Uncovering legacy of city’s baseball pioneer who broke racial barriers

  • A 1958 photo of the White Park gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Sunset League shows Thompson, resplendent in a white suit, shoes with spats, and black top hat and cane, standing in a line of dignitaries that includes then Gov. Lane Dwinnell.

  • William Penn Thompson was a baseball star who made Concord his home. The city named Thompson Park in his honor. Courtesy photos

  • William Penn Thompson was a baseball star who made Concord his home. The city named Thompson Park in his honor. Courtesy photos

  • William Penn Thompson was buried in Blossom Hill Cemetery following his death in Massachusetts. Courtesy

  • William Penn Thompson was a baseball star who made Concord his home. The city named Thompson Park in his honor. Courtesy photos

  • William Penn Thompson was a baseball star who made Concord his home. The city named Thompson Park for him. Courtesy

  • William Penn Thompson, shown with his all-white team in the early 1900s, was among the few Black residents of Concord in the 1960s, played professionally for the Cuban Giants and was a founding member of the Sunset League. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 7/17/2021 11:42:59 AM

In 1960 New Hampshire’s population of roughly 600,000 was, according to state records, 99.6 percent white. It was a time of civil rights marches and lunch counter sit-ins. Lynchings in the South hadn’t ended. Schools in much of the country were still segregated. In 16 states interracial marriage was a crime.

Yet that year, the city of Concord did something that today seems remarkable. It named a city park in honor of a Black man, a man who decades earlier, had made the city his adopted home; a Black man whose wife was white. Today, the Thompson Play Lot on North Spring Street remains the only Concord landmark named for someone of African-American descent.

Who was William Penn Thompson, the man buried beneath a headstone in Concord’s Blossom Hill Cemetery that bears, above his name, a baseball and crossed baseball bats? Why did the people of Concord treasure Thompson and fete him on his 75th birthday? A 1949 photo of unknown origin shows Thompson at a restaurant called Angelo’s. He is flanked by then Concord Mayor Charles McKee and former mayor Charles Davie. Also at the table are Sunset League officers and Col. James Johnston, Thompson’s teammate on Concord’s 1892 YMCA nine.

A 1958 photo of the White Park gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Sunset League shows Thompson, resplendent in a white suit, shoes with spats, and black top hat and cane, standing in a line of dignitaries that includes then Gov. Lane Dwinnell. Thompson was clearly regarded and respected.

The commemorative sign on a post in the park honoring Thompson went missing decades ago. So far, no record of it, or what it said, has been found. Perhaps it noted that Thompson was a catcher who, at the turn of the century, played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues for the Cuban Giants, America’s first all-Black professional team. Maybe it noted that Thompson was there at the founding of Concord’s Sunset League, the oldest after-dinner baseball league in the nation. Our hope, and that of the city’s mayor and parks director, is that the old sign, or a new one commemorating Thompson, will be installed in the park.

Though most Concord residents in the first half of the 20th century knew, or at least recognized Thompson, much about him is a mystery. Thompson died in 1960 and the people who remembered him are now mostly gone. To compound matters, much of the history of baseball’s early years is murky. Was Thompson, in 1911, the last Black man to play on a “white” professional baseball team before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947? Maybe so.

It is customary to credit those whose assistance, remembrances and information make the telling of a tale possible at the end of a written work. In this case, the help of those who brought Thompson’s story to life is too valuable to leave for last. It started with Concord natives and memory keepers Bob Gifford and Robert “Conky” O’Connell. Gifford, 82, was Thompson’s barber in the late 1950s. O’Connell, 92, was a young ballplayer befriended by Thompson. O’Connell is also a collector of Concord history, a Sunset League veteran, and a Rumford Press compositor whose pay when he started was 50 cents an hour.

The staff of the Concord Public Library were a great help, as was city parks director David Gill, and the staff at Concord Photo Service. The aid of two researchers, Janice Brown, author of the long-running Cow Hampshire history blog, and Jane Wescomb, whose specialty is the history of Concord’s African-American families, was invaluable. Credit also goes to Jill McDaniel-Huckins, administrator of Concord’s cemeteries and cemetery volunteer George West, who pointed the way to Thompson’s grave.

And now, back to William Penn Thompson.

Thompson was born in Louisa County, Virginia, in 1874. He would have been 17 when he played for the Concord YMCA’s 1891 team. It was the era of barnstorming in baseball with promoters organizing games wherever they believed they would attract a crowd of paying fans. In those years, a game at White Park could draw hundreds. It was often assumed that Thompson, during his baseball travels, fell in love with Concord and decided to stay. Perhaps that is what happened, but probably not.

Thompson’s grave is next to that of his mother, Kate Ellen (Jackson) Thompson, who was born in Virginia in 1856. It’s possible that she was born into slavery. The state of Virginia began registering all births, both free and slave, in 1853. Kate E. Jackson’s name and birth date could not be found in that state’s registry but the enslaved, an archivist at the Library of Virginia said, were typically registered only by their first name and the name of their owner. That complicates the search.

