The 6’2″ 207-lb Thompson was a 24-year-old carpenter when he began playing pro ball in 1884. He was acquired by the Detroit Wolverines of the National League the following year, hit more than .300 for the first of nine seasons and, sporting a powerful throwing arm, won the right field job. He was to become one of the best at his position for the next decade, a consistent long-ball threat in the dead-ball era.
In 1887 Thompson led the NL with 545 at-bats, 203 hits, 23 triples, 166 RBI (the highest RBI total in the 19th century), a .372 batting average, and a .571 slugging percentage. On May 7, 1887 he hit two bases-loaded triples. Though he lost most of the 1888 season to an injury, he made a successful comeback with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1889, leading the league with 20 home runs. His power slipped in 1890, but his 172 hits and 41 doubles were both league highs.
After leading the NL in 1893 with 222 hits and 37 doubles, in 1894 Thompson was a member of the only .400-hitting outfield in major league history. He batted .404, left fielder Ed Delahanty hit .400, fourth outfielder Tuck Turner hit .416, and centerfielder Billy Hamilton hit .399. Thompson’s .670 slugging percentage was the third-best of the century. On August 17, 1894 he hit for the cycle in a 6-for-7 game against Louisville.
Thompson’s final great season was 1895, when his 18 homers, 165 RBIs, and .654 slugging percentage were NL highs. He didn’t lag in the average department either, hitting at a .392 clip. On June 29 and July 1, he tied a major league record for most consecutive doubles in two games, with six. Unfortunately, injuries caught up with him, and he missed all but three games of the 1897 season with an ailing back, which forced his retirement in 1898.
At the end of the century, Thompson sported the second-best lifetime slugging percentage (.504) and the third-highest RBI total (1,296) of any 19th-century player. In 1906, at age forty-six, Thompson attempted a brief comeback with the Detroit Tigers, whose roster included Sam Crawford and a 19-year-old Ty Cobb. The aged outfielder got in just eight games, hitting .226. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Committee on Baseball Veterans in 1974.