Coach of Chicago parks’ first black Little League champs dies at 93
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The gate was always open at Edward “Eddie” Thompson’s back yard. Kids would come around to box, shoot hoops and play baseball. They were fueled by his encouragement and tough love — and by the countless hot dogs boiled up for them by his wife Freida.
It was the late 1950s, and if gang members sauntered in, they knew not to tangle with Mr. Thompson, a Purple Heart veteran who looked as strong as he did while doing patrols in France in World War II.
“He really didn’t take any mess,” said Robert Collins, who as a kid played in his yard.
In 1959, even as he worked two jobs, Mr. Thompson coached a group of 10- to 12-year-old boys on the Tuley Park Comets. They became the first African-American team to win the Chicago Park District’s Little League championship, running up a 32-0 record.
Cubs great Ernie Banks spoke at their celebration banquet. They went on to win a regional tournament at Thillens Stadium on the Far North Side that drew about 30 teams.
Mr. Thompson died of pneumonia Aug. 12 while in hospice care at Holy Cross Hospital. He was 93.
His teams achieved victory at a time when the police sometimes were called to ring the parks they played in to protect them from rancorous white crowds who pelted them with racial slurs and, one time, hot dogs.
“They said things, but that stopped once they knew how good we were,” said Collins, who became deputy director of athletics at Northern Illinois University and an assistant basketball coach at Northern and DePaul University. “The respect just came.”
“They quieted crowds with their bats and their gloves and their skills and the dignity that he instilled,” said the Rev. Horace Jones, who formerly lived near Tuley Park and is now a pastoral member of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
“My father used to tell us, ‘Just act professional,’ ” said his son, also named Edward Thompson. “The coaches on the other teams would tell us they never saw any team that disciplined. … That was the greatest time of my life.
“Guys would come up to me later in life and say, ‘Aren’t you Mr. Thompson’s son?’. . . . He was a legend among a certain generation of young men.”
Besides Collins, the young men on Mr. Thompson’s championship team grew up to be business owners, postal workers, a lawyer, a police officer, a TV camera operator, a financial adviser and a school principal. The former teammates still call each other by the nicknames from their golden summer: Pee Wee, Squeaky, Tutti, Wally, Big Luke and G.T.
Mr. Thompson’s players came from Chesterfield, West Chesterfield and Chatham. He drilled them at Tuley Park, at 91st and what’s now King Drive.
He worked nights for Commonwealth Edison, then came home to sleep a couple of hours before rising to practice with the boys. They could have gone to the beach or the Tuley Park pool or the old Rhodes movie theater on 79th Street.
Instead, “We practiced at 10 o’clock every morning in a park that had five diamonds in it, but we were the only team out there for two hours,” Collins said.
In the daytime, Mr. Thompson worked a second job, at the post office. Then, his team practiced or had a game in the evening.
“He was there, even when he got two hours sleep,” Collins said.
Mr. Thompson went to bed from about 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., then got up to return to ComEd.
“It all sounds hard, but it really wasn’t,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, when the Chicago Park District honored the team by naming Tuley Park’s baseball field Comets Field.
His players came from two-parent homes, but most of their dads couldn’t leave work to throw a ball around at 10 a.m. “He was like a second father,” Collins said.
“I don’t know how he did it,” said his son. “At 10 o’clock, I’d try to stay up sometimes when he’d wake up to go to work. My mother would always tell me, ‘Go to sleep, you’ve gotta go to school tomorrow.’ But I would sometimes run down the stairs when he was at the door. He wouldn’t kiss me, but he would rub his face against mine, and I would feel his beard, and I would run back upstairs and go to bed before my mother got me. It made me happy.”
All the practicing “put me on the course [that] I could make something with my life,” said Dwight Harris, now a financial adviser in Beverly Hills, who says he learned the basics of baseball from an older kid he knew in Chicago, Emmett Till, whose 1955 lynching in Mississippi became a defining moment of the civil rights movement.
One memorable game was at Bessemer Park at 92nd and South Chicago, where Harris remembers the spectators “jeering us … calling us all all kinds of names.”
“The crowd was all for the other team,” the coach told the Sun-Times in 2000. “The police came with two motorcycles and an unmarked car. A guy got out of the car with a speaker and told the crowd, ‘Stay back off the line, and let the kids play this game, or it will be forfeited.’ ”
At Thillens Stadium, Harris recalled, “As we were walking in the stadium, some people took some hot dog buns with mustard and threw them” at the team, striking him.
“We won the game, and rather than be angry at us, the white folks came down and shook our hands,” Harris said. “It taught me that initially people may not like me, but once they see what you can do, they get in your corner.”
Mr. Thompson was born in Garyville, Louisiana, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. When he was 2, his father Edward died of lung problems from the coke plant where he worked. Young Eddie learned to catch dinner by fishing and hunting squirrels with slingshots.
His mother Louvenia sent him and his brother Larry north, later joining them in Chicago, where she worked for Campbell Soup and at a janitorial job with the Chicago Board of Education.
Young Edward graduated from DuSable High School, where he played quarterback on the football team and ran track. At DuSable, he met Freida Thomas, whom he married in 1943.
“I had a happy 74 years,” she said. “It was always the pretty eyes.”
The year he got married, he entered the Army, earning a Purple Heart when another soldier on his patrol stepped on a landmine and was killed. The shrapnel tore through Mr. Thompson’s leg.
“When he was supposed to be coming home, they had one black general in the service at the time, Benjamin O. Davis [Sr.],” said his son. “He asked for volunteers to go to the Philippines: ‘We need some volunteers.’ My father was the only one who stepped forward. Everybody thought my father was crazy. … He had been wounded, got his Purple Heart. . . . My father was so proud of that black general, when he asked for volunteers, he said, ‘I’ll go.’ ’’
“He said it was the hottest place he had ever been,’’ said another son, Larry. “He said it was 120 degrees under a tree in the shade.”
Mr. Thompson is also survived by his daughter Janet Walton, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Services have been held. Former players came from Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Florida and Minnesota to be there.
“He took a lot of little boys and put them in the ballpark so they didn’t get to be on the street,” his wife said.
“My dad was a great role model,” Larry Thompson said. “He taught me to never give up. . . . He instilled in me you fear nothing. And I never had jitters before a game.”
“If you were a good athlete, his goal was to make you a great athlete. If you were a great athlete, his goal was to make you an unbelievable athlete,” said Jones. “Just as important, he taught you how to lose. His whole thing was to teach a young man you can lose — but you cannot give up.”