Thanks to a cruel twist of fate, Frank Thomas goes into the Hall of Fame as a member of an elite club of baseball immortals who never got to play for a championship. When his Chicago White Sox won it all in 2005, the Big Hurt was too hurt to take the field—and was left off the postseason roster. After finishing strong with the Oakland A's and then the Toronto Blue Jays, he ultimately put up numbers that few hitters in history have matched, making him a no-brainer for Cooperstown. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Frank Edward Thomas was born on May 27, 1968 in Columbus, Georgia. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) He was the second of Charlie Mae and Frank Sr.'s three children. Frank’s dad had a job with the city and his mom worked in a clothing factory. Frank was large and energetic. He was a sensitive kid who seemed naturally polite and had a winning smile.

The Thomas family was a close-knit group. Frank’s best friend was his younger sister, Pamela. They went everywhere and did everything together as kids. Pamela was diagnosed with leukemia and died when Frank was 10. He never really got over this loss.

After Pamela’s death, Frank turned to his older brother, Michael. Sometimes Michael’s friends teased his good-natured sibling. Frank didn’t mind until a few tried to push him around. By the time they hit the ground, word was out—don’t mess with Big Frank.

Frank Sr. began developing his son’s skills in football and basketball when he was young, channeling his intelligence and natural aggressiveness in ways that would enhance his performance. As a result, Frank was not only bigger and faster than kids he faced on the playing field—he was better.

Frank dominated his youth league opponents in baseball and football, and was allowed to play up against older boys—mostly for the safety of the younger boys. His coordination and dexterity later made him a fine basketball player. By the time he enrolled in Columbus High School, everyone in town knew who Frank was, and expected he would make millions as a professional athlete. The question was, in which sport?

Frank’s favorite athletes were Dave Winfield and Dave Parker. Both were baseball All-Stars who would probably have found fame in the NFL or NBA. He liked the way they intimidated opponents on the diamond. So after making the Columbus varsity football and basketball teams as a freshman, Frank was astonished when baseball coach Bobby Howard relegated him to the JV. After Howard explained to Frank that he was just too young, the frosh spent a year stewing as he waited for spring tryouts. When his got his chance, he hit three balls onto the roof of the building that stood more than 100 feet past the outfield fence. Frank was on the varsity.

Howard worked his super soph harder than anyone else on the team. If he made a mental error, the coach ordered him to run laps. When Frank complained, Howard told him that physical talent alone would not get him to the big leagues—he needed to master the game between his own ears. Frank hit over .400 as a sophomore and led the Blue Devils to the state championship.

Frank’s baseball exploits paled in comparison to his prowess on the football field. He was a ferocious tackler on defense and perhaps the best prep tight end in the country. He also handled the team’s kicking duties. When Auburn offered him a scholarship, he accepted—with the understanding that he would almost certainly choose baseball if he were drafted in a high round the following June.

Unfortunately, this was not communicated effectively to the big league teams that scouted Frank in the spring of 1986. With a scrapbook full of football headlines and a scholarship in his pocket, it was assumed Frank was bound for the NFL. Not a single team used a draft pick on him. Frank could not believe it!

So it was off to Auburn, where he was named the Tigers’ back-up tight end. Frank’s ability to analyze defenses after the snap and deliver crushing blocks for Auburn’s runners made head coach Pat Dye fantasize about what he would do the next three years.

Frank’s mind was still on baseball, however. He asked coach Hal Baird for a tryout, and the Auburn skipper agreed to give him a look in the batting cage. After one swing, Baird all but decided to make Frank his cleanup hitter. The ball came off his bat with such force that it even surprised the freshman slugger. The weight training he had done for football had doubled his power.

Frank hit .359 with a school-record 21 homers in his first season. He was named All-SEC and played for Team USA in the 1987 Pan Am Games that summer. He had to miss the gold medal game, however, because football practice was beginning. Frank went into his soph season with mixed feelings about his career on the gridiron. Then, after injuring his knee in a scrimmage, he decided to give up the sport completely.

ON THE RISE


 

 

 

 

 


Dave Winfield, 1977 Hostess

     
 

Frank made All-SEC in his second baseball campaign in 1988, but teams were starting to pitch around him. As a result, he hit only nine homers, and to his great disappointment, he was left off the Olympic Team. He took out his fury on the Cape Cod Summer League. The following spring, Frank had a monster year for Auburn and was named SEC MVP.

After the season, Frank was selected by the White Sox with the seventh pick in the draft. He was the third college player taken, after LSU’s Ben McDonald and Donald Harris of Texas Tech. In what was a much-heralded group of first-rounders, only Frank, Chuck Knoblauch, Mo Vaughn and Cal Eldred ever found success at the big-league level. Frank spent his first season as a pro with two Florida teams in the Chicago system, collecting 71 hits and 42 walks in 72 games.

