Detroit Tigers Trade Value Series: Jason Thompson

Jason Thompson, circa 1978. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Jason Thompson, circa 1978. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

Ask any older Detroit Tigers fan about the trade that sent Jason Thompson to the Calfornia Angels for Al Cowens. They will still shake their heads in frustration.

If you have a moment for those of our readership who use Twitter, go to the search bar and type in “Jason Thompson Tigers”. The trade is almost 40 years old (the trade occurred on May 27th, 1980) and people who are still fans of Jason Thompson and were miffed on why the Tigers traded the left-handed power-hitting first baseman, are still upset. I interested in this trade for two reasons. One, I wanted to understand the logic behind it and two, as a fan of history and comic books, I wanted to add an element from the Marvel universe.

Marvel had a series called “What If” in which they take a situation that could have been if factors had changed. So, for example, one situation was what if Loki had found the hammer of Thor.  With OOTP 21, you can make these situations possible, thanks to their very impressive baseball simulator program. But for now, I wanted to refer to Marvel comics as an example.

The “why”

Thompson was drafted in the fourth round of the 1975 draft. He was a part of a three-year run of good drafts by the Tigers. After a season in Double-A Montgomery in which he hit .324, in 1975, Thompson had a fan in Tigers manager Ralph Houk, who watched in the instructional leagues in the winter. He did not stay in Triple-A Evansville for too long. After four games in which he had four home runs and hit .313, Detroit purchased his contract and he was there to stay for the 1976 season. The steady replacement for Norm Cash had finally arrived.

After back to back All-Star seasons in 1977 and 1978 in which he put up a 3.9 bWAR season only to follow it up with a 5.6 bWAR season, Thompson had an off-year in 1979, only batting.246. New manager Sparky Anderson took over half-way through the ’79 season and had time to take a look at the first baseman.  He made a few comments in his “Conservations with Sparky” series that ran in the Detroit Free Press that suggested he didn’t agree with the path Thompson was taking with his career. Here are some of the quotes from the article. 

  • “First of all, I think Jason made a terrible mistake when he went into a weightlifting program last winter. “
  • “Second, he got heavier. Strength does not come weight, and that’s one thing a lot of guys won’t listen to. Strength comes from conditioning. “

Sparky went on to mention Thompson’s recent marriage and the adjustment that comes with that. The article would go on to indicate people asked Sparky if they would trade Thompson, he said a player like Thompson who could hit out of the park like him would be hard to find.

Well, the need for a right-handed hitter outweighed the power in Thompson’s bat.  Jim Campbell even admitted that the conservation to acquire Al Cowens started in the winter meetings of 1979 when Cowens was still a member of the Kansas City Royals.

“Looking..shoot.” Campbell said, “Since those meetings, we’ve been desperately looking for a righthanded hitter and we think we got a damn good one too”. 

Cowens was batting .227 at the time but he was a few seasons removed from some productive seasons of 1977 in which he hit .312 and had 23 home runs and 112 RBIs. He was a lifetime .282 hitter and won a Gold Glove,  which helped Campbell’s cause even more. Thompson would fill the void at DH until Don Baylor came back and splitting time with Rod Carew at first base.

Cowens was involved in one of the strangest fights in Tigers’ history in which he went after White Sox reliever Ed Farmer. Farmer broke Cowens’s jaw the year before so Cowens felt it was the time to get revenge.  Cowens would play just another season in Detroit before he signed with Seattle in 1982.

As for Thompson, the “what if” I mentioned earlier. Thompson would pick up his productivity again, as he would have All-Star season in Pittsburgh in 1982. Due to knee injuries, however, he would retire in 1986.  Artificial turf, which has contributed to many injuries to players across the league, could have played a factor as that was the main surface at Three Rivers Stadium.

Do you think that if the front office would have been patient with Thompson and kept him, do you think the signing of Darrell Evans would have taken place? Remember, after Thompson, the Tigers had a carousel of first baseman with Richie Hebner, Rick Leach, Enos Cabell, and Mike Laga. It is totally possible. After all, the Tigers still were not sold with Tom Brookens at third base and Evans did play third in his time in Atlanta and a few times in his 1983 season with the Giants.

Regardless, this trade did not go over well in Detroit. According to a “sound off” poll that was published in the Free Press on May 30th, 1980, 76% did not approve it. One comment read

“Get rid of Sparky Anderson, he’s overpaid”. 

Yikes. Well, even then, you didn’t need social media to hear everyone complain.