UPSTATE N.Y. SPORTS LORE: A Jigger of Sports
Longtime L-H sports editor Thompson left behind long-lasting legacy
If you opened up to the sports pages of the Leader-Herald newspaper from the mid-1950’s through the early 1990’s, you saw a column with the tag line “A Jigger of Sports.” The column was written by Gloversville native George “Jigger” Thompson, who was the publications sports editor, a job he had been groomed for his entire life.
Thompson was born in Gloversville in 1915, and lived a life deeply engrained in both sports and the newspaper business for parts of eight decades.
At the age of four, he began selling copies of The Morning Herald newspaper at the intersection of Cayadutta Street and South Main Street in Gloversville. At 3 cents per copy, people on their way to and from their jobs were able to get their fix of local, national and international news. Being the youngest of 10 children, the penny a day he earned from his efforts was a big help to his mother, Jennie Bixby Thompson, to help her with the household budget.
At the age of seven, Thompson moved up the ranks and began coordinating the younger paper carriers at their posts around town by ensuring they were stocked with inventory of the most current publication. At the age of 11, he began working in The Morning Herald’s circulation department delivery truck, riding along to distribute bundles of papers to local businesses and paper carriers around the area.
In addition to spending his younger years in the newspaper business, he was also deeply engrained in athletics. He was known as ‘gym rat,’ spending nearly every waking hour he was not in school or delivering newspapers, participating in competitive sports at the Gloversville YMCA.
According to his son, Jon Thompson, “being the youngest of 10 children, in a household with a single mom, Thompson became very close with his instructors at the YMCA, and gravitated towards the likes of legendary Gloversville High School coaches Duke Miller (football) and Jim Bigsbee (basketball) as father figures. Throughout his life, he was complimentary of the positive influence that these men, and all of the instructors at the Gloversville YMCA had on him and how they helped keep him off the streets. These men also helped him develop his sports skills and a deep-rooted passion for sports. That passion and the contacts he created through sports would serve him professionally for his entire life.
As Thompson entered Gloversville High School in 1930, he continued to work for The Morning Herald’s circulation department and began to excel at the sports of football and basketball. Each morning he began his day at 4 a.m. driving bundles of newspapers to the Little Falls area, and then would report to school for his studies.
By 1931, he was a starter on both the varsity football and basketball teams as a sophomore, something that was rare in that era. He was a key player on the 1931-32 basketball squad that reached the quarterfinals of the New York State scholastic competition in Syracuse.
The following season he became the team captain. He was the team’s ball-handling whiz, and best defensive player.
According to Thompson’s son, George Jr. (Tom), “Bill Ward, one of my football coaches in high school, used to tell me that he would go to the Gloversville Armory when he was growing up just to watch my Dad play. He said he was performing no-look passes that would hit teammates in the chest, twenty years before ball handling great Bob Cousy first laced up to play in the NBA.”
During his four years on varsity, he was a teammate of future NFL great Don Wemple. Wemple was the scoring specialist and Jigger fed him the ball and also led the defense. On the gridiron, he became Gloversville’s captain in 1933, and in addition to once again playing alongside of Wemple, he was also teammates with another future NFL star during the 1932 season, Dave Smukler. Smukler would go on to play for legendary college football hall of fame coach Pop Warner at Temple University, and then in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Thompson enjoyed five years on both the football and basketball teams as he took part in the PG (post-graduate) program. This was a program that allowed students who worked to go to school an extra year, which ultimately allowed them another year of athletic eligibility.
Thompson qualified for the program as an employee of The Morning Herald and was monitored under the guidance of both Miller and Bigsbee. According to Jon Thompson, “the Post Graduate program and the prospect of playing sports kept my Dad in school. It was the depression era and this also allowed him to help out his family financially.”
After a stellar high school athletic career, which saw him play five seasons each of football and basketball, as well as one year on the track team, and another as the manager of the baseball team, Thompson graduated from Gloversville High School in 1935.
After high school, he continued to work for the circulation department of The Morning Herald and also The Leader-Republican for the next five years. In addition, he worked at local golf courses during the summer. The courses included the Sir William Golf Club (Pine Brook Golf Course), Caroga Lake Golf Course (Nick Stoner Golf Course) and the Kingsboro Golf Course. During this time, he took up the sport of golf and competed in the prestigious B Flight Golf Competitions in the late 1930’s. He also played softball in the City League and kept involved with basketball as both a player on local semi-professional teams and as a high school basketball official.
In 1941, Thompson was offered two different positions with The Leader Republican. The first was that of ‘cub reporter’ and the second was as a ‘press man.’ The latter paid more, but Thompson chose to take writing classes at the Gloversville Business School on State Street (most recently the Getman Memorial Home location) and became a reporter for The Leader Republican, something he had always aspired to do. In this position he reported on local news assignments and covered Gloversville sports. The position put him in the local schools, the city offices, and city businesses, where he got to know everyone in the area.