Frank was promoted to the Birmingham Barons of the Class-AA Southern League in 1990. In 109 games, he reached base 231 times, with a.323 average and .581 slugging mark. The White Sox kept waiting for him to cool off, but it never happened. Though Chicago was in the midst of a pennant race, it was obvious that a promotion to Triple-A ball would be a waste of Frank's time and talent. The Sox were within a few games of the powerhouse Oakland A’s in the AL West, and with light-hitting Carlos Martinez holding down first base, they chose to let the Frank Thomas Era begin. And on August 2, it did.

While Chicago ultimately finished nine games behind Oakland, there was plenty to celebrate at Comiskey Park in the final two months. Frank tattooed the ball at a .330 clip, demonstrating incredible patience and maturity and occasional power with 21 extra-base hits and a team-high .529 slugging mark.

For the 1991 campaign, White Sox manager Jeff Torborg looked to a nucleus of good young players, including Robin Ventura, Lance Johnson, Sammy Sosa, Ozzie Guillen, Jack McDowell, Bobby Thigpen and Alex Fernandez. Veterans Carlton Fisk, Tim Raines and Charlie Hough provided on-field leadership. Frank quickly emerged from this group as the team’s star. He split time at first base and DH with Dan Pasqua, hitting .318 with 32 homers and 109 RBIs. Frank led the AL with 138 walks—an unheard of accomplishment for a player in his first full year—and for a brief moment looked as if he had a shot at the Triple Crown.

It was after one of his '91 home runs that announcer Ken Harrelson shouted, “Frank put a big hurt on that ball.” That day, one of baseball’s great all-time nicknames was born.

Frank was the talk of baseball as he entered the 1992 season. With teams pitching him more carefully, his power numbers dipped slightly, but his average rose to .323 and he tied for the league lead with 46 doubles. Under new manager Gene Lamont, the Sox finished 10 games over .500 but 10 games behind the A’s.


Frank Thomas, 1990 Topps Auburn
     
 

Frank found a whole new gear in 1993, clubbing 41 homers and knocking in 128 runs. He batted .317 despite getting almost nothing to hit. The baseball writers rewarded his efforts with the AL MVP award.

Due to all the distractions in Chicago in '93, the team needed a big season from the Big Hurt. Bo Jackson, trying to return from a hip replacement, could not be counted on to play every day. Fisk finally ran out of gas and was forced to retire. George Bell, acquired for budding superstar Sammy Sosa, was felled by a balky knee. Frank and 22-game winner McDowell kept the Sox afloat all season. With help from new closer Roberto Hernandez, Chicago edged the Texas Rangers in September to win the division.

The White Sox hosted the defending champion Toronto Blue Jays in the first two games of the ALCS and dropped both. The team rebounded to take two of three in Toronto, but Dave Stewart stymied Chicago in Game 6 to win the pennant. Frank batted .353 in the series with a homer and three RBIs. Toronto pitchers wanted no part of him, walking Frank a record 10 tines. As he maintained for many years after, he would have traded his MVP trophy for a chance to play in the World Series.

MAKING HIS MARK

That was particularly apparent the following season, when Frank went on a rampage that saw him hit 32 home runs by the All-Star break and boost the White Sox to the top of the new AL Central Division. The season ended on August 11, however, when the owners and players could not come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Frank was on fire from the beginning of the year to its abrupt end. He led the AL with a ridiculous .729 slugging average, 109 walks and 106 runs to go with 38 homers, 101 RBIs and a .353 average. Although he did not lead the league in any of the Triple Crown categories, Frank would have had a very good chance of being the first to win it since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

Frank’s next two years were nearly as good. He launched 40 home runs in 1995 and batted .349 in 1996. He reached triple-digits in runs, RBIs and walks, and played every game of the ’96 campaign at first base while Harold Baines served as Chicago's DH.

Unfortunately, the White Sox bottomed out in ’95. They won just 68 games and the fall from grace cost Lamont his job. The long-suffering Cleveland Indians took the division with 100 wins. The skies brightened for Chicago somewhat in ’96, as the team went 85-77 behind Frank’s great year. But the Tribe had established its dominance and the Sox would not see another division title until the next century.

The 1997 season was another great one for Frank, but an incredibly frustrating one for Sox fans. The Big Hurt led the league with a .347 average and .456 on-base percentage, and kept the team in a three-way battle with Cleveland and Milwaukee for the lead in a weak Central Division. On the eve of the trade deadline, GM Ron Schueler decided to start rebuilding despite the fact his club trailed the Indians by just three games. Starters Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin and closer Roberto Hernandez were traded to the San Francisco Giants for infield prospect Mike Caruso and young hurlers Bobby Howry and Keith Foulke. The White Sox finished six wins short of the Tribe, which went on to win the pennant. The deal weny down in Sox history as the “White Flag” trade.

