Giving up never an option
Milt Thompson took his father's lessons to heart
PHILADELPHIA -- The weekend excursion for Wilbert and Betty Thompson, and their seven children, started as the sun peeked over the mountains.After breakfast at the favorite family diner, the station wagon hummed along Interstate 95, stopping at places from North Carolina to New York. In these places, on dusty, out-of-the-way baseball fields, Wilbert played baseball as a member of a barnstorming team assembled to compete against Negro Leaguers. For Milt Thompson, the third oldest of the seven children, this was a fine way to spend the summer. "It was a trip for the whole family," he said of the trips that originated from his home in Gaithersburg, Md. "We'd load up and go. The station wagon was always full. Whenever we get together, we reminisce about all the great times we had and how much we loved being together."
A brick mason in Rockville, Md., during the week, on weekends Wilbert traded his pipe squares and hammers for a wooden bat and leather glove. His brother Rudy, an employee at a lumber company, also made the trip, which consisted of a doubleheader on Saturday and a single game on Sunday.Money was earned solely on performance, with players passing a hat between innings; a slugger who hit two homers in a given afternoon could clean up. With eight mouths to feed, Wilbert needed the extra income, but he especially enjoyed competing against the Negro Leaguers of that time. It was of little significance that Wilbert's barnstorming tours were taking place nearly two decades after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. Though the importance of that event can never be understated, it took years for all the teams to integrate, and many African-Americans were still being denied the chance to play. But Wilbert and his teammates simply didn't have time to be bitter. "He explained that it was easier for them to form a team and go out and play than to try and break the barrier," said Milt. "He continued to play for the love of the game. Jackie broke the barrier, but things were still tough." When Milt pursued a career playing professional baseball, he faced similar obstacles, much to his surprise. The story he hates to tell is the one in which, as a rookie in the Appalachian League, he inquired about an apartment in Kingsport, Tenn. He saw a sign and knocked on the door. When no one answered, he left a message with a neighbor. The next day the sign was gone. "Coming from the north, you didn't expect things like that," he said. "I heard about it, but it was shocking to have it actually happen to me. I had to pay $10 a day to stay at the hotel." Throughout this and other situations, Milt constantly heard the words of his father echo in his head. "You have to deal with the hand you're dealt sometimes and go on with life," said Milt. "You can't worry about it. People see guys in the big leagues and they see the money they make. They don't know the path they took to get there. My dad taught me that there's no sense worrying about things you can't control. I'll never forget that. Just fight your way through it." Milt ended up enjoying a 13-year Major League career. The greatest day of those 13 years was Sept. 4, 1984, when his father saw him make his Major League debut. "It was a thrill that I made it for him, because it was something he didn't have a chance to [attain]," said Milt. Wilbert died five years ago, and his son is about to begin his first season as the Phillies' hitting coach, a new challenge that has him especially excited. The fact that the Phillies will make three trips to Washington to play the Nationals is a bonus, as his family has remained in the area. It's the perfect excuse for further reminiscing, and continued acknowledgment that giving up should never be an option. "I tell kids that dreams come true all the time, but there's a price to pay," said Milt. "It takes hard work and dedication, and you have to hang in. You always set goals, no matter how old you are. I can't wait to begin this new challenge as hitting coach."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.