Herb and the Hog

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Groundhog Thomas (top) in his playing days, and Herb Simpson (bottom) during his trip to Seattle this past July.

A precious few people still living remember Frank “Groundhog” Thomas (or Thompson). That list includes our old friend Herb Simpson, who, at 94, is one of the last, if not THE last, surviving Negro Leaguer in the New Orleans area.

A couple nights ago, I gave Herb a call to see if he might have any idea about the big Hog mystery — whatever happened to Thomas once he retired from baseball circa 1954. According to just about every biography I’ve read about the Hog says something along the lines that he “faded into obscurity,” and no one even knows when or where the sawed-off (and quite homely, by all accounts) pitcher died.

Both Herb’s and Thomas’ baseball careers were birthed in and around New Orleans around the same time — late 1930s and early 1940s — and their lives and hardball trajectories crossed paths frequently. Herb does remember the Groundhog, but not too much.

“He was a pretty fair baseball player,” Herb said of the Hog.

Then there was the big question: Do you know anything about Thomas’ fate?

“I haven’t heard about him in many years,” Herb said. “I don’t know what happened to him.”

The running theme continues. I’m planning on writing a longer piece detailing Thomas’ rise from obscurity in the New Orleans area after the holiday, but here’s a little teaser about how he got his start in paid Negro Leagues baseball.

He first started hurling his fireball for teams based in Houma, La., and 1943 appears to have been his breakout year, when the region’s main African-American newspaper, the Louisiana Weekly, started covering the Hog and his team, the Houma Jax Red Sox, in earnest.

At one point during the ’43 campaign, Thomas — he was still known by the surname Thomas at that point; it wasn’t until he made the Negro League big time that his moniker somehow morphed to Thompson — reeled off an incredible string of victories against regional semipro and industrial squads from NOLA and the surrounding area.

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One of those contests came in late June 1943, when the Tigers downed the Pendelton Tigers, a squad from a New Orleans ship yard. It took a little doing — the Tigers grabbed control of the clash early, but the Sox settled down in the fourth and fifth innings and took over — but the Hog eventually caught fire. Reported the June 26, 1943, Louisiana Weekly:

” … the Hog must have seen his shadow as he mowed them down more and more and with the aid of his battery mate and coach, ‘Steel Trap’ Johnson, to blank the Tigers the rest of the way.”

At the time, the Houma squad was managed by Clifford Matthews and the Houma-based talent scout Irving Picou, who reportedly tipped off his friend, Abe Saperstein, who subsequently shepherded Thomas/Thompson to the pinnacles of blackball.

But then came a contrary report a couple years later from Hall of Fame sportswriter Wendell Smith from the Pittsburgh Courier, who wrote this in the Dec. 1, 1945, edition of his renowned column, “The Sports Beat”:

“Irving Picou, owner and manager of the Jax Red Sox of Houma, La., claims that the Birmingham Black Barons are trying to steal his ace pitcher, Frank (Groundhog) Thompson. He says, however, he has Thompson signed to a contract for ’45 and ’46 and will sell him to anyone but Birmingham, who used the stock hurler the latter part of the past season.”

A few months later, the Cincinnati Crescents barnstorming team, skippered by none other than Louisiana and Big Easy product Winfield Welch, inked Thompson to a contract for the 1946 slate.

The mysterious sage of the Groundhog is ever ongoing …

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