When Frank Thomas made public appearances in the years after he retired from baseball in 2008 at age 40, well-wishers would often greet him with comments suggesting he would soon be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Although he kept smiling, Thomas would recoil, almost as if slapped. Not because the statements were insults – anyone would be flattered to be considered a Hall of Famer – but because he was superstitious and did not want to jinx his selection. Thomas understood that there are no sure things with Hall of Fame votes and that he played during an era regarded with great suspicion.
Great career during difficult times
Being a power hitter with 521 home runs should have clinched easy Hall of Fame acceptance, but being a power hitter and a man of great physical stature during baseball’s steroid era, meant that there were always going to be doubters out there.
Thomas played 19 big-league seasons between 1990 and 2008, most of them with the Chicago White Sox and he was a huge man of 6-foot-5 and with a weight sometimes rounded off at 275 pounds. He had been a football player growing up in Columbus, Georgia, and played tight end for Auburn University as a teammate of Bo Jackson’s.
No question that Thomas was a big dude. But muscles were bursting out all over the place during his career and some of those who showed them off were later showed to be frauds, players sporting chemically enhanced bodies. Thomas’ home-run total equaled that of Ted Williams and Willie McCovey. He knocked in 1,704 runs and batted .301.
Against the grain
A five-time All-Star, Thomas won two American League Most Valuable Player awards. He was a solid citizen, although he periodically bickered with White Sox management, and most tellingly, when baseball was trying to root out the evil of performance-enhancing drugs and both the sport and Congress convened committees to investigate, Thomas was out front volunteering to testify. Unlike fellow players Thomas asked for more stringent testing. At times he was the only voice on that side of the issue.
Thomas was also directly harmed by someone else’s drug-tainted accomplishments. In 2000, Jason Giambi, later a confessed performance-enhancing drug user, won the AL Most Valuable Player award. Thomas was the runner-up. He was deprived of his third such honor.
Post White Sox days
The White Sox thought Thomas was finished in 2006 and let him go to the Oakland Athletics. That was a mistake. Thomas blasted 39 home runs and knocked in 114 runs that year. When Thomas returned to Comiskey Park II wearing an Oakland uniform for the first time he was given a royal reception.
For the announcement of his first turn at-bat the Chicago fans gave Thomas a standing ovation. He promptly smacked a home run and was well-applauded for that. His second time up he bashed another. OK, the fan reception wasn’t quite so warm the second time around – it was enough is enough already. It was almost funny. You had to be there.
Waiting on HOF
For the last five years Thomas waited his turn to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot. Given that such contemporary superstars like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa have initially been snubbed in Hall voting because of their alleged and repeated links to performance-enhancing drugs, Thomas’ worry was understandable.
But Hall selectors read between the lines and did not hold Thomas guilty by association with the era when he played and voted him into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. “The Big Hurt” was he was named by Chicago announcer Ken “Hawk” Harrelson one time when Thomas powdered a ball into the stratosphere, and Sunday, in Cooperstown, N.Y., Thomas will be part of a glittering Hall of Fame induction class.