Opening Day Ghosts

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    With the barrel of the gun following him, the bartender meekly complied, opening the cash register and dumping it out on the wooden bar. The gunman scooped up the dollars and stuffed them into his pocket. He backed out of the bar and then ran out into the street. The bartender called the local precinct and the cops caught the thief 10 blocks away.

    It was just another New York City stickup, and though this happened in 1961, even then this sort of minor crime wouldn't have been mentioned in any of the dailies. But this story was different. Not only did it make the crime blotters, but the sports section grabbed it, too. The stickup man was Hammerin' Hank Thompson, a former New York Giant who played in the outfield next to Willie Mays. By 1961 Thompson was a washed-up ballplayer, haunting the Harlem neighborhood his team once called home.

    Bill's Cafe wasn't far from the Polo Grounds. But with Thompson's pedigree, someone should have seen this coming. As Jim Reisler rcounts in Babe Ruth Slept Here, Hank Thompson was first arrested at the age of 11 for breaking and entering. At 22 he killed a man in a bar fight. In 1953, as a New York Giant, he was arrested for beating up a cab driver.

    He had better luck playing baseball. Thompson had a .267 lifetime average, with 129 career home runs. He hit .364 in the 1954 World Series when the Giants swept the Cleveland Indians. Thompson was also the first black man to face a black pitcher (Brooklyn Dodger ace Don Newcombe), and he, along with Willie Mays and Monte Irvin, was part of the first all-black outfield.

    After his arrest for holding up Bill's Cafe, Thompson sat in the Tombs waiting to be charged with armed robbery. Horace Stoneman, the Giants owner, flew in from San Francisco and played the Great White Father by bailing Thompson out, getting the judge to sentence him to a mere two years' probation. Of course, Horace Stoneman didn't offer him a job?just a get out-of-jail card. When asked why he would pull a stickup, Thompson said that he was going to use the money for a bus ticket out to Fresno, CA, to visit his sick mom. (Which he did, by the way.) By 1963, though, he was back at it and was busted in Houston for a $270 liquor-store heist. This was his seventh arrest, so Texas saw fit to give him a 10-year sentence.

    He joined Alcoholics Anonymous in jail, and by all reports he was a model prisoner. He was paroled in 1967, but his freedom was short-lived, as in 1969 he suffered a seizure and died at the age of 43.

    With the Mets opening this Wednesday in Tokyo, let's drag a skeleton out of their closet. In 1969, the Mets won the World Series, and it was called a miracle. Which it was?because if you took away their pitching, they weren't a very strong team.

    Looking to repeat the miracle in 1970, they sent an unproven prospect called Amos Otis to Kansas City for a solid veteran named Joe Foy. On paper the deal looked great. The Mets were getting a Harlem son, who was 27 and had four solid big-league years behind him with the Red Sox and Royals. Foy was 6 feet tall, a solid 215 pounds and had enough power to sock 16 home runs in 1967. He was also a speed merchant, and in 1969 stole 37 bases.

    But the trade turned into a bust. Amos Otis went on to have an all-star career with the Royals, while Foy was a one-year disaster for the Mets. Rumors circulated that, when Foy returned to New York City, he was treated like a returning prince and took advantage of all the town's temptations. The Mets dumped him on the Washington Senators; he played one year with them, then disappeared.

    Around 1980 rumors floated around that Joe Foy was hanging out on the Bowery, panhandling and washing windshields with a dirty towel. It might have been all hearsay. Still, whenever I was in that part of town back in those days, I always went out of my way to notice if there were any tall black beggars around, both hoping and fearing that one of them would be Foy.

    When he died in 1989 from a heart attack, at the age of 46, Foy's obituary said only that he lived in the Bronx and owned a liquor store. Foy joined a tradition of forgotten, fallen ballplayers.

    Happy opening day, suckers.