Danny Thompson Memorial
When evenings grow shorter and summer’s idyllic Sun Valley days begin to wind down, the Sun Valley Resort will welcome in late August its usual array of sports figures, entertainers, business people and politicians.
They come for the Danny Thompson Memorial golf tournament. Called “the tournament with a heart,” the Thompson hosts 240 golfers plus social guests for a grand total of 400 people. They play, party, socialize and contribute.
It’s a charity golf tournament, like many held around the country for good causes. But the Thompson Memorial, marking its 27th return to the Sun Valley Resort Aug. 20-23, is unique in many ways.
It’s not particularly big, it’s not Aspen-flashy, and it has never offered appearance fees for its celebrities. Stability, strong sponsors and a loyal following are its main assets.
It’s a wonderful synergy between politicians, celebrities and sponsors,” tournament president Georgie Fenton of Ketchum said.
The Thompson has always been held at Sun Valley and has a long-standing board of directors. It also has a single-minded purpose: To fund research and eventually find a cure for leukemia and cancer.
Last year’s Thompson tournament raised $600,000 for leukemia and cancer research, including a record $225,000 at the ninth annual Thompson Memorial live/silent auction.
In 26 years, the Thompson Memorial has raised $6.1 million for cancer research, split between University of Minnesota Leukemia Research Foundation ($3.33 million) and Mountain States Tumor Institute of Boise ($2.98 million).
The tournament is named for Danny Thompson, a Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers infielder, who died of leukemia in 1976 at age 29.
Life is full of twists and turns, but Thompson’s upbringing in postwar, small-town Oklahoma had a truly All-American flavor. He was the star athlete at tiny Capron High in the 1960s. He met his future wife Jo at a sock hop after a high school basketball game in which he played.
Thompson became an All-American shortstop at Oklahoma State University. He was 21 when the Minnesota Twins drafted him in June 1968. Danny and Jo packed their bags and never really unpacked.
“We never stayed in one place for more than four months,” Jo recalled. “We had this pickup with a camper shell. We kept everything in these two boxes, covered with blankets. The dog always knew when it was time to go.”
Passing through the minor leagues of St. Cloud, Charlotte and Evansville at the start of his nine-year professional baseball career, Thompson landed with the Minnesota Twins in 1970, the same year first daughter Tracy was born.
He enjoyed a solid, productive major league career, batting .248 in 694 games and fielding .956 at shortstop. Before the 1973 season, however, a routine physical showed Danny was suffering from chronic granulocytic leukemia.
At first, doctors thought it was controllable. He agreed to undergo an experimental new series of injections to combat the progression of the disease.
Although he continued to play baseball, the treatment was nightmarish, leaving scars the size of half dollars on his skin.
Fate had dealt the young couple and their young daughters a cruel blow. Jo suffered quietly but the process was also painful for her. Danny died Dec. 10, 1976, a few months after playing his final game for the Texas Rangers.
To this day, friends remember Thompson as “big league in every sense of the word.” To this day, the memories of Danny’s life and death can be painful for Jo Thompson, who has become a social worker for the United Way in Chicago.
Thompson’s life was short, but his 29 years have been meaningfully extended because of the tournament held in his name, according to Danny’s daughter Tracy Thompson, 33, who serves on the tournament board.
Tracy was 6 when her father died. Meeting people who knew Thompson and played baseball with him has given Tracy and her sister Dana, 30, a different perspective on the father they didn’t know—and the difficulties he and Jo faced in dealing with the disease.
“He played in pain,” said Tracy. “He was often sicker than he was letting on, because he wanted to play so much. But my father was living his dream. My sister and I consider the tournament my father’s legacy. It helps people keep living their dreams.”
Each year, in the most moving moments of the Thompson Memorial, a cancer survivor tells his or her story.
“Having the survivor story embodies what we’re doing,” Fenton said.
Tracy Thompson, who dealt with cancer patients every day during her college education and then earned a master’s degree in health administration, added, “The progress in dealing with the disease has been truly remarkable the last 20 years.”
The tournament was founded in 1977 by baseball slugger Harmon Killebrew, a native of Payette, and Idaho legislator Ralph Harding. Killebrew’s $6,000 donation to leukemia research after his teammate Thompson’s death 27 years ago ultimately turned into something much bigger with his decision to launch the corporate and charity-driven tournament.
“It has become part of the people’s lives who participate in it,” said Tracy.