Researcher Janice Brown found Kate Ellen Jackson in the 1880 census of Concord. “She is listed as ‘mulatto,’ meaning probably that one of her parents was white,” Brown said. Thompson, as the sports writer’s descriptor “dusky” implied, did not have a dark complexion and had, Gifford, said, Caucasian features. Kate Thompson was listed as a house servant in the home of Isaac A. Hill and his wife Sarah. Hill’s family owned the Monitor’s predecessor, the New Hampshire Patriot, but Hill was, at the time, a tax collector for the recently-formed Internal Revenue Service.

On April 25, 1910, Thompson married Margaret Jane Coughlin, the daughter of Irish immigrants. The marriage certificate lists Thompson as “colored” and Margaret as white. Her name, on Thompson’s tombstone, is misspelled as Cocklin. The 1910 Census shows the couple living with Thompson’s mother Kate and a lodger, Lila Carter, in a house at 74 North Spring Street. Kate, William and Lila are recorded as being Black and having been born in Virginia. Margaret is listed as “mulatto,” a description then commonly ascribed to white women in interracial marriages. William was listed as a pool hall attendant, Margaret as doing housework.

The 1920 census had the couple living at 46 North Main Street, William as a houseman for the Eagle Hotel and Margaret as a waitress. These are not the occupations that led the city to name a park after Thompson. His skill with a bat and behind the plate as a catcher, aided by considerable wit, charm and kindness, was.

Seamus Kearney, a writer, baseball historian and member of the Society for American Baseball Research, believes that Thompson was “the first African-American to play in what is termed ‘organized baseball’ in the 20th century.

“There were others before him (brothers Weldy and Moses Fleetwood Walker, William White) who played in the majors in the 19th century,” Kearney said in an email response to questions about ‘Bill Thompson – Pioneer’, an article Kearney wrote about Thompson in a 1996 issue of The National Pastime.

In 1876, the owners of the professional baseball teams in what was then the National League came to a “gentlemen’s agreement” that banned Black players from participating in organized baseball. “Organized baseball is code for white baseball of any level, minor or major leagues,” Kearney wrote. “The gentleman’s agreement/color line tightened in the latter 19th century but there were cracks here and there. The team Mr. Thompson played with, Bellows Falls, was in organized baseball, or so I thought, as part of the Twin States League of 1911. Subsequent research throws doubt into whether that league was in so-called organized baseball,” Kearney said via email.

Thompson made no attempt while playing for the Bellows Falls team in 1911 to disguise his identity as a Black man. Though Vermont newspapers, in accounts of games, regaled his performance, they referred to him as “dusky Thompson,” as well as “Wild Bill” and other nicknames. “His presence on the team was accepted by players and fans without complaint or fanfare,” Kearney wrote.

Concord’s team was part of the short-lived Twin State League. Multiple sources, including Thompson himself, claimed that John McGraw, manager of the then world champion New York Giants, saw Thompson play and told him that if he were white he’d be playing for the Giants. A 1912 Boston Herald clipping testified to Thompson’s prowess on the diamond.

“First Man Signed For Outlaw Club Is Colored Catcher. The first player signed to play in the United States Baseball League is Billy Thompson of Concord, (N.H.), a colored catcher who has been for several years with the Cuban and Philadelphia Giants.” Both were banner teams in the Negro Leagues.

The integrated league apparently never got off the ground. Instead, Thompson played for a dozen or more teams, most in New Hampshire and many on a “per game” basis. “Bill has played for no less than 15 teams in the Granite State,” Concord Monitor sports columnist Ruel Colby wrote in 1945. Thompson was reputed to charge $25 per game when that was the equivalent of a week’s pay.

“To baseball fans throughout the New Hampshire hinterlands, William Penn Thompson, better known as “Old Bill,” is as familiar and famous a character as the Old Man of the Mountains,” Colby wrote. Of Thompson, then 71, Colby said, “Every year, as soon as the snow is off the ground, Thompson hies himself to White Park with his 43-year-old pet bat and his moth-eaten glove, almost as ancient. . . . Bill says that this is his 54th year in baseball. According to available records he played third base for the YMCA in 1891 and has been going strong ever since,” Colby wrote.

O’Connell met Thompson at the park often. “I lived on Gladstone Street all my life. I’d spend all day at the park. I could hear my mother calling from Gladstone Street. Bill would come over at five or so after work. He’d have his bat slung over his shoulder and put his bag down.” In the bag was a bottle of whiskey.

“He’d say, ‘Want to pitch some to me,” said O’Connell, who was 12 when Thompson was 65. “I was a young boy and he seemed very old, but boy could he swing a bat. He would be against the backstop and the other kids in the neighborhood would field. He hit a lot of line drives.”

