“A great Kenner White Sox Team playing in their home park in Reserve, La., Sunday, May 31, for the first time before over 3,000 fans downed the mighty Ground Hog and his Houma Giants by a score 7-3. The Hog was in there all the way and don’t forget that he was as great a hog as ever.”
That’s from the June 6, 1942, issue of the Louisiana Weekly. It’s one of the first prominent references I’ve fund to the man who would go on to become Frank “Groundhog” Thompson, a pitcher of some renown for the Birmingham Black Barons, Homestead Grays and Memphis Red Sox.
Why was he called Groundhog? Apparently because he was one of the fugliest guys to ever put on the flannels and climb the pitcher’s hill. He was short and squat — reputedly 5-foot-2, 150 pounds — with a scar on his lip and a chipped bottom tooth protruding upward.
He had what was then called a harelip, a term that has become outdated and offensive and is now called a cleft lip and/or palate, and odd, off-center eyes. Here’s a photo of him that was frequently used in the Louisiana Weekly:
And this is how renowned Amsterdam News columnist Dan Burley famously described Thompson after Thompson debuted at the Polo Grounds in fall 1945 to an explosion of guffaws and hoots of derision that quickly turned to wild cheers after fans saw that this sawed-off half-pint was for real:
“The guy was so runty he looked like the tip of a sweet potato sticking out of the ground as he took his stance on the pitching slab. The fans at the Polo Grounds that Sunday gave him a big roar of laughter at the sight of the run pitcher W.S. Welch, pilot of the Negro American League Birmingham Black Barons sent in against the New York Cubans … But when Frank (Groundhog) Thompson started firing that streak-like pitch across the plate , retiring Cuban batters one by one, the roar of laughter based on his unorthodox appearance changed to waves of applause for his pitching skill. Thus a new mound star was born.”
Burley noted the southpaw’s somewhat goofy, three-step pitching motion, calling it “a peculiar windup that looks authoritative. He waves the ball with an Italian flourish, something like an operatic star.” Dubbing Thompson a “sensational pint-sized lefthander [who] has one of those rags-to-riches backgrounds sports writers like,” Burley predicted great things for Thompson in the Oct. 13, 1945, Amsterdam News after watching the new hurler that day at the Polo Grounds:
“Fittingly, it was in New York where heroes in sports come to be ‘reborn’ that Thompson demonstrated his ability, and now he looms strongly as Negro baseball’s next great mound artist, moulded along the lines of the immortal Leroy (Satchel) Paige, Smoky Joe Williams, Cannonball Dick Redding, and Bullet Joe Rogan. The $40,000 a year earned by Paige may be exceeded by the Groundhog who has scored a bulls-eye with fans wherever he has appeared.”
Alas, like many great prognostications of fantastic future greatness, Burley’s forecast for Thompson’s career eventually turned sour. While the Groundhog had a serviceable, decade-long career in the Negro bigs — peaking in 1953, when he narrowly missed a pitcher’s “triple crown” in league play for the Barons — he obviously never became the next Satch, Bullet or Smoky Joe.
In fact, after retiring from baseball in 1954, he reportedly “faded into obscurity,” according to a few sources. That appears to be true, from what I’ve found, too — nothing. I can’t find a single thing that definitively describes his fate after walking away from the game in the mid-1950s.
But the further truth of the matter is that Thompson’s entire life, especially his origins, are one big mystery. Just like the second half of his life, I haven’t uncovered a single thing that conclusively pins down where he came from until a mention of him appears in the June 28, 1941, Louisiana Weekly. Thompson was pitching for the Giants of Houma, La., a small city in bayou country about 60 or so miles southwest of New Orleans.
He’s mentioned in a short article previewing the Houma Giants’ upcoming doubleheader with the Flintkote Black Giants, a team sponsored by the Flintkote manufacturing company, a once-nationwide firm that originally produced roofing materials like asphalt shingles and later branched out into other construction products like — yeek — asbestos. Flintkote had plants in Louisiana; it’s recently been going through bankruptcy proceedings in the present day.