On October 8, 1942, Thompson joined the World War II effort and enlisted in the US Navy. He became a Storekeeper Second Class (SK2) and was stationed in Alameda California. While home on leave in April of 1944, he married Frances Rosselle, who accompanied him back to California. He was then sent to the Pacific Theater to serve aboard the USS Piedmont (AD-17). This was a destroyer tender (floating machine shop), built during the war for the US Navy to service destroyers in or near battle areas and keep them fit for duty. Thompson was aboard the USS Piedmont in Tokyo Bay when the war ended on September 2, 1945. On December 6, 1945, Thompson was discharged from the Navy and returned home to his position as a reporter for The Leader Republican.
He and Frances would also start their family that included four children, George Jr. (Tommy), Jon, Paul and Mary. Thompson was also very involved in the local community, where he was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Gloversville Masonic Lodge, and past exalted ruler and secretary of the Gloversville Elks Lodge. He was also a longtime member of the North Main United Methodist Church, where he taught Sunday school and served as secretary of its Board of Trustees.
In January of 1955, the Williams B. Collins Company consolidated its two papers (The Leader Republican and The Morning Herald) to form The Leader-Herald newspaper. Thompson was appointed the sports editor, replacing the two sports editors who previously headed up the former publications.
Articles in both publications on January 17 and 19, 1955, announced the following about his appointment:
“When a person has been a varsity performer in several sports, served as referee and been closely associated with various sporting events for many years through reportorial contacts, he’s quite well qualified to handle a job as a sports editor of a daily newspaper. He will write a column several times a week, giving important sidelights and comments on the sports scene in Fulton, Montgomery and Hamilton Counties. He also will be in charge of all Leader-Herald accounts of games and other sports activities in the area from Speculator and Lake Pleasant to St. Johnsville and Fort Plain. All Associated Press sports copy will flow through his desk.”
As The Leader-Herald sports editor, Thompson covered nearly every sport played locally, including football, basketball, gymnastics, wrestling, softball, cross country, track, bowling, golf, tennis, hockey, skating, hunting, fishing and ice fishing. He left for work at 6am each morning, usually walking from his North Kingsboro Avenue home, across town to the newspapers East Fulton Street offices. He worked all day, every day, except during the high school basketball season.
On Friday nights, he returned to the office after high school games to have the outcomes available for the Saturday morning edition. He was often the first to press each day, then ate a light lunch and took a 10-15 minute power nap at his desk. If you peeked into his office during this time, you would see him asleep, leaning back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head. He awoke refreshed and then spent the rest of the afternoon prepping for the following days edition.
Thompson truly enjoyed covering local sports and tried to personally cover every local team at least once during the season. He also enjoyed attending awards banquets, and made himself available to coaches across the area, so that he would always get the facts first-hand and often find new stories to write about.
Tom Thompson also fondly recalls watching his Dad work, “I remember coming in the back door of my parent’s home and dad would be set up on the kitchen table on his typewriter working away. He would ask me how my day was and have a conversation with me, while continuing to write and type away all at once without missing a beat. Syracuse University and other Upstate New York colleges often sent aspiring journalists to Gloversville to complete internships as part of their schooling. The young journalists in training would always ask Jigger where he went to school and be awestruck when he proudly stated that he never attended college.”
In addition to getting to cover scholastic games, he also attended Major League Baseball Championship and World Series games. Title football games at the collegiate and NFL level where also common. Closer to home, he covered minor league baseball and the Canadian-American League Gloversville Glovers and Amsterdam Rugmakers, along with semi-professional (football, baseball, basketball) and local amateur events. His position as sports editor saw him meet and interview the likes of boxing champions Carmen Basilio, Floyd Patterson, Lou Ambers and Muhamad Ali. He also got to interview football Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas and George Blanda. He took annual trips to Cooperstown to attend the Hall of Fame events, where he interacted with many of the game’s legends. He worked with baseball stars George Burns, Hal Schumacher, Jack McKeon, Sparky Anderson, Ralph Houk, Thurman Munson, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Lou Pinella, Reggie Jackson and all of the legendary players who participated in the Fred Rulison Yankee Caravan that came to Johnstown in May of 1979.
As a charter member of the Associated Press Sports Editors Group, he attended business meetings in New York City, Kansas City, Chicago, Washington, Dallas, Boston, Syracuse, and New Orleans. Speakers at those events included; Roger Staubach, Jimmy the Greek, Joe Paterno, Dick Vermeil, Bobby Knight, Dick MacPherson, George Steinbrenner, and Charles Finley.
His career covering sports also afforded him the opportunity to meet and develop relationships with the riders, jockeys, trainers, owners, track owners and officials in both Harness and Thoroughbred horse racing. He also developed similar contacts in the sport of greyhound racing and he became widely-known in all three racing industries. He was a member of and past secretary, and past president of the Saratoga Chapter of the U.S. Harness Writers Association, as well as a director of the national organization. He was also a co-founder of the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame in 1981, and served as its secretary, vice-president and president.
