The Story of Danny Thompson and His Fight Against Leukemia
ven when he knew he was dying of leukemia, Danny Thompson wanted only one thing: To be judged as a baseball player, not as a victim of an incurable illness.
Now, thanks to a couple of people who judged him outstanding as a man, the late Danny Thompson is fighting back against the leukemia that killed him. Thompson was a big league shortstop. Big league in every sense of the word. He played the tough position for the Minnesota Twins during the first half of the 1970s-and he kept on playing it after he learned, in the spring of 1974, that he had leukemia.
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota medical school attempted to hold the illness under control. Danny became the second person in history to take a series of experimental injections designed to partially immunize him against the illness.
And he continued to play baseball. During the 1975 season he led American League shortstops in batting average and played well enough that he had hopes of making the All-Star team.
Danny died in December 1976, leaving a wife, two daughters, a commendable major league playing record, and a former teammate who didn’t want Danny Thompson’s life, and death, to go unnoticed.
That teammate was Harmon Killebrew, the 20-year veteran who spent most of his career with Minnesota and stands fifth on the all time list of home run sluggers. When Danny died, Harmon promptly wrote out a $6,000 check for leukemia research.
But he didn’t think that was enough.
Killebrew retired from baseball after the 1975 season and went into the estate planning and insurance business with former Idaho Congressman Ralph Harding. Until they went into business together they didn’t know each other and had little in common-a Democrat and a Republican, a politician and a ballplayer, and Harding knew little about baseball. Killebrew hasn’t let him forget the day he asked, “Who’s Nolan Ryan?”
But Ralph went east each year to play in the Vince Lombardi Memorial Golf Tournament, which raises money for cancer research, and when Harmon sat down one day, he told Ralph about Danny Thompson, and said, “I wish I could do something in his memory.” Ralph had the idea: A golf tournament to raise money for the fight against leukemia.
So they scheduled it at Sun Valley, which has two 18-hole golf courses (Sun Valley and Elkhorn) designed by Robert Trent Jones, and they went to work to promote it.
The arrangements could not have gone better. Harding used his political contacts to bring to Idaho the nation’s best-known amateur golfer: Gerald Ford. “I love to play golf,” Ford said. “And it’s a good cause.” Ford’s opening-round foursome included the late Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts. Killebrew went to the baseball world. Mickey Mantle and his son flew up from Dallas with Brad Corbett, owner of the Texas Rangers. Jim Lemon and Bob Allison showed up. So did other well known big leaguers. Active baseball players, who couldn’t play in the tournament because they had their own season to worry about, chipped in anyway.
The tournament itself turned out to be a rousingly happy occasion. And the tradition endures. The tournament has gone on for over two decades and many have joined in Danny Thompson’s fight against leukemia.