I was nine years old and to be walking on a major league baseball field for the first time was more exciting than the previous day’s visit to nearby Disneyland the day before. It was Sunday, July 12, 1970, and Camera Day at Anaheim Stadium. My oldest brother and I were capping a weekend road trip after his return from Vietnam. We stepped onto the field behind first base an hour-and-a-half before first pitch and wandered down to the outfield fence where a smattering of ballplayers was signing autographs and posing for photos.
We hung in the rightfield area, which held players from the visiting Minnesota Twins. I was rooting for the team that particular summer because it was my second one in a youth league and I played on a team called the Twins. I even showed up wearing one of those old-school “TC” hats those big-league Twins wore in the day. Plus, the 1970 Minnesota Twins were the defending AL West champions and carried the American League’s best record into the season’s second half. However, the excitement generated by the team’s hot-starting team was tempered just a couple weeks earlier when the Twins lost future Hall-of-Fame second-baseman Rod Carew to a knee injury.
Names of players were handwritten on athletic tape and stuck on the fence behind their assigned area in case you didn’t recognize them. Tony Oliva didn’t need to be identified, obviously, and most fans knew who Cesar Tovar was. But then we got to the lesser-known Twins and that’s when it got fun because the crowds were thinned and there was greater access. There was reserve outfielder Jim Holt, who came off the bench to deliver an RBI single the night before; I actually made him laugh by referring to Anaheim Stadium as a “pitcher’s park,” catching him off guard with an observation he didn’t expect to hear out of a young kid. And next to Jim Holt was a player who wasn’t getting any attention at all. His name, according to the scrawl on the tape, was Danny Thompson. He greeted me nicely and invited me to take a photo with him, which I did. I then watched as he went 0-for-5 as the Twins lost to the Angels, 6-2.
Eventually, it dawned on me that Thompson was the player the Twins called up from the minor leagues to fill in for the injured Carew as the team mounted its pennant run. It was a daunting task for a 23-year-old kid from Capron, Oklahoma, which, according to Wikipedia, is an “inactive town in Woods County… The population was 23 at the 2010 census, declining by almost half from 2000 when it had 42 persons.” He was one of just four students in his high school graduating class and went on to be named an All-American at Oklahoma State University after his junior season in 1968.
As accommodating as he had been to me, I began following Thompson’s career by checking the box scores in the daily newspapers. He batted just .219 in that initial summer in the majors, but played well defensively and the Twins did go on to capture a second-straight division title. Then, two years later, he put a solid 1972 season as the Twins’ starting shortstop, batting .276 and finishing 23rd in American League Most Valuable Player voting.
The remainder of his career wasn’t lengthy, but every inning and every at-bat was a demonstration in courage.
During a routine medical checkup before the 1973 season, Thompson was diagnosed with leukemia and began treatment immediately. He returned to the field that season and was the 1974 recipient of the Hutch Award, which Major League Baseball awards annually to an active player who “best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire” of Fred Hutchinson, a former major league pitcher and manager who died of lung cancer in 1964.
Thompson would play just two more seasons. He underwent spleen surgery after the 1976 season and died from complications a week later at age 29. His death came just 10 weeks after his final at-bat.
He left a wife and two daughters.
Pitcher Jim Kaat, who was a teammate of Thompson’s on the Twins, remembers him being “Always on an even keel.”
“Never got emotionally high or low,” Kaat said. “Disappointed if he didn’t do well. He was very competitive, but what you’d call a decent, solid citizen. Growing up the way I did, in the Midwest, that’s the way we expected people to conduct themselves. That’s what Danny was.”