Thompson, O’Connell recalled, taught kids to care for their bats. “You take the finish down to bare wood, rub linseed oil into it, and leave it up on the roof in the sun. It brought the wood back to life and made the bat lively.” He also kept the kids in line and wouldn’t allow swearing or fighting, O’Connell said. Asked whether anyone spoke of Thompson being Black, O’Connell sputtered. “That never entered into anything. It just never came up,” he said.

For years Thompson worked as a janitor for the police department, which was housed in the 1890 brick building that is currently home to Margarita’s Mexican restaurant. He lived, Gifford remembered, in the tiny space in the triangular annex that still holds the public bathrooms in Bicentennial Square. Gifford described the space as a storeroom for cleaning supplies. “He had a cot, a hot plate, a sink. He loved living in his closet. He loved living in Concord.”

Thompson liked to “dress to the nines” Gifford said, and he liked to drink. Tall, handsome and erect, he’d walk up and down Main Street on Friday or Saturday nights and tip his hat to every female. He called all girls and women “Rosie” and, in a friendly booming voice, all males “Chuckie.” He called his bagged bottle Clancy, and was known to ask friends if they wanted to “say hello to Clancy.” Both men remember Thompson looking into the bag and saying “getting low, better pay a visit to Dr. Green’s.” The state liquor store, then on the northwest corner of Center and North Main Street, was painted green. Spirits were kept behind the counter and patrons handed clerks a paper slip with their order. Store clerks kept a list of those who were prohibited from purchasing alcohol. Some of those on the list knew that if they visited Thompson, he would invite them to “say hello to Clancy.”

Thompson regularly held court from a chair on the sidewalk outside the police station, which he referred to as the Warren St. Lounge. He had business cards printed and handed them out. One, bearing a picture of Thompson, included the postscript, “We have discontinued the telephone owing to the many calls for reservations.”

The late Sunset League legend and local baseball historian Red Eastman once wrote that Thompson “had such a strong arm he could rifle it down to second base without leaving his crouch.” He also mentioned that, despite his humble job and lodgings, Thompson always seemed to have plenty of money. Once, while cutting Thompson’s hair, the old ballplayer said to Gifford, “People around here seem to think that I have a lot of money.”

“I’ve heard that rumor,” Gifford replied. Thompson, he said, reached into his sport coat pocket, pulled out a stack of at least a half-dozen bankbooks bound with a rubber band, handed Gifford the top one, and told him to open it. “The balance was $10,000, which was the most the federal government would insure back then. I had to assume that each of the bank books had a $10,000 balance,” Gifford said. In the late 1950s, $10,000 would buy a nice house.

Both men, and plenty of older Concord natives, remember Thompson, in his white suit, top hat and cane, leading the annual parade to the pitcher’s mound in White Park to open the Sunset League season. Games in the era before television drew hundreds of fans. Behind Thompson in the parade photo are Boy Scouts, Concord’s police chief, fire chief, mayor and other dignitaries and ballplayers.

Thompson spent his last months in a Boston-area nursing home and, according to his obituary in the Concord Monitor, died at Roxbury’s Copley Hospital on May 12, 1960. “Survivors are a sister, Mrs. Clara Wilson, and a niece, Mrs. Elva Morrison, both of Roxbury,” the paper said.

Five days later, Thompson was, at his request, buried at Blossom Hill in Lot 101A of what was once referred to as the cemetery’s “colored section.” Burials at the cemetery, its director, Jill McDaniel-Huckins said, are integrated but in the 1880s the Benevolent Colored Society purchased seven lots at $10.50 apiece, each suitable for five burials. Thompson, his wife, mother and several other relatives are among those buried there.

Two days after Thompson’s death a memorial column by Colby in the Concord Monitor explained why the old ballplayer held a place of honor in the city. “Whether the day was sunny or gray, Bill had the rare gift of making it brighter . . . For here was a man of warmth and gentle humor and an abiding affection for people young and old.”

“I remember after he died, some old guys came to the barbershop and said ‘have you seen Bill,’ ” Gifford said. “I said sorry, Bill died. One old guy literally broke out in tears, maybe because he could no longer get a drink.” Gifford also remembers that not long after that day a big car filled with well-dressed Black men and women, whom he presumed were from Boston, arrived and went up to the courthouse above the police station for the reading of Thompson’s will.

Records remain to be located, but it appears that the city voted to dedicate the park to Thompson a few months before he died. Whether the local legend ever knew of the honor remains a mystery. A mystery too are Thompson’s thoughts about being a member of one of the few Black families that made Concord their home, about the racial prejudice that kept him out of the major leagues, about his life as a Black man in a white city in a white state. There is more to learn about the catcher with a rifle arm who is buried beneath crossed baseball bats in Blossom Hill. There is more to learn about our city, more to learn about ourselves.


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