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Tim Thompson, 96, The Catcher Who Flew Blimps

One of the most interesting players I've interviewed is Charles Lemoine "Tim" Thompson, 96, of Lewistown, PA. Thompson appeared in 187 major-league games as a catcher and a pinch hitter for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Kansas City Athletics and Detroit Tigers. As one of the first MLB players, albeit catchers, to wear eyeglasses, he's seen it all—twilight games in the old wooden ballparks, a world war and integration. He warmed up in the bullpen with Fidel Castro, learned the business side of baseball from Jack Kent Cooke, and witnessed the explosion of steroids and multi-million-dollar salaries. Through it all Tim never lost sight of his coal-mine roots.

Tim's father played baseball for coal mine teams. As a kid, he went into the mines once, and that was all it took to convince him that he wanted to have a career above ground. Right out of high school Tim married a cheerleader (they're still married today, 77 years later), and enlisted in the Navy. During WWII the catcher flew lighter-than-air blimps - the big K-class Navy blimps built by Goodyear to patrol the Pacific coast for subs and mines. He was based out of Moffett Air Field in the Silicon Valley where the skeletons of airship hangers are visible from the highway today. Rumor has it that Google is restoring several hangers and may be building its own blimp.

When Tim came home from the war he was signed by "Reindeer" Bill Killefer, a Brooklyn Dodgers scout, who watched him play at a Sunday afternoon Mifflin County All-Star game. According to Tim, Killefer asked the umpire, Charlie Curry, who happened to be his grandfather, “what positions does the boy play?” His grandfather said, "that boy plays shortstop, pitches, catches, whatever you want him to do." The next day he was off to Brooklyn.

Navy Blimps on Patrol, Courtesy Moffett Field Historical Society Museum.

When Tim's playing days were over, he became one of the longest-tenured, hardest-working scouts in pro ball. He gained a reputation as the scout who watched players other scouts might overlook - a passion that took him down back roads through mountains and mill towns to lesser-known ballparks where he mined hidden gems for 40 years. One of those diamonds in the rough was second baseman Tommy Herr, 1982 St. Louis Cardinals’ World Series champion, who caught Thompson’s eye at American Legion games around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “He kept coming to see me," said Herr when we spoke. "By the end of the summer he was one of about four scouts who offered contracts. Tim was the guy I trusted most. He didn’t sugar coat anything. His offer was generous and he said, ‘if you are was willing to work hard enough, you can become a big leaguer,’” said Herr, whose 92-year-old father served on a Navy submarine during World War II.

At the request of his family, and his wife Lois, now 95, Tim retired at age 80 when he was with the Orioles. What does he miss most? Playing golf and sunshine - he encourages everyone to spend time outdoors, something we could all use more of during these times of quarantine.

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