Danny Thompson’s Fight
Danny Thompson was born February 1, 1947, in Wichita, Kansas. He had dreamed of being a professional baseball player since the moment he picked up a glove and bat, and through tenacity and commitment was able to achieve this goal. As an All-American player for Oklahoma State University, Thompson earned the title of “Most Valuable Player” of the Northern League in 1968. He broke into Major League Baseball in 1970 when he became a shortstop for the Minnesota Twins. Thompson got 318 at-bats his rookie year, and with a .276 batting average became a leader in both the American and National leagues.
Accompanying Thompson’s superb athleticism was a level of grit and sincerity that earned him widespread respect and admiration. After suffering from two serious injuries and having completed just one season in Major League Baseball, Thompson was diagnosed with leukemia at the young age of 26. Consistent with his exemplary resilience and spirit, Thompson refused to let his illness eclipse his passion for the sport. “You don’t have time to get down,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your head up and go right at it.”
True to his words, Thompson went on to play two more full seasons for the Twins while battling leukemia. Throughout this time he became the second person in history to take a series of experimental cancer vaccines at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota Medical School. Despite Thompson’s fortitude, he succumbed to his illness in 1976 having played in 694 games for the Minnesota Twins. Thompson was remembered by a wife, two daughters, and many teammates who would never forget his tenacity and his love of the game.
Harmon Killebrew’s Vision
Harmon Killebrew was one of those teammates. Killebrew was described by an umpire as “One of the most-feared sluggers in baseball history, but also one of the nicest to play the game.” Killebrew set a record of home runs hit by any right-handed hitter, and in 1984 he was elected into the Hall of Fame. Distraught by Danny’s death and the scarcity of leukemia research being done at the time, Killebrew promptly wrote a $6,000 check dedicated to furthering cancer research.
Killebrew held onto his memory of Thompson long after he retired from baseball. After moving to Boise, Idaho to start an insurance company in partnership with former Idaho Congressman Ralph Harding, Killebrew hoped to establish a way to commemorate his lost teammate and support the fight against leukemia.
After expressing these wishes to Harding, the two men pooled resources to found a memorial event in Thompson’s name. Drawing on both Harding’s political prowess and Killebrew’s connection to professional sports, they decided to hold an elite golf tournament for their cause. The first Danny Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament Leukemia Research Benefit was held in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1977. The guest list included top politicians such as President Gerald Ford and Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, as well as sports stars such as Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.
While Harding and Killebrew set out to raise $10,000 from the first Danny Thompson Memorial, the inaugural tournament exceeded their expectations by raising $21,000. In the following years, the tournament continued to gather celebrities, members of Congress, corporate sponsors, participants and supporters with one common goal: to find a cure or leukemia and other cancers. The event is now considered one of the leading fundraisers of its kind. Sadly, just before its 35th year, the tournament lost one of its own. In 2011, Harmon Killebrew passed away from esophageal cancer, and in his memory, the event’s Board of Directors changed the tournament’s name to the Killebrew-Thompson Memorial.
Befitting Killebrew’s vision and Thompson’s fighting spirit, the Killebrew-Thompson Memorial continues to support the battle against leukemia and other cancers. Now an enduring summer tradition, 2020 will mark the tournament’s 44th anniversary. The event has raised over $18.4 million to date, with all proceeds directly funding cancer research at both St. Luke’s Cancer Institute, and the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota. Through the groundbreaking scientific advancement of these institutions, the Killebrew-Thompson tradition continues.