White Sox first baseman/DH Frank Thomas, voted into the Hall of Fame in January along with Braves teammates Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, startled me when his alma mater Auburn celebrated with a press release that read in part, “Thomas is the first player who played in the Southeastern Conference to receive baseball's most coveted honor."
The first SEC player in the Hall of Fame? It's true, though Joe Sewell, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 and whose name is on the Crimson Tide's baseball stadium, played football and baseball at Alabama prior to the SEC's formation. (He also won an SEC title in 1968 as Alabama's coach.)
But Thomas is the first Hall of Famer who played in the SEC. It's rather amazing considering the conference's success in the last 25 years. Thomas was drafted in 1989. The next year, Georgia won the SEC's first College World Series title. Louisiana State won five of the next 10 as well as another in 2009, and South Carolina added titles in 2010-11.
Thomas is interesting from another college perspective, especially from the draft era. The only other Hall of Famer from a Southern college is Andre Dawson, who played at Florida A&M. The rest of the inductees with college backgrounds have come from the Midwest and West. The Big 10 Conference has produced a trio of Hall of Famers in Michigan's Barry Larkin and Minnesota's Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield. Before the draft era, Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer and George Sisler also went to Michigan, while Robin Roberts went to Michigan State and Addie Joss to Wisconsin.
The Pacific-12 Conference produced Tom Seaver of Southern California and Reggie Jackson of Arizona State, and the Trojans should add another in 2015 with Randy Johnson. The West Coast also is represented by Cal Poly's Ozzie Smith and San Diego State's Tony Gwynn.
And whenever I see the name of Mike Schmidt, I think of Ohio's 1970 College World Series team and Rod Dedeaux prepping his USC team to play the Bobcats. As the story goes, Dedeaux got scouting reports courtesy of the Dodgers and was going over the Ohio report. It raved about Schmidt to the degree that Dedeaux exclaimed, “If he were this good, he'd be a Trojan!"
Ohio beat USC 4-1, though the Trojans came back to win the series.
It's surprising there aren't more former Trojans in the Hall, but in the draft era, Thomas is just the 10th college alumnus to earn a spot in Cooperstown.
That should change in the coming years, and this year's crowded Hall of Fame ballot was chock full of some of college baseball's all-time greats. Barry Bonds starred at Arizona State and played against USC's Mark McGwire. Roger Clemens led Texas to a national championship in 1983, while Rafael Palmeiro helped Mississippi State to Omaha in 1985. Craig Biggio (Seton Hall) and Jeff Bagwell (Hartford) were teammates for 15 seasons in Houston, while Mike Mussina (Stanford) and Jeff Kent (California) faced each other in the late 1980s as Bay Area rivals.
College Baseball's Two Halls
Many of those players, most prominently Bonds, Clemens and Palmeiro, have come to embody baseball's messy history with performance-enhancing drugs. Palmeiro won't even be on the ballot next year, falling below the 5 percent threshold.
Palmeiro is, however, in the National College Baseball Hall of Fame, having been enshrined in 2009. He likely will not join the fraternity of players in both halls of fame, a group that includes Larkin, Sewell, Sisler and Winfield, Branch Rickey (who coached at Michigan), Jackie Robinson, Lou Brock, Lou Gehrig and Christy Mathewson.
The college hall is based in Lubbock, Texas, and is operated by the College Baseball Foundation, which has an annual gala in June to raise money and to induct its new members. A campaign to raise $13 million to pay for a building and an endowment continues, and the organization announced in November that its main building would be named for President George H.W. Bush, who played on Yale's 1947 team that lost to California in the first College World Series.
I'm a college hall voter, and voting just concluded for the 2014 class. Those results won't generate much controversy, I trust. The bigger issue for college baseball may be in choosing which hall to recognize. In 2013, the Omaha College Baseball Hall of Fame welcomed its inaugural class: Dedeaux, Winfield, Augie Garrido, Bob Horner, Brooks Kieschnick and Robin Ventura. I vote in this hall, too.
The Lubbock-based hall has a head start, but with TD Ameritrade's corporate support and a location in Omaha, the spiritual home of college baseball, the Omaha hall has some inherent advantages.
In a perfect world, the better answer would be for college baseball to have a wing in Cooperstown. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, after all, honors both professional and college players.
But as recent voting for Cooperstown has reminded us, the Hall of Fame world is far from perfect.