Coach of Chicago Parks’ first black Little League champions dies at 93

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The gate was still open in Edward “Eddie” Thompson’s backyard. Children came to box, shoot hoops and play baseball. They were fueled by his encouragement and unconditional love – and the countless hot dogs his wife Freida baked for them.

It was the late 1950s, and if any gang members were walking around, they knew not to tangle with Mr. Thompson, a Purple Heart veteran who looked just as tough as he did during patrols in France during the Second World War.

“He really didn’t take a mess,” said Robert Collins, who as a child played in his yard.

In 1959, even though he was working 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 Little League Championship, going 32-0.

Cubs great Ernie Banks spoke at their celebratory banquet. They then won a regional tournament at Thillens Stadium on the Far North Side which attracted around 30 teams.

Edward “Eddie” Thompson coached the Tuley Park Comets, which won the Chicago Park District Little League Championship in 1959, the first African-American team to do so. | Photo provided

Mr Thompson died of pneumonia on August 12 while in hospice care at Holy Cross Hospital. He was 93 years old.

His teams were victorious at a time when police were sometimes called upon to ring the parks they played in to protect them from resentful white mobs who bombarded them with racial slurs and, once, hot dogs.

“They said things, but it stopped once they knew how good we were,” said Collins, who became assistant athletic director at Northern Illinois University and assistant basketball coach. ball at Northern and DePaul University. “Respect just came.”

A Chicago Sun-Times article from 2000, the year Tuley Park renamed a baseball field Comets Field to honor coach Edward Thompson's Tuley Park Comets champion.  |  Sun-Times Files

A Chicago Sun-Times article from 2000, the year Tuley Park renamed a baseball field Comets Field to honor coach Edward Thompson’s Tuley Park Comets champion. | Sun-Times Files

“They calmed the crowds with their bats and their gloves and their skills and the dignity that he instilled,” said Reverend Horace Jones, who once lived near Tuley Park and is now a pastoral member of the Ebeneezer Baptist Church. in Atlanta.

“My dad used to tell us, ‘Just be professional,'” said his son, also named Edward Thompson. “The coaches of the other teams told us that they had never seen such a disciplined team. … It was the most beautiful moment of my life.

“Guys would come 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 of Mr. Thompson’s championship team grew up to become business owners, postal workers, lawyer, policeman, television cameraman, financial adviser and school principal. Former teammates still call each other by the nicknames of their golden summer: Pee Wee, Squeaky, Tutti, Wally, Big Luke and GT

Mr. Thompson’s players came from Chesterfield, West Chesterfield and Chatham. He drilled them at Tuley Park, 91st and what is now King Drive.

Edward

Edward “Eddie” Johnson with some of his 1959 Little League Champions Tuley Park Comets on their home turf in 2000, when a baseball diamond was named Comets Field in their honor: (foreground) Gene Gray (center , in dark shirt) and George Sims (right) and, behind them (LR) Al Simms, Walter Lewis, the coach, his son Edward Thompson and Robert Collins. | Sun-Times Files

He worked nights for Commonwealth Edison, then went home to sleep for a few hours before getting up to train with the boys. They could have gone to the beach or the pool at Tuley Park or the old Rhodes cinema on 79th Street.

Instead, “We practiced at 10 a.m. every morning in a park that had five diamonds, but we were the only team there for two hours,” Collins said.

By day, Mr. Thompson held a second job at the post office. Then his team would train or play a game in the evening.

“He was there even when he slept for two hours,” 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 tough, but it really wasn’t,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, when the Chicago Park District honored the team by naming the baseball field Tuley Park Comets Field.

His players came from two-parent homes, but most of their dads couldn’t leave work to throw a ball at 10 a.m. “He was like a second father,” Collins said.

“I don’t know how he did it,” his son said. “At 10 a.m. I was trying to stay awake sometimes when he woke up to go to work. My mother always told me: ‘Go to bed, you have to go to school tomorrow’. But I sometimes ran up the stairs when he was at the door. He didn’t want to kiss me, but he was rubbing his face against mine, and I could smell his beard, and I was running upstairs to bed before my mom caught me. It made me happy.”

Edward Thompson ran the track and played quarterback at DuSable High.  |  Photo provided

Edward Thompson ran the track and played quarterback at DuSable High. | Photo provided

All practitioners “Put me on the course [that] I could do anything 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 lynching of 1955 in Mississippi became a defining moment. of the civil rights movement.

One memorable game took place at Bessemer Park at 92nd and South Chicago, where Harris recalls spectators “making fun of us…calling us all kinds of names.”

“The crowd was everything to 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 loudspeaker and told the crowd, ‘Stay back and let the kids play this game or it will be lost.’”

At Thillens Stadium, Harris recalled, “As we were walking through the stadium, some people took hot dog buns with mustard and threw them” at the team, hitting him.

Edward Thompson served in the army during World War II.  |  Photo provided

Edward Thompson served in the army during World War II. | Photo provided

“We won the game, and rather than being mad at us, the white people came down and shook our hands,” Harris said. “It taught me that at first people might 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 years old, his father Edward died of lung problems from the coking plant where he worked. Young Eddie learned to catch dinner by fishing and chasing 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 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.

Freida and Edward Thompson have been married for 74 years.  |  Photo provided

Freida and Edward Thompson have been married for 74 years. | Photo provided

“I had 74 years of happiness,” she said. “It was always the pretty eyes.”

The year he got married, he joined the military, earning a Purple Heart when another soldier on his patrol stepped on a landmine and was killed. The shrapnel tore Mr. Thompson’s leg.

“When he was supposed to come home, they had a 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 volunteers.’ My dad was the only one who came forward. Everyone thought my dad was crazy. … He was hurt, got his Purple Heart. . . . My dad was so proud of that black general, when he asked volunteers, he said, ‘I’m going.’

“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 took place. Former players traveled 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 wouldn’t end up on the streets,” his wife said.

“My dad was a great role model,” Larry Thompson said. “He taught me never to give up. . . . He taught me that you fear nothing. And I never had any 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 amazing athlete,” Jones said. “Equally important, he taught you how to lose. His whole thing was to teach a young man that you can lose – but you can’t give up.

Coach Edward Thompson, his wife Freida and (LR) their children Edward Thompson Jr., Larry Thompson and Janet Walton.  |  Photo provided

Coach Edward Thompson, his wife Freida and (LR) their children Edward Thompson Jr., Larry Thompson and Janet Walton. | Photo provided

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