the Zulu Cannibal Giants (who, on their visited stayed at Allen Page’s popular hotel and were hosted by the Convention, Tourist and Entertainment Bureau of the Afro-American Chamber of Commerce, which was chaired by, or course, Allen Page), the Atlanta Black Crackers, the Detroit Giants, the Omaha Tigers (yep, of Nebraska, and they thumped the Pels, and whose most well known alumnus was Lorenzo “Piper” Davis), the big big time Nashville Elite Giants (who crushed the Black Pels, 14-3, in front of 7,000 fans at Heinemann Park in early May), the Birmingham Black Barons (for whom, Weekly writer E. Belfield Spriggins claimed, the Pels had been “revamped”), the Louisiana Stars (a deceptively strong team from tiny Donaldsonville, La., and it’s also worth noting that by that time Page had also opened his Crescent Park Beer Parlor) and the Shreveport Stars, managed by Louisiana native (and soon-to-be- star skipper for the Black Barons) Winfield Welch.

Occasionally, the local press did, albeit briefly, turn the spotlight on Sandy Thompson, as the squad fared pretty well against stiff competition — not dominating, but not being dominated, either. In late March, Louisiana Weekly sports editor Eddie Burbridge asserted that “[T]he Black Pelicans. under the able management of Sandy Thompson, served notice on all Colored baseball teams in the country when the Pels split two games with the strong Zulu Cannibal Giants …”

The paper reported Thompson’s onfield contributions decently, but, as noted, by then he was on the downside of his playing career and wasn’t a significant factor on the diamond, his role reduced to that of a capable pinch hitter and bunter.

In late April, Burbridge again stumped for the Black Pelicans in a column, this time in anticipation of a four-team doubleheader at Heinemann. Burbridge noted that the “well-known Sandy Thompson, formerly American Giant, Chicago, is the playing manager for the Pels.” But the bulk of the article was about the rest of the squad and Page himself, who Burbridge said “has gone to big expense in gathering together the stars of the South, and is giving New Orleans the best club they have had in years.”

Of course, a key part of Page’s construction of the 1935 Pels was the hiring of Thompson as manager, but the outstanding story line in New Orleans might have been that, in a way, that season was Page’s “coming out party,” the year in which he firmly established himself as an ambitious entrepreneurial and promotional force to be reckoned with, not only regionally but nationally.

Because of that, the once-big-time Sandy Thompson might have gradually become a side note to the saga. He served a purpose, one cunningly and craftily carved by Page in the latter’s rise to (overlooked) greatness. Thompson was, most likely, simply PR for page’s grander designs. However, even with that, Page was kind enough to give an aging ballplayer a decent paying gig, generously helping to extend Thompson’s career just a bit longer. If Page benefited from the presence of a former Chicago American Giant, the relationship was, in some ways, certainly symbiotic. They both got something out of it.

Anyway, by mid-June, the Black Pels had hit the road “for an indefinite period,” wrote LW columnist Cliff Thomas, who also promised:

“The Pels plan to tour the Southern State sebfore [sic] returning to New Orleans, and they are planning to have the best team [in the] south when they return here.”

After that, coverage of the 1935 New Orleans Black Pelicans completely dried up. In early fall, Thompson got a few brief mentions in the national black press, and at one point he attended an annual meeting of the Negro American League. The Black Pelicans appear to have fallen apart before the 1936 campaign, with Page opting instead to purchase the local Algiers Giants semipro club and turning them into the New Orleans Crescent Stars for that season.

And that was all for Sandy Thompson, and honestly, I can’t figure out what happened to him, making him yet another former member of the wonderfully unique Van Dyke Colored House of David who vanished into the ether of baseball history. A sad, tragic story? We’re not sure. Frankly, it depends what happened to Thompson once his hardball career finally came to an end.

But for a fleeting few months, he was the talk of the Big Easy, a last hurrah of a journeyman player who today blends in with the thousands of faces that make up Negro League history.

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