Groundhog Thompson

"He waves the ball with an Italian flourish, something like an operatic star. There seem to be three distinct motions Thompson uses before tossing the ball plateward. His hand comes in as he grips the ball; his forearm then describes a circular motion with a slight jerk, and there is a momentary pause that looks as if he has committed a balk, but the foillow-through completes the arc as the ball rifles across the platter, hitting the catcher's mitt with a resounding plunk!"

--The Amsterdam News

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©Copyright 2003, Kyle McNary, McNary Publishing

Negro Leaguer of the Month
February, 2003

Frank "Groundhog" Thompson
Position: pitcher
Career: 1945-54
New Orleans Black Pelicans, Birmingham Black Barons, Homestead Grays, Memphis Red Sox
HT: 5'-2"; WT: 150 lbs
Batted left; threw left
Born: Oct. 23, 1918 in Maryville, Louisiana.
Died: ?

Groundhog was the Mugsy Bogues of Negro League history.

"Groundhog" got his nickname because, well, he sort of looked like a groundhog. One thing is for certain – he didn't look like a professional baseball player. One reporter described him on the mound as looking like the tip of a sweet potato sticking out of the ground.

Thompson was discovered by Abe Saperstein, part owner of the Birmingham Black Barons. Saperstein, better known for starting the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, was a great judge of baseball talent, and one of the top booking agents in the Midwest. Saperstein had discovered such stars as Goose Tatum, Dave Barnhill and Peanuts Davis, and he was tipped off about Groundhog from Irving Picou, a baseball coach from Houma, Louisiana, down in Bayou country.

Saperstein sent scouts to Louisiana to watch Thompson pitch for the New Orleans Black Pelicans, then went himself and signed him for the Black Barons, joining pitchers Alonzo Perry, Willie Greason and one-handed pitcher Willie Young.

Black Barons' manager W.S. Welch was impressed by the new pitcher. "He's got everything," said Welch. "A fastball, curve, sinker, control and poise on the mound. Best of all, he learns fast and is constantly picking up the finer points of the pitching art."

Welch first used Groundhog in a game in July of 1945 against the powerful New York Cubans. Thompson entered the game, at the Polo Grounds, in the fifth inning of a close game, and the crowd couldn't stop laughing, thinking it was a stunt of some sort. "Who's the kid?" one fan yelled.

After Groundhog retired the first 6 batters he faced in order, the laughing stopped and applause started.

During the '45 season, Groundhog had many impressive outings: he shutout the Cincinnati Clowns 5-0; beat the Chicago American Giants twice by 2-0 scores; struck out 15 in beating the New York Black Yankees 13-1; beat the Kansas City Monarchs 5-1; and retired 13 New York Cubans in a row in relief.

Groundhog was ugly – there's no other way to describe his appearance. He was barely five feet tall and had a hairlip with one of his chipped bottom teeth poking out through a scar on his upper lip.

In 1946 Thompson joined the Grays and was a sensation on the mound and at the box office. Fans came out in droves to see this strange little man. For the first few batters there was usually snickering and laughter at his odd appearance, but the chuckles usually ended when he buzzed through the first few batters.

Thompson threw hard, especially for his size, kept the ball low, and had a strange motion that kept batters off-balance.

Thompson was no pushover, either, as gigantic teammate Luke Easter found out when Thompson got tired of his teasing and pulled out a knife and threatened to cut Easter down to his size!

In his best season with the Grays, 1947, Thompson went 7-3 in league games, and won more than 20 when non-league games are included.

In 1948 Thompson was a regular in the Grays' rotation when they won the Negro League World Series over his old team the Black Barons, featuring a young Willie Mays.

In the late 40s Thomspon played with the Memphis Red Sox under manager Willie Wells, and finished his Negro League career back with the Black Barons.

Thompson made the East-West All-Star game in 1952 for the Black Barons, and took the loss. In two innings, Groundhog gave up 3 earned runs. He was 33-years-old.

In 1953, when Groundhog was 34-years-old, had was arguably to top pitcher in the Negro Leagues, narrowly missing a "Pitcher's Triple Crown" when he led the league in wins, strikeouts and came in second in ERA to the Philadelphia Stars' Wilmer Harris, whose 2.07 ERA came in 52 fewer innings. Thompson went 14-6 in the 23 league games he pitched, struck out 113 batters in 152 innings (almost 7 Ks per 9 innings), and walked only 42 (about a 3 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio).

Groundhog retired after the 1954 season, and faded into obscurity.

1953 Negro American League
Finals Pitching Stats (100 or more innings pitched)
Groundhog Thompson
GAMES: 23 (first)
COMPLETE GAMES: 14 (second)
WINS:14 (first)
LOSSES: 6 (third)
WIN%: .700 (second)
INNINGS PITCHED: 152 (first)
WALKS: 42 (fourth)
STRIKEOUTS: 113 (first)
ERA: 2.31 (second)