Frank Thomas Biography
Frank Thomas was quite possibly the most exciting major league baseball player to emerge in the 1990s. The six-foot-five-inch, 257-pound Thomas wears his nickname "The Big Hurt" well. It aptly describes his devastating talents as a power hitter for the Chicago White Sox. Thomas won back-to-back American League Most Valuable Player citations—in 1993 and 1994—after he put together outstanding seasons as a leader in a number of offensive and defensive categories. Chicago Tribune reporter Skip Myslenski described Thomas as "a major star, a supernova in his game's constellation of stars." For his part, the hardworking Thomas has only this to say: "I want to make a dent in the game." Indeed, by 2005 Thomas had made a "dent," becoming his team's all-time leader in home runs (436) and runs batted in (1,439).
Thomas's performance has brought comparison to some of baseball's biggest names. Between 1991 and 1997, Thomas became the first player in history to put together seven consecutive seasons where he bat over .300 with 20 or more home runs, 100 runs batted in, 100 runs, and 100 walks. Only four other players have come close to his record—Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Jason Giambi, each accomplished that feat for as many as four consecutive seasons—and they are all in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Small wonder that Thomas earned his first Most Valuable Player award by unanimous vote from the Baseball Writers' Association of America in 1993. As Jerome Holtzman noted in the Chicago Tribune, Thomas is "among the very best hitters in baseball history, probably the best of his generation, which is flooded with strong-arm sluggers hitting for both distance and average."
For Thomas, baseball is a serious business. Although he performs at the highest levels he continues to set even higher standards for himself, and diligently works toward them. "I'm a competitive person," he explained in the Chicago Tribune. "I've been involved in athletics all my life, and I don't handle failure well. That's why I try to outwork everyone else." In another Chicago Tribune profile, he concluded: "I've learned this much. A player can't take anything for granted. I have a gift. But that means I have to work extra hard to get better."
The fifth of six children born to Frank and Charlie Mae Thomas, Frank Edward Thomas Jr. was admittedly spoiled by his doting parents and older siblings. Growing up in Columbus, Georgia, he was called "Big Baby" and was encouraged to develop his gift for athletics. His parents never pushed him into sports, but they knew that if he was not at home he was playing ball somewhere nearby. As he grew he made little secret of his ambitions to play professional ball—even though his working-class family could hardly imagine such a life. "When I was a kid, probably around 12, I already knew I wanted to be a player," Thomas told the Chicago Tribune. "So I was just telling [my parents] what I wanted, and I followed my dream, and I worked hard enough to get it. A lot of people nowadays won't dedicate themselves like that.... I was a little different."
Thomas was just nine years old when he convinced his father and the local coaches that he could play football in the Pop Warner league, which catered to 12-year-olds. Sure enough, he easily made one of the teams and won the job of starting tight end. He was equally successful in Little League baseball, where he began seeing the frequent intentional walks that put him on base to this day. His success in sports was put into perspective by a family tragedy. In 1977 his two-year-old sister Pamela died of leukemia. Recalling those days many years later, Thomas told the Chicago Tribune:"It was sad. It affected me. But it's something you don't look back on. The way I've dealt with it is to totally forget about it. As the years went by, it got easier and easier." Thomas has not really forgotten his baby sister, however. For years he has worked closely with The Leukemia Foundation, helping to raise money for research into a cure for the disease.
Thomas's skills won him a scholarship to The Brookstone School, a private college preparatory institution in his hometown. He stayed only three years, opting to return to the local public school and its more competitive sports teams. There he lost little time in making his mark. As a Columbus High School sophomore he hit cleanup for a baseball team that won a state championship. As a senior he hit .440 for the baseball team, was named an All-State tight end with the football team, and played forward with the basketball team. He wanted desperately to win a contract to play professional baseball, but he was completely overlooked in the 1986 amateur draft. Baseball teams signed some 891 players on that occasion, and Thomas was not among them.
"I was shocked and sad," Thomas recalled in the Chicago Tribune. "I saw a lot of guys I played against get drafted, and I knew they couldn't do what I could do. But I've had people all my life saying you can't do this, you can't do that. It scars you. No matter how well I've done. People have misunderstood me for some reason. I was always one of the most competitive kids around."
In the autumn of 1986, Thomas accepted a scholarship to play football at Auburn University. Even so, his love of baseball drew him to the Auburn baseball team, where the coach immediately recognized his potential. "We loved him," Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird told Sports Illustrated. "He was fun to be around—always smiling, always bright-eyed." He was also a deadly hitter, posting a .359 batting average and leading the Tigers in runs batted in as a freshman. During the summer of 1987 he played for the U.S. Pan American Team, earning a spot on the final roster that would compete in the Pan American Games. The Games coincided with the beginning of football practice back at Auburn, so he left the Pan Am team and returned to college—only to be injured twice in early season football games.
Thomas might have lost his scholarship that year because he could no longer play football. Instead the school continued his funding, and baseball became his sole sport. He was good enough as a sophomore to win consideration for the U.S. National Team—preparing for the 1988 Summer Olympics—but he was cut from the final squad. Stung and misunderstood again, he fought back. By the end of his junior baseball season he had hit 19 home runs, 19 doubles, and had batted .403 with a slugging percentage of .801. With another amateur draft looming, the scouts began to comprehend that the big Georgia native could indeed play baseball.
