Editor’s Note: On his way to the Hall of Fame, Frank Thomas was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in 1989, and as this feature accompanying the award showed, Thomas was confident that he would succeed in the major leagues and driven by those who doubted him. A version of this story also appears in Baseball America’s 2014 Hall of Fame Commemorative magazine, along with lots of other stories and photos about this year’s inductees and honorees, and a celebration of the Hall of Fame’s 75th anniversary. You can find the magazine on newsstands now or purchase directly from us. You can also get a digital version of the mag from your favorite digital newsstand.
BY RUBIN GRANT
BIRMINGHAM—It took them a while, but the baseball lords finally said yes to big Frank Thomas. They said yes, he could play this game, and yes, he could play in the major leagues.
But it wasn’t like the baseball lords were telling Frank Thomas anything he didn’t already know.
From the time he was in high school, Thomas felt he could play. And finally this season, he showed all of baseball just how well he can play.
In his first full season of professional baseball, Thomas jumped from Double-A Birmingham to the Chicago White Sox. Along the way he earned Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year.
“It helped me a lot being in the minors,” says Thomas, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound first baseman. “I polished up things. But I still believe I could have made the jump to the big leagues earlier than I did.”
The White Sox left Thomas in Birmingham for four months before finally calling him up in early August.
It wasn’t the first time Thomas had to wait for his time to come. He was a three-sport star in football, baseball and basketball at Columbus (Ga.) High. After his senior season, Thomas was named Bi-City (Columbus and Phenix City, Ala.) baseball player of the year.
He figured when the June 1986 baseball draft was held, he would be chosen. That was the first time the baseball lords said no.
“The scouts didn’t like me, I guess,” Thomas says. “They said I was a football player just playing baseball. Sure, I had some extra weight, but it was just baby fat.”
Rebuffed by baseball scouts, Thomas took a football scholarship at Auburn University. He was a tight end, and caught three passes for 45 yards his freshman season.
“There was no doubt I loved baseball, but I had the size, strength and speed to play football,” Thomas says. “And a lot of people told me I should play football because I had a better chance to do something.”
But when spring arrived, Thomas returned to the diamond. He had told Auburn officials he wanted to play both sports. It didn’t take long for Thomas to impress Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird.
“Frank earned a starting job here quicker than anyone that’s ever been here since I’ve been here,” Baird says. “We watched him swing the bat one time, and the first swing he took, he hit a line drive right at the shortstop, like a bullet. We had been wondering about our power, and we just said right then, ‘Hey, that guy’s going to be in our lineup no matter what.’ ”
Naturally, Thomas began to draw comparisons to Bo Jackson, another two-sport star at Auburn.
“They compared us a lot,” Thomas says. “I hit some incredible shots. We both had our share of long, long home runs.”
Thomas knows Bo, but they are not particularly close.
“We’re friends,” Thomas says. “When we played Kansas City, we spent a little time together. He told me to keep hanging in there and stay confident.”
Jackson did more than hit home runs while at Auburn. A tailback, he won the Heisman Trophy during Thomas’ freshman year. Thomas gave up football before the start of his sophomore season, after hurting his knee.
“It’s a choice I had to make at the time,” Thomas says. “I’m a better baseball player than I was a football player. I feel I made the right choice.”
|In the 1989 draft, Thomas was the seventh overall pick, chosen behind Ben McDonald (Baltimore), Tyler Houston (Atlanta), Roger Salkeld (Seattle), Jeff Jackson (Philadelphia), Donald Harris (Texas) and Paul Coleman (St. Louis). This was Baseball America’s pre-draft report:|
|“If it’s power a team is looking for with an early first-round pick, then Auburn’s 6-foot-5, 250-pound 1B Frank Thomas is the man. He’s the top power prospect in the draft and shouldn’t last past the first 12 or 13 picks.”|
|Similarly, White Sox scout Mike Rizzo, now the general manager of the Nationals, gave Thomas top-of-the-scale marks for his future power and solid grades across the board:|
|“Powerful player with potential to be an impact, power-hitting 1B. Good approach with bat. Has hands and agility to be a good 1B. Quality.”|
His freshman season proved that Thomas could play baseball, and play it well. He hit an Auburn single-season record 21 home runs, and went on to play for the 1987 Pan American Games team, though he was dropped from the roster before the team reached Indianapolis. The next year, Thomas led the Southeastern Conference in hitting with a .385 average, but he was left off the U.S. Olympic team. That angered him.
