Coach Thompson and Baseball

by James Copple

Baseball is part of the warp and woof for most children raised in the suburbs of America in the 1950s and ‘60s. And as I watched the Washington Nationals upset the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series to win the championship title, the memories and thrill of it all came rushing back.

Probably most memorable for me was the 1961 series where the New York Yankees defeated the Cincinnati Reds. The competition between the two teams was promoted as a metaphor for the Cold War, and the press was forever talking about it, especially the New York media.

With players like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra, the Yankees captured the hearts of most of America.

I was 12 years old during that series and would organize my baseball cards into line-ups. I would draw a home plate on the metal door of the city pump house next door to our home on Bristol Terrace in Ruskin Heights, Mo., then pace myself 90 steps down the gravel drive to create a pitching mound. Using rocks from the driveway, I imagined myself Whitey Ford and spent hours pitching to the door, striking out one Cincinnati player after another.

Mr. Thompson lived across the street from the pumping station, and one day while I was pitching, he crossed to ask if I played baseball for a Little League team. I told him no, because I couldn’t afford it – my parents were separated at the time, and Mom had little or no money.

Mr. Thompson looked at me and asked, “Would you like to play on my team? We are the Hickman Mills Bank.”

I had a half-decent glove that I inherited from my brother, so I said, “sure” and asked how one went about playing Little League ball. For the next five weeks, I played catcher for the Hickman Bills Bank team and learned the fine art of team sports as understood by Little League coaches.

Coach Thompson would pick me up for practice and take me home afterward, always stopping at the Mugs-Up Root Beer stand on the way. We didn’t talk a lot, but he was a steady and wise presence in my life, asking few questions but always willing to listen.

After several months, my father came home, and Mr. Thompson saw me playing catch with him in the front yard.

He crossed the street, pulled Dad aside, and they spoke briefly. I saw my dad smile, then shake Mr. Thompson’s hand. I never asked what they talked about, but everything changed after that. Coach Thompson had yielded the field to my dad, and Dad picked up the ball.

I continued to play baseball and was “drafted” by the Optimist Club. I seldom saw Mr. Thompson anymore, but my dad was a vigilant spectator at my games and encouraged me to play.

While playing catcher for the Optimist Club in a game against Hickman Mills, I turned my head on a foul tip, and the ball smashed my left ear. It was one game Dad wasn’t there for, but Mr. Thompson drove me to the hospital, and my parents met us there. Mr. Thompson stayed with us as the doctor put eight stitches in my ear and told me I was lucky I didn’t end up with “boxer’s ear” and its cauliflower-like deformity.

Leaving the clinic, Coach Thompson offered one last tip: The mask you wear as a catcher fits the front of your face, he said. If you turn your head, you have no mask covering your ear.

“Always look forward, Jimmy; never back – your protection is in front of you.”

That is good advice for a catcher and good advice for life.

I never saw Mr. Thompson in person again, but I can still see him in my head – tall and skinny, wearing thick glasses. And his words, they are forever chiseled in my mind and heart.

My protection is in front of me; always look forward.

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