The Chicago White Sox picked Thomas seventh in the first round of the June 1989 draft—after his home state team the Atlanta Braves had chosen someone else. While he would have liked to have played in Georgia, Thomas was thrilled to be with Chicago. He made his minor league debut with the Sarasota, Florida Class-A White Sox. The following year, 1990, he was named Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America magazine after hitting .323 with 18 home runs, 71 runs batted in, and a league-best 112 walks as a member of the Class-AA Birmingham Barons.
Finally prepared to admit that they might have a future star on their hands, the White Sox organization called Thomas to the major leagues on August 2, 1990. Thomas jumped into a tight pennant race and batted .330 with seven home runs and 31 runs batted in over the following two months. He never saw another inning of minor league baseball after that. By the spring of 1991 he had won a position as regular first baseman for Chicago. In his first full season with the White Sox, Thomas batted .318 with 32 home runs and 109 runs batted in. He led the majors in walks, with 138, and on-base percentage (.453). At a stage when most young players are struggling to establish themselves, he finished third in the American League Most Valuable Player voting, behind veterans Cal Ripken Jr. and Cecil Fielder. Chicago fans quickly dubbed Thomas "The Big Hurt," based on his size and his ability to punish opposing pitchers.
Prior to the 1992 season, the New York Times released an article about the relative worth of active major league players. Using a formula based on several statistics, the paper declared that Thomas was "the biggest bargain in the majors," based on his 1991 salary of $120,000. The White Sox lost little time in placating their emerging star, issuing Thomas a new three-year contract with a base salary more than $1 million, not including performance bonuses. Thomas responded in 1992 by leading the American League in extra- base hits, on-base percentage, walks (a tie at 122), and doubles. Thomas promised that he could do even better if he could avoid the distractions of superstardom. "Concentration is the key," he explained in the Chicago Tribune. "I try not to be distracted. Lately, I've been blowing a lot of people off because they've been getting in the way. I don't like to do that. But to be successful, I've got to have time for myself."
Both Thomas and the White Sox turned in stellar years in 1993. For Thomas it was the unanimous Most Valuable Player award. For the White Sox it was a division title in the competitive American League West. Although the White Sox were beaten in the American League playoffs by the Toronto Blue Jays, Thomas emerged as his team's focal point. He was rewarded accordingly with a four-year contract estimated to be worth $42 million, as well as lucrative product endorsement deals with Reebok, Pepsi-Cola, DonRuss, and Bausch & Lomb. The financial security Thomas achieved with the deal did little to dim his competitive spirit. "I can't afford...not showing up at the ball park mentally," he told the New York Times. "I have to be on every night to be a force in the lineup. I'm a humble guy; I've always been humble. But I realize my place."
White Sox fans might always moan for what might have been. Frank Thomas was on his way into the history books—and the 1994 baseball season was ended prematurely by a players' strike. No one felt the sting of the strike more than Thomas, who stood poised to achieve one of baseball's most prestigious honors: the Triple Crown. Not since 1967 had any player finished the regular season first in average, home runs, and runs batted in. Thomas was contending for the honor when the strike occurred, and his numbers were good enough to earn him a second American League Most Valuable Player award. Pressed by the media to comment on his accomplishments—and his future—Thomas told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution: "I'm not into being known as the best by fans or the media. I care how I'm perceived by my peers. I can settle for the label 'one of the best' because that means you're considered an elite player."
This "elite player" has let it be known that baseball comes first and off-the-field activities rank a distant second. For years Thomas has tried to avoid the kind of fish bowl existence that plagues fellow Windy City superstar Michael Jordan. This dedication to his game as a serious business has led to some misunderstandings in Chicago for Thomas, but as the White Sox continue to fare well, he has earned respect for his workmanlike attitude. Thomas is such a lethal hitter that he draws walks—intentional and otherwise—with stunning regularity. Some observers have even speculated that he will some day be walked with the bases loaded, so tremendous is his home run potential. At the close of the 2003 season, Thomas had "joined the 400-home run club and surpassed 2,000 hits," according to Baseball Digest.
In 1993, Thomas had expressed no interest in leaving Chicago. "I see myself with the Sox my whole career," the slugger told Sports Illustrated, and in 2005, near the end of his career, he remained with the club. Before retirement he had two remaining goals, he told Baseball Digest that he aspired to win a World Series title and to reach the 500-homer, 3,000-hit plateau held by baseball greats Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Eddie Murray. And although he achieved more in his first few years in the major leagues than many players do in a lifetime, he continued to pursue higher goals. "I relish the opportunity to rise to the top," he told the Chicago Tribune. "When you see the Jordans and guys like that who love that type moment, it takes a special guy to want that. I want to be the guy there with two out and the bases loaded trying to get a hit. I love that situation." Asked what final mark he would like to leave on the game, Thomas paused and concluded: "I want to be able to...when I leave here, I want people to say, 'Hey, I don't know if some of the things he did can ever be done again.'" If injuries don't derail his plans, Thomas may get to hear those words. Whether or not he does, he seems destined for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 30, 1994, p. D7.
Baseball Digest, June 2004, p. 50.
Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1992, p. 1 (Sports); November 11, 1993, p. 6 (Sports); March 23, 1994, p. 1 (Sports); August 7, 1994, p.1 (Sports); September 17, 1995, p. 3 (Sports); April 16, 2005.
New York Times, March 12, 1992; October 5, 1993, p. B13;October 28, 1993, p. B15; November 11, 1993.
Sports Illustrated, September 16, 1991, p. 30-34; September13, 1993, pp. 40-44.
Chicago White Sox, www.chicago.whitesox.mlb.com (April 28, 2005).
—Mark Kram and Sara Pendergast
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