In September of 1982, after 60 years in the newspaper business, which included 27 years as sports editor, Jigger retired at the age 67. Through the years, he had been offered sports editors positions at many other publications across the Northeast. However, Thompson chose to remain loyal to the very organization that he started working for back in 1919 at the age of 4, and enjoyed a career in the city that he loved.
Upon his retirement, Thompson sent a goodbye note to his readers in his final column. The following are excerpts from his Sept. 29, 1982 column;
“It’s time for a change. It’s time to do some traveling…Not a steady diet of being on the go…Being the sports editor of the Leader-Herald has opened a lot of doors to meet interesting individuals and to attend sports events. That helped to make the career exciting…Attempting to please area athletes, coaches, parents of athletes and fans with good overall interesting stories provided a tough assignment. I found out early in the sports writing career that you could not please everybody all of the time. I tried…In heading for some new and interesting experiences in a different “league,” I want to thank everyone for helping make my newspaper career exciting and interesting.”
News of his retirement caused an onslaught of well wishes and celebrations, much like that of an iconic sports figure finishing out the final season of their career. Jigger received letters of congratulations from local politicians, coaches, players, business owners, members of the media (even competitors) and former New York Giant pitching great Hal Schumacher.
A surprise retirement party at the Elms Restaurant in Meco was put together by the Leader-Herald Editorial Staff that was attended by family, friends and co-workers. In addition to tributes from his peers, he also received a plaque from the coaches of Fulton-Montgomery Community College, in appreciation of his support of their programs and his coverage of their team’s activities since the college was founded in 1963.
A second party was held in his honor by the Little Huskies football program. The event was attended by present and past area athletes, coaches, athletic directors, and educators.
Area football icon Saxy Marshall was the Master of Ceremonies and presented him with a leather coat and plaque in honor of his commitment to area football. In December of 1982, Jigger was invited to the Gloversville High Schools annual fall sports awards, where Duke Caruso, president of the Gloversville High School Sports Boosters Club, honored him for his many years of covering local sports teams and athletes.
The following spring, the Gloversville Little League also honored him at their Opening Day Ceremonies, for having taken an active interest in Little League baseball and other youth sports.
For the next 20 years, Thompson and his wife Frances enjoyed going on cruises and traveling around the country, including two trips to Hawaii. In addition, the couple also cherished spending time with their children and grandchildren. Jigger also remained active with the church and the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame, being named the organization’s President in 1987.
Jigger passed away in 2002 at the age of 86. Thompson’s work lives on today in the form of many of the sports history initiatives that are taking place in the area.
According to David Karpinski, President of the Parkhurst Field Foundation, “while researching the history of Parkhurst Field, we came across a December 1955 article written by Mr. Thompson a few days after Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner passed away. The article referenced that Wagner and the Pittsburg Nationals played at A., J. & G Park (Parkhurst Field) almost 50 years before his death. Based on his article, we have uncovered much more of the park’s history that we never knew existed.”
His body of work over 41 years as an editorial and sports writer inadvertently created a time capsule of the 20th century sports history of Upstate New York. Many of the “bread crumbs of sports history” he left behind through is writings are important pieces of data that are the backbone of the modern day Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame’s efforts.
Today, the George “Jigger” Thompson Memorial Award is given away each year to a graduating male or female senior at Gloversville High School who plans to enter a two- or a four-year college majoring in a field related to sports and/or journalism. The honor comes with a lucrative scholarship designed to help the recipients with their college expenses.
For his role in documenting and promoting the history of sports in Upstate New York, Thompson has been nominated for induction into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame. He will join former high school teammates Dave Smukler and Don Wemple in the prestigious organization that recognizes notable Fulton County athletes. This will mark the second sports hall of fame that has recognized Thompson, as he was previously inducted into the Fulton County Bowling Hall of Fame in 1996. The date and location of the induction will be announced in the near future.
A special ‘thank you’ goes out to Tom and Jon Thompson, Dan and Sam Getman, Assemblyman Robert Smullen, David Karpinski and Tom Foster for their research assistance with this story.
— Author’s Note: This article marks the 50th column in the Upstate N.Y. Sports Lore series. As a tribute to Mr. George “Jigger” Thompson, this article was produced on the two typewriters he utilized during his entire career as a reporter with The Leader Republican (Underwood Typewriter) and the sports editor of The Leader-Herald (Royal Typewriter). Thank you Tom, Debbie and Jon Thompson for making the effort to have Jigger’s typewriters refurbished by the Cambridge Typewriter Company in Arlington, Mass., just for this project!
Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organizations website at www.fchof.com, email; firstname.lastname@example.org or call (518) 725-5565. If you enjoyed this story and want to learn more about other sports history topics, look for Hauser’s “Hometown Sports Heroes” series on www.amazon.com, search; ‘Mike Hauser Hometown Sports Heroes.’