Twelve years after Hippo Galloway played five games for the Woodstock Bains of the Canadian League, an African American catcher named Bill Thompson spent most of the 1911 season with the Bellows Falls, Vermont, club of the Twin State League. Was Thompson, and not Galloway, the last player before Jackie Robinson to appear openly as a black man in Organized Baseball?
Let’s give Thompson himself a little attention first. Seamus Kearney wrote a great article about him in The National Pastime back in 1996 (p. 67). In addition here’s a piece that was published in several newspapers in 1910, about Thompson signing for George “Andy” Lawson’s outlaw United States League (which, as far as I know, never got off the ground). It gives a few additional details about Thompson’s career.
I don’t have anything like a satisfactory account of how much and when Thompson played for the Cuban Giants and Philadelphia Giants, but “William Thompson, Cuban Giants” was reported to be joining what was evidently an otherwise all-white independent club in Concord in 1908 (Nashua Telegraph, March 17, 1908).
Thompson couldn’t be found in the 1900 census for sure, but a 31-year-old black man named “William T. Thompson” appears in the 1910 census in Concord, New Hampshire. He was employed by a “pool room,” a fairly common off-season job for ballplayers, and lived with his mother Kate E. Thompson and his wife Margaret J. Thompson. I was also able to find a World War I draft card for William Penn Thompson, “Negro,” born January 14, 1874 (it was not uncommon for registrants to add a few years to their age during World War I), working as a “shoe-cutter,” and living in Concord, New Hampshire with his wife Margaret.
Anyway, as Kearney describes in The National Pastime, Thompson signed with the Bellows Falls, Vermont, team in the new Twin State League (the twin states being Vermont and New Hampshire). He was generally popular, and hit well before suffering a season-ending injury in August. There was no doubt that he was known to be black; newspapers in the league’s towns referred to him as “dusky Thompson” and recalled his past as a Cuban Giant.
So was the Twin State League a part of Organized Baseball? The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball says yes, it was Class D; and according to Kearney, Vermont baseball historian Merritt Clifton also concludes that the league was party to the National Agreement.
Certainly, after 1911 it was an independent league, according to contemporary sources—there seems to be little dispute about this. I haven’t found a clear statement about the league’s 1911 status in any newspaper accounts at the time. But it’s worth noting the Twin State League is not on this list of member leagues of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Leagues for 1911, published in the 1912 Spalding’s Official Base Ball Record:
At the moment, my sense of the matter is probably best conveyed by this passage from Peter Morris’s book Catcher: The Evolution of an American Folk Hero:
“An African-American catcher named Bill Thompson spent the entire season in the Twin State League in 1911 without encountering problems. While the Twin State League had not signed the National Agreement that would have made it a part of organized baseball, the circuit did maintain a good working relationship with the leagues that had signed, making the lack of controversy over Thompson’s presence noteworthy. Two years later another team in the same league tried to use an African-American pitcher, only to be met with their opponent’s refusal to take the field.” (p. 272)That pitcher was Frank Wickware, and he was actually supposed to pitch for Bellows Falls, the same team that Bill Thompson had played for. The team that forfeited the game rather than face him was the Northampton Larks. As Morris points out, here is a clear instance of the color line being drawn—in the Twin State League between 1911 and 1913, between Bill Thompson and Frank Wickware. Even if he wasn’t strictly speaking part of Organized Baseball, Thompson’s tenure with Bellows Falls remains a milestone, if only for this reason.
(Springfield Union, August 27, 1913, p. 12)