“I was shafted when they picked the Olympic team,” he says. “I was one of the key players on the Pan Am team. I was one of the most talked-about players, along with (Jim) Abbott, (Gregg) Olson and Tino Martinez. And the next year I wasn’t even considered for the Olympic team. I didn’t understand.”
Thomas returned to Auburn for the 1989 season, and led the SEC in hitting for the second straight year with a .403 average. He hit 19 home runs and broke the single-season school record with 83 RBIs.
Still, Thomas wasn’t among the leading candidates for the Golden Spikes Award, given by the United States Baseball Federation to the nation’s top college player. That upset him.
“I felt in college I was overshadowed,” he says. “I never got the respect I deserved. I didn’t get all the hype and publicity, and I dominated the SEC the way Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro did. I was never considered for the Golden Spikes Award.”
In three seasons at Auburn, Thomas batted .382 and broke career records for home runs (49) and RBIs (205). The White Sox, looking for a power hitter, made him their first pick (seventh overall) in the 1989 draft.
He wanted to start his pro career in Birmingham, but the baseball lords intervened and said no. Thomas was assigned to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. He quickly moved up to Class A Sarasota and finished the season with a combined .296 average, five home runs and 41 RBIs in 72 games.
Chicago decided to invite Thomas to training camp last spring as a nonroster player to see what he could do. He had a big spring and almost made the Opening Day roster. But Sox general manager Larry Himes decided it would be better for Thomas to start the season in Birmingham.
“It wasn’t a tough decision to send him to Birmingham,” Himes says. “It was easy. It was made before spring training started. If he had hit 25 home runs, he was still going to Double-A. He knew that ahead of time.”
The folks in Chicago kept close tabs on Thomas.
“The awareness of Thomas’ exploits was incredible,” said Danny Evans, White Sox director of player administration. “It got to the point where nobody used his last name. Every morning our people would ask, ‘What did Frank do last night?’ ”
What Thomas did at Birmingham was hit .323, second in the league, with 18 home runs and 71 RBIs. He had 112 walks, 16 shy of the league record, led the minors in on-base percentage (.487) and had a .581 slugging percentage when the Sox finally called him up Aug. 1.
After going hitless in his first six at-bats, Thomas proved he belonged, going on a 15-for-33 tear. With a little more than two weeks left in the season, he was hitting .318, but had only three home runs.
“It’s a little disappointing that I haven’t hit more home runs,” he says, “but I can’t worry about that.”
Thomas didn’t blame his lack of home runs on not adapting to the Walt Hriniak style of hitting that is taught throughout the organization.
“The hardest thing I’ve had to do is staying within myself,” Thomas says. “Some days I feel like Superman and want to do things I’m not capable of doing.”
Thomas says another reason he hasn’t hit more home runs is he rarely gets pitches in his power zone. Most of his home runs come to the opposite field, right or right center.
“It’s shocking, the level of respect I’ve gotten,” he says. “It’s been ridiculous. But scouts are everywhere. It’s like when you get here, they know about you. I’m still very confident. I haven’t been overmatched at all.”
Thomas has an impressive physical presence. His heroes are Dave Parker and Dave Winfield, two other rather impressive specimens. Thomas chose them as role models five years ago, when he was in high school.
“I knew I was going to be that size,” he says. “I want to be like them—big and intimidating.”
Thomas isn’t a typical power hitter. He has unusual discipline for someone so young. He’s 22.
“His plate discipline has always been good, but it’s getting better,” says Kansas City Royals scout Ken Gonzalez, who scouted Thomas at Auburn. “You see a lot of big guys who are free swingers and undisciplined. They swing at a lot of bad pitches. But Frank’s pitch selection is good. And he’s a good two-strike hitter.
“He’s pretty agile for a big man. Heck, he played tight end, so he had to have good feet to go in the flat on pass routes. He’s not lunging for pitches. He’s holding back and waiting for his pitch.”
Thomas is not bashful when he talks about his ability to hit a baseball.
“I feel I’m a little advanced with the bat,” he says. “Most big guys who hit for power hit nothing but fastballs. But I can hit the curveball.
“I’m not cocky but I’m very confident. I feel my confidence came by being involved with a lot of winning teams in high school and college. Being around so many positive people, I believe that’s where confidence kicks in.
“But I don’t like to brag. I’m quiet about it. I keep to myself. I don’t try to stir things up. I’m a very shy person. People don’t know that. But I can get along with anybody. People can’t believe how friendly I am.”
And until this year, the baseball lords couldn’t believe how well Thomas really could play this game.