Frank was ready to wave the white flag after the 1998 campaign. Relegated to full-time DH-ing duties with the forgettable duo of Wil Cordero and Greg Norton holding down first base, he saw his average plummet to .265. Distracted by business and marital problems early in the season, he dug himself a hole and then pressed too hard to climb out. He hit poorly in the clutch all year and had a stunning lack of success against lefties. After a while, Frank noticed he wasn’t getting the benefit on borderline pitches. Instead of sucking it up, he argued with the umps—which only worsened matters—and then called them out to the press, making a bad situation disastrous.

Apparently unnerved, Frank began swinging at pitches out of the zone and looking at pitches right down the middle. It did not take long for opposing hurlers to pick up on this shift in Frank’s approach. Iinstead of working ahead of pitchers, he found himself facing a lot of 0-2 and 1-2 counts. He finished with 29 homers and 109 RBIs, but there was nothing good about the season.


Frank Thomas, 1993 Upper Deck
     
 

It didn’t seem possible to go anywhere but up for Frank. His numbers, however, continued to plummet in 1999. He argued with manager Jerry Manuel about playing with a chronically sore left ankle, and once again let off-field distractions affect his on-field performance. Frank’s frustrating year ended with September ankle surgery. His power numbers were atrocious—15 homers in 486 at-bats—and although he raised his average back into .300 territory, he was no longer the feared hitter he once was.

Fortunately for the White Sox—who owed Frank more than $60 million—the 2000 season found him back in the swing of things. He opened up his stance (much like Andres Galarraga had done to rejuvenate his career) and began blistering the ball again, clubbing 43 homers and knocking in a career-high 143 runs. Frank raised his average to .325 and his slugging average to .625.

The Chicago offense was electric with Frank back on the warpath. Paul Konerko, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee, Ray Durham and Jose Valentin combined for 119 homers and the White Sox led the AL with 978 runs scored. The team finished with 95 victories—tied with the Atlanta Braves and and St. Louis Cardinals for the most in baseball.

The White Sox faced the Wild Card Mariners in the playoffs, and Seattle won a battle of the bullpens. In the disappointing series loss, Chicago failed to score a single run off the M's relievers and Foulke couldn't stop the Mariners twice with the game on the line. Frank went hitless in the three-game sweep.

The frustration of the '00 postseason ruined an otherwise outstanding year for Frank. But that was nothing compared to his nightmarish 2001 season. Frank Sr. passed away, Frank'ss marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce, and he tore his right triceps in April and missed 141 games. The year was a washout.

Frank returned to play a mostly injury-free season in 2002, but the team had too many holes to compete for the division crown, which went to the surprising Minnesota Twins. The heart of the lineup was solid as always, with Konerko, Valentin, Ordonez and Lee supplying the power along with Frank, who belted 28 homers. But the young pitching staff—led by Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland—lacked consistency and the team hovered around .500 all year. When table-setters Durham and Kenny Lofton were dealt to the Giants and A’s, respectively, it marked the end of another disappointing season.

The low point came when Konerko, who was supplanting Frank as a team leader, publicly chewed him out for dodging a batting practice session. That winter, a “diminished skills” clause in Frank’s contract gave the team an opening to void his contract. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf went against the advice of his staff and chose to renegotiate a still-generous deal with Frank, paying him more than $6 million a year. The sensitive slugger did not see it this way, however. He believed the team was ungrateful.

Frank played the 2003 season in a funk. He locked horns with Manuel in the spring and never felt like he was a core member of the White Sox, despite the fact he helped them stay on the heels of the division-winning Twins throughout the summer. Frank took it out on enemy pitchers, belting 42 homers and knocking in 105 runs. Chicago finished with 86 wins, four shy of the Central crown.


Frank Thomas & Jerry Manuel,
2002 Upper Deck Vintage
     
 

In 2004, Manuel was replaced by Frank’s old teammate, Ozzie Guillen. Frank viewed the regime change as a positive development. But Guillen was a man who wanted to assert his dominance. After Frank suffered another left ankle injury and Ordonez hurt his knee, Guillen decided to build a new team around speed and defense. This, of course, meant a diminished role for Frank. Before the injury, which limited him to just 74 games, he was actually enjoying himself. He was hitting the ball hard and often, and sensed that the team was finally coming together. Now his future was in doubt.

