White Sox icon's startling career totals justify first-ballot induction to Hall of Fame
By Scott Merkin
CHICAGO -- The nickname "Big Hurt" just seemed to fit alongside Frank Thomas' massive frame, right from the start of his 19-year career with the White Sox, A's and Blue Jays.
At least that's what colorful White Sox play-by-play television announcer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson believed when he watched the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Thomas repeatedly introduce himself to baseballs with authority.
FRANK THOMAS' TOP 10 MOMENTS
1. June 28, 2007: 500th homer
Thomas had moved on from Oakland to Toronto but connected for No. 500 at Minneapolis' Metrodome, a venue familiar to him. Thomas became the 21st member of the 500-homer club by crushing a 1-2 pitch from the Twins' Carlos Silva to left field in the top of the first inning. "It means a lot to me because I did it the right way," Thomas told reporters.
2. Oct. 26, 2005: White Sox win World Series
Although he was left off the playoff roster and played his final game for the White Sox on July 20, 2005, due to a navicular bone fracture in his left foot, Thomas was around for every leg of the postseason. Thomas held the trophy and addressed the crowd after a parade that drew two million fans.
3. May 22, 2006: Returns to Chicago with two homers
Thomas' departure from the White Sox after 16 seasons was not exactly smooth, but he received a thunderous ovation upon his return to U.S. Cellular Field. He proceeded to hit two homers off Jon Garland, pushing his way toward a 39-homer, 114-RBI comeback campaign with the A's.
4. Oct. 3, 2006: Two homers to beat Twins in first playoff game
Minnesota entered the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in baseball, and Johan Santana would win the AL Cy Young Award. But Thomas derailed him with a homer off Santana in the second and another off Jesse Crain in the ninth to help the A's sweep a three-game series.
5. Aug. 3, 1990: First career hit
After making his Major League debut with four hitless at-bats against the Brewers on Aug. 2, Thomas tripled to right-center off Mark Knudson for his first career hit. Thomas would finish his career with just 12 triples.
6. July 25, 2003: 400th career homer
Jorge Sosa was Thomas' victim in a 7-2 White Sox win, as his 24th homer of the season was also No. 400 for his career. Thomas was more focused on power and run production at this stage of his career, finishing the '03 campaign with a .267 average but 42 homers and 105 RBIs.
7. July 18, 2005: Final homer with White Sox
The conclusion of Thomas' on-field stint with the White Sox came two days later, but his 12th homer of the season and franchise-best 448th was lined out to left. Franklyn German gave up the long ball in the eighth inning.
8. July 23, 2002: Longest homer in U.S. Cellular Field history
This record now belongs to Joe Borchard, who cleared 504 feet to right on Aug. 30, 2004. But Thomas' 495-foot drive off Santana stood as the park's longest until then.
9. Aug. 4, 2003: 2,000th career hit
It seems only fitting that a man who finished with 521 career homers would pick up hit No. 2,000 -- out of 2,468 -- via a long ball. Thomas drilled a Nate Field offering in the sixth inning of a 13-9 home loss to the Royals.
10. May 16-20, 1997: Reached base in 15 straight plate appearances
Thomas fell one short of the Major League record of reaching base in 16 straight plate appearances, set by Ted Williams in 1957. Thomas was 10-for-10 with six singles, three doubles, one homer and five walks. He posted a .347 average that season to become the largest player in history to win a batting title at 6-foot-5, 275 pounds.
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"He would just go on a streak there for a while, and every time he swung the bat, I'd say, 'Man, he hurt it. He hurt it,'" Harrelson said. "All of a sudden, I'm up there one day, and he was running around first base and had hit one out there deep -- real deep -- and it just blurted out.
"I'm watching him go around first base, and the 'Big Hurt.' That's how it came about, and it was a good one. And he deserved it, because he was the Big Hurt, no question about it."
That moniker became as directly associated with Thomas as his 521 career homers, 1,704 RBIs, 1,494 runs scored, 1,667 walks, .301 career average, .419 on-base percentage and .555 slugging percentage. Actually, those incredible statistics simply back up Harrelson's rationale.
But the man who will always be remembered as the greatest hitter in White Sox history now holds the distinction of being the 28th player with White Sox ties to be elected to the Hall of Fame. According to the Hall of Fame, Thomas is the 14th member for whom the White Sox were his primary team.
Thomas received 83.7 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers' Association of America, well above the 75 percent needed for election, garnering 478 votes of the 571 cast. As part of the spectacular 2014 Hall class to be inducted this weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y., Thomas -- the first Hall of Famer to start more games as a designated hitter (1,310) than in the field (968 at first base) -- joins pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, along with retired managers Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, who were selected by the Expansion Era Committee in December. Hall of Fame coverage begins at noon ET with MLB Tonight live from Cooperstown on MLB Network and simulcast on MLB.com and the At Bat app, with the induction ceremony beginning at 1:30 p.m.
"Just to get to the Hall of Fame means a lot," Thomas said. "Going in the first time, it's overwhelming; it really is. So I had an impact, and I'm proud of that impact and as a first-ballot Hall of Famer."
There was more than a little bit of trepidation hovering around Thomas leading up to the Hall of Fame announcement in January. Would he be penalized for finishing his career as a DH? Would the injuries that limited his seasons in 2001, '04 and '05 push him back to election in his second year on the ballot? Thomas was nervous enough that he rarely spoke about the Hall of Fame process until the voting results were known.
Ultimately, Thomas' body of work was too strong to overlook. He won American League Most Valuable Player Awards in 1993 and '94; Silver Slugger honors in '91, '93, '94 and 2000; and he took home the '97 batting title with a .347 average. Thomas topped the .300 mark in 10 seasons and hit at least .330 four times. Each season from 1991-97, he produced a .300 average and at least 20 homers, 100 walks, 100 RBIs, 100 runs scored, a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage.
"His numbers -- besides the big numbers -- are really just insanely good," said White Sox captain Paul Konerko. "He was one of those guys that, you know, he had some injury problems.
"You didn't know if he was going to get to 500 home runs because you didn't know how serious they were. But the rest of his résumé, it could get him in without it. You felt pretty sure that he was going to be a Hall of Famer, even if he wound up having to stop playing at 400-something home runs. The rest of his numbers were so out of this world that he was going to probably get in anyway."
Konerko will be with the White Sox in Minneapolis when Thomas gives his Hall of Fame speech on Sunday afternoon. But White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Harrelson will be two of the approximately 25 members of the White Sox organization making the trip for both Thomas and La Russa, their manager from 1979-86.
They will recall the White Sox top pick in the 1989 First-Year Player Draft, No. 7 overall, who made the wise call to choose baseball over football while at Auburn University. They will remember a slugger with one of the sharpest batting eyes in the history of the game. They will remember remarkable seasons such as 2000, in which Thomas knocked out 43 homers and 44 doubles, drove in 143 runs and hit .328 for a division champion. They will remember a player who treated teammates well, whether they were rookies or seasoned veterans.
In the end, Big Hurt really was so good.
"I remember the first month he was up here, he didn't hit a home run, and so we were wondering, 'Does this guy really have power?'" Reinsdorf said. "But after a couple of years, he started putting up numbers like [Lou] Gehrig and [Jimmie] Foxx and [Mel] Ott and [Babe] Ruth.
"If he stayed healthy, you knew he'd get into the Hall of Fame. I just know watching Frank, I thought he was the greatest right-handed hitter I've ever seen. Now, I think he's one of the three greatest because I think [Migue] Cabrera and [Albert] Pujols are probably in that category. Still, that's pretty special."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.