April 23, 2021

Big Frank – Hall of Famer

January 8, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Frank Thomas, probably the greatest player in Chicago White Sox history, is headed to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, a validation of his talent, work ethic, durability and character.

Thomas hit .301 over his 19-year career, the first 16 of which he spent on Chicago’s South Side.  He won two American League Most Valuable Player awards with the Sox, in 1993 and 1994, won the 1997 AL batting title when he hit .347, and was an All-Star every year from 1993 to 1997.

Thomas led the AL with 46 doubles in 1992, led the league in walks in 1991, ’92, ’94 and ’95, was the AL king in on-base percentage and OPS in ’91, ’92, ’94 and ’97.

Thomas’ second MVP came in the strike-shortened 1994 season and so he only played 113 games.  But in that short year he hit .353 and led the league in runs, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and, of course, OPS.

In short, from his first full big league season in 1991 through 1997, Frank Thomas was the best player in baseball and one of the best hitters the game had ever seen and maybe the best right-handed hitter ever.

Big Frank’s teams also won.  The Sox had winning, contending teams in ’91 and ’92 and made the playoffs in ’93.  In 1994 the White Sox were in first place when the season abruptly ended with the strike and, especially considering that was the first year of the expanded playoff format, the Sox almost certainly would have reached the postseason again that year.  And many observers, at least many here in Chicago, think the White Sox would have won it all.

Thomas helped the White Sox stay competitive throughout the 90s and led them to another division title in 2000, a year in which Thomas should have won a third MVP.   Frank hit .328 that year with 43 home runs and 143 RBI.  He finished second in the MVP balloting to Oakland A’s first baseman Jason Giambi who hit the same number of home runs as Thomas and had a higher OPS but scored fewer runs, drove in fewer runs and was, by his own admission, on steroids.

Frank Thomas got bigger, stronger and balder as his career wore on but he never used performance-enhancing drugs, something he mentioned during today’s news conference at U.S. Cellular Field, which drew a raucous round of applause.  Thomas, in the years after steroid use became so well known in baseball, once said that after Giambi’s admission the 2000 MVP award should have been taken from Giambi and given to Frank, something that Giambi agreed with.

This, of course, didn’t happen but the numbers and the anecdote provide insight into the good, the bad, and sometimes curious career of Frank Thomas.

Thomas was a magnificent hitter and an adequate first baseman.  But he spent most of his career, including most of that 2000 season, as a designated hitter, something which some observers say takes away from his accomplishments, saying he was only half a player.   Is that fair?  The DH has been around for 40 years.  Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and countless others never played DH because, guess what, they never got the chance.  Think they would have if given the opportunity?

Thomas’ complaints about not winning the 2000 MVP and saying he should have were self-serving, petulant and a bit annoying.  But he was right.  Frank also used to complain when he would get left off the All-Star team, something which happened every year starting in 1998.  To be certain, there were a lot of good DH’s and first basemen in the American League in the 90s and 2000s – Giambi, (steroid user) Rafael Palmeiro, (steroid user) Mo Vaughn, (clean) and Jim Thome (clean) to name a few, but Frank got snubbed far too often.

Thomas’ attitude with the media and fans was often sour, something which probably didn’t help him much in All-Star or MVP voting but it’s crazy that he never played in a mid-summer classic after the 1997 season.  The numbers matter more than the rewards, to be sure, but Thomas should have made three or four more All-Star appearances and should have won a third MVP.  If he had, his first ballot election never would have been in doubt.

But when it came to the voting it turns out the baseball writers had little doubt after all, as Frank got 83.7% of the vote, easily more than the 75% needed for Hall of Fame induction.

Frank Thomas’ last season with the White Sox came in 2005 and it’s a bit ironic and cruel that the greatest hitter the Sox ever had, someone who had given so much the Comiskey Park/U.S. Cellular Field faithful for a decade and-a-half, was reduced to just 34 games that year because of injuries and sat in the clubhouse, forced to just watch, as the Sox, finally, for the first time in 88 years, won the World Series.

Frank still got a ring, but did he deserve it?

Hell, yes.  And he did not just deserve a World Series ring for having been with the team for so long.

From Thomas’ first game that season, on May 30, through his final game, July 20, he hit 12 homers and drove in 26 runs.   That’s 26 RBI in just 34 games.  And during that time span when Thomas was in the lineup, the White Sox increased their lead in the AL Central from four games to 11.  They eventually won the division over the Cleveland Indians by six games.  Without Frank the Sox likely would not have made the playoffs in 2005.  No, Frank did not play in the postseason.  He was not jumping on the mound in Houston on October 26, 2005, but the other Sox were in large part because of him.

The White Sox and Frank Thomas parted ways after 2005 and that was probably a mistake for the Southsiders.  Thomas went to Oakland where he hit .270 with 39 home runs and drove in 114 and finished fourth in the MVP voting. (But hey! Again, no All-star nod!)  He was replaced in Chicago with Jim Thome who hit .288 with 42 homers and drove in 109.  Comparable stats, to be sure, and everyone loves Jim Thome.  Ask White Sox fans and many of them will probably swear Thome was on the ’05 World Series winners and spent ten seasons on the South Side when he actually came a year later and was only in town until 2009.

But if the Sox had managed to keep Frank they wouldn’t have made the deal to trade centerfielder Aaron Rowand to the Phillies for Thome.  Rowand hit .270 with 69 RBI for the ’05 Sox, was a solid outfielder and was the emotional heartbeat of the everyday lineup.  He was replaced in centerfield in ’06 by Brian Anderson, who hit .225 and drove in 33 runs.  If the Sox had kept Thomas, and Rowand, they might have repeated as World Champs in 2006.

By the end of 2005 the marriage between Frank Thomas and the White Sox front office was in shambles.  He was still effective but not nearly the player he was before and, perhaps, it was just time to say goodbye.

It was a sad departure.  Frank Thomas should have owned Chicago during the 90s and 2000s.  He was a fantastic player on good teams that drew a ton of fans.  It was an era of explosion of cable TV and the Internet.  Frank Thomas should have been Chicago’s next Walter Payton or Michael Jordan.  Instead, the most popular athlete in town for much of Frank’s career was, gulp, Sammy Sosa.

But now, Frank is back.  He has spent the last few years as a White Sox postgame TV analyst and it was to the South Side he returned on Wednesday to address the world for the first time as a Hall of Famer.  He was smiling, he was gracious, and he still showed a bit of that fire that made him a legend.

Frank Thomas is in the Hall of Fame.  A skinny kid from Georgia with a bat and a dream.  For 16 years he made the South Side of Chicago a lot of fun, and sometimes made it magical.  He played the game right.  And very few ever played it better.

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