The picture clouded even more in 2005. Frank was now the team’s full-time DH. He hit for decent power, but a broken ankle ended his season—and likely his career with the White Sox—in July. He then watched with a mixture of frustration and joy as his team won the pennant and World Series behind the pitching, speed and defense of the new Go-Go Sox. When the champagne corks popped, however, Frank’s smile was as big as it had ever been. During the wild clubhouse celebration, he happily doused his teammates with bubbly. Guillen, who had chastised Frank when he first took over the team, praised him for his team spirit after the Fall Classic.

As expected, after the season the team exercised a $3 million buyout of Frank’s contract, making him a free agent for the first time in his career. At the winter meetings, he ran into A’s GM Billy Beane. Like most in baseball, Beane had grave doubts that Frank could recover from his twice-broken ankle. But Frank looked great and was practically bubbling over with enthusiasm when they spoke about the upcoming season.

Beane went with his gut and offered Frank a $500,000 deal, with a chance to bump that up to $3 million with incentives. Frank signed with Oakland, dropped weight, rehabbed his left leg, and gave the club a solid righthanded presence in a lineup that had been one of baseball’s best over the second half of '05. Fellow free agent Milton Bradley joined him in the Oakland batting order, and both men competed like they had something to prove.

Frank had a brief stint on the DL with a sore right leg in June, but returned to take the team lead in home runs as the A’s mounted one of their patented late summer runs. He was also taking out infielders on double-plays and playing the kind of spirited baseball that had his Oakland teammates feeling like they had a guy who could lead them into the postseason. As the possibility of a playoff showdown between the A’s and Sox became more of a possibility, Frank swung the stick with even more gusto.


Ozzie Guillen, 1992 Donruss
     
 

Batting cleanup between Bradley and Eric Chavez in the second half, Frank led Oakland with 39 home runs, 114 RBIs, .545 slugging average and .381 on-base percentage. He finished fourth in the AL MVP voting, behind Justin Morneau, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz.

The A’s won the AL West and swept the Twins in the Division Series. In Game 1, Frank homered off Johan Santana in the 2nd inning to give Oakland a 1–0 lead, and then homered again off Jesse Crain in the 9th to provided the winning run in a 3–2 victory. Frank ended up hitting .500 for the series. Unfortunately, Frank’s bat cooled off in the ALCS against the Tigers. He went hitless in 15 plate appearances, drawing just two walks. Detroit swept Oakland to deny Frank once again of a shot at the Fall Classicn.

After the playoffs, Frank became a free agent and signed a two-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. In June, he clubbed his 244th home run as a DH, surpassing Edgar Martinez. for first on the all-time list (David Ortiz later passed them both). Later in the month, Frank hit homer #500 against the Twins. In September, he hit three homers in a game for the second time in his career. Although the Jays missed the playoffs with 83 wins, Frank had another solid season. He led Toronto with 26 homers, 95 RBIs, 81 walks, and a .377 on-base average.

Things did not go as smoothly for Frank in 2008. He hit for good power but for a low average early in the season and was released at the end of April. He was immediately snapped up by the A’s, who gave him 200-plus at bats as a DH before he finished the year on the DL. Frank’s game against the Twins on August 29th turned out to be his last as a major leaguer. He held out some hope of playing in 2009, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. Prior to spring training in 2010, he signed a one-day contract with the White Sox and then announced his retirement. His 521 career homers, 1,704 RBIs and .555 slugging average all rank among the Top 25 of all time. He was also an outspken critic of performance-enhancing drugs.

In 2014, Frank joined Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine as the newest Hall of Famers, along with managers Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox. He garnered 478 votes (83.7%) in his first appearance on the ballot. His family sat in the front row of his press conference upon learning the news. He was happy and humbled, and spoke of how much he loved playing in Chicago. The Big Hurt couldn't contain the biggest smile of his long and distinguished career.

FRANK THE PLAYER


Frank Thomas,
Black Book Partners archives
     
 

From his first game to his last, Frank was a hitter who could turn on a fastball and send it screaming into the stands. A master at working the count, he drew a ton of walks early in his career, and later used this skill to set up pitchers to deliver the pitches he was expecting.

Never a graceful fielder, Frank goes to Cooperstown as a DH. He was reluctant to play first base when called upon to do so in Chicago, which was a point of contention between him and manager Jerry Manuel, as well as with GM Ken Williams.

Throughout his career, Frank was a guy who could motor on the basepaths. Despite just 23 lifetime steals, he was one of the most terrifying runners in the game when he got up to full steam. He outweighed many of the keystone players by 100 pounds, so he was usually given a wide berth.

In his prime, Frank was one of the most consistent power hitters in history. Only a handful of players could hit .300 over a career and produce 500 home runs and maintain a level of excellence for 15-plus seasons. Frank had more homers and RBIs as a 38-year-old than he did during his heralded breakout season at age 23.


Frank Thomas, 2006 Heritage
     

 

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