*This is part of my ongoing series of articles about members of the 1954 Montreal Royals.
While manning left field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Don Thompson threw out New York Yankees second baseman Billy Martin to end Game 4 of the 1953 World Series.
But while this toss was one of the highlights of Thompson’s 12-year professional career, the fleet-footed outfielder experienced his greatest success on the diamond in Montreal.
Suiting up for the Dodgers’ Triple-A Montreal Royals in 1950, 1952 and 1954, Thompson never hit less than .293 for the club and his teams twice advanced to the Governors’ Cup final.
His success with the bat was surprising when you consider he was signed by the Boston Red Sox as a 19-year-old pitcher in 1943. The left-hander from North Carolina would toe the rubber in the minors for parts of five seasons, including 1945 when he won 10 games and posted a 3.04 ERA, while splitting time between the Red Sox Double-A affiliate in Louisville and Class-A squad in Scranton.
Unfortunately, Thompson hurt his arm with Louisville in 1947 and when he recovered he was converted into an outfielder. In November 1947, the 6-foot, 185-pound southpaw was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the minor league draft.
After one season as an outfielder with the Double-A Columbus Red Birds, Thompson was chosen by the Boston Braves in the Rule 5 draft in November 1948. He made his big league debut with the Braves on April 24, 1949, but would toil in just five big league games that season, before being demoted to Triple-A.
In October 1949, Thompson was dealt to the Brooklyn Dodgers as part of a package for Sam Jethroe. He was assigned to the Montreal Royals for the 1950 campaign, where he suited up for 142 games and hit .311.
Thompson stuck with the big league Dodgers as a fourth outfielder the following campaign and batted .229 in 80 games, before returning to Montreal in 1952 to put together his finest pro season. In 72 contests with Montreal, he hit .345 and knocked in 58 runs.
This performance helped him earn a roster spot with the Dodgers in 1953, where he competed in 96 games, serving largely as a defensive replacement for Jackie Robinson in left field. It was in that capacity in the World Series that Thompson delivered the aforementioned toss that nailed Martin at the plate to end Game 4. Martin was on second in the ninth inning with two outs when Mickey Mantle singled to left. Thompson fielded the ball on two hops and rifled it to catcher Roy Campanella, who braced himself for Martin.
“Campy had the ball in his mitt and was getting ready for a collision and Martin was bent over and he was going to run into him,” Thompson told the Asheville Citizen-Times in 1998. “But at the last minute Campy sidestepped right quick and came up and tagged him under the chin, and honest to God he turned him a flip. He knocked the hell out of Martin. That was the last out, and we won the game.”
Thompson began the 1954 season with the Dodgers, before being shipped back to Montreal, where he hit .293 in 63 games and played in the outfield alongside a 19-year-old prospect named Roberto Clemente.
“He [Clemente] worked out with me in centre field to start,” Thompson told Nick Diunte in an interview for his Baseball Happenings blog in 2009. “He had a great arm and he could hit; he hit a lot of bad pitches, like Berra, over his head. He was a wild swinger, but I could tell he was going to be a good ballplayer. I think he got a bonus of $25,000 from the Dodgers. They were trying to hide him. He was eligible for the big league draft. They knew that if they didn’t take him on [in] Brooklyn that he would possibly be drafted. I knew he was going to be great. Roberto had a temper at times, but got along with us well.”
Thompson retired from baseball after the 1954 season and worked at a Dodge/Plymouth dealership that his brother had established in Asheville, N.C. Thompson later obtained his real estate license and helped found Preferred Properties in Asheville with Ned Gibson and Ellen Ford Gibson in 1968.
In his spare time, Thompson liked to cook and play handball at the local YMCA.
“He was an interesting guy, a hero for us local obscure people who were would-be athletes,” Bob Riddle, one of Thompson’s handball playing partners, told the Asheville Citizen-Times in 2009. “It was always exciting to play with somebody who had been a professional athlete.”
Thompson passed away at the age of 85 on September 28, 2009, leaving behind his wife Katy and two sons, Tracy (wife Sandy) and John (wife Diane) and one grandchild.
“He was the greatest guy,” Jane McNeil, a colleague of Thompson’s at Preferred Properties, told the Asheville Citizen-Times after Thompson’s death. “He was a true gentleman, as honest as the day is long.”