Here’s the exact paragraph in the Weekly article:
“Batteries for Houma in the first game to be called at 1:45 p.m. will be Ground Hog (pitcher) and Johnson (catcher).”
In the newspaper’s next issue, the publication reports what happened in the game:
“In a spine-tingling mound duel Dan Boatner of the Flintkote Giants bested ‘Groundhog’ Thompson of the Houma Giants, in the first tilt of a doubleheader played by the two teams … ‘Mule’ Hardin’s big bat banged out the hit that gave Dan Boatner the edge in the first contest, when two men scored on his single through the box in the sixth frame.”
Thompson’s regional renown grew from there, and by mid-1942 the local black press had taken to calling him “the mighty Groundhog.” I’ll go more into the ‘Hog’s rise to fame in and around New Orleans in an ensuing post.
Now, I’ll attempt to discern and glean anything I can about Thompson’s roots. However, several factors in that quest are problematic, the first and probably the most important being what, exactly, Frank the Groundhog’s last name was.
That’s because, beginning in 1943, the Louisiana Weekly began referring to him as Groundhog Thomas. That ran through at least July 1945, when the Hog hitched on with the New Orleans Black Pelicans.
And it wasn’t just the local NOLA press that was calling him Frank Thomas. National scribes were also affixing that surname to him in 1946, such as an apparent wire-service article in late March of that year, when our old friend, fellow Louisianian Winfield Welch, signed Groundhog up for the traveling Cincinnati Crescents.
The second major stumbling block is where exactly Thompson — for the purposes of clarity I’ll call him by his more well known moniker — came from. Modern biographies list his birth date as Oct. 23, 1918, but I’m not sure how that date was conjured.
But it’s the location of his origin that’s truly puzzling — modern bios refer to his hometown as “Maryville, La.,” but, as baseball-reference.com points out, there is no such town in the Pelican State. News reports from the day — especially Burley’s 1945 article — seem to relate that Thompson simply came from Houma and was recommended as an up-and-coming talent to Abe Saperstein by Houma scout Irving Picou. Saperstein then hooked Thompson up with the Black Barons and their pilot, Welch.
But no additional background on Thompson was ever really given. It’s as if he mysteriously leaped out of Houma into the national spotlight.
(Further muddying the waters are articles in the ’80s by Atlanta Daily World columnist Chico Renfroe hinting that Thompson emerged from the popular, talent-rich and influential Birmingham industrial leagues, not the swamps of Louisiana.)
So what’s the real story?
Well, for one, there might not be a Maryville in Louisiana, but there is a Merryville, La. It’s a town of (now) about 1,100 in Beauregard Parish on the western edge of the state. Beauregard Parish neighbors Texas and is located between the Louisiana cities of Lake Charles (to the south) and Shreveport (to the north).
So Merryville isn’t exactly close to Houma — more than 200 miles away, roughly. But at least it offers a certainly plausible hometown for Thompson.
On top of that, in the first few decades of the 20th century, Beauregard Parish was home to several major saw mills that employed hundreds, if not thousands, of African Americans, many of whom came from across the south, from Texas to Alabama, to find jobs in them.
Construction of a Beauregard Parish sawmill (from www.library.beau.org)
In addition, there are numerous Thompsons and Thomases listed in Census records from around that time in Beauregard Parish, including Merryville proper, so Groundhog’s parents definitely could have been living there at the time of his birth.
But, alas, I’ve found no Frank Thompsons or Frank Thomases that would definitely match Groundhog’s rough birth date, either in Beauregard Parish, Houma or New Orleans.
So, in addition to what exactly happened to Groundhog Thompson — or Thomas — after baseball, there’s really no solid evidence of his life before he started pitching semi-professionally in Houma. One day soon, I hope to take a drive to Beauregard Parish and see if I can dig up any birth records for Groundhog. That would give us his real name, birth date and, hopefully, the names of his parents, which would greatly aid in starting to piece the rest of his life together.