Though he played in the Long Ball Era, those closest to Frank Thomas remember it was clear from the outset he was a different type of talent.
Just 22-years-old and with only 1,000 professional plate appearances, starting in his first full season the 6-foot-5 Thomas demonstrated an advanced knowledge of the strike zone that has him set to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.
The way Thomas worked counts and hit -- not just for power -- led White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to call him one of the top right-handed hitters in baseball history. Thomas, who played for the White Sox from 1990-2005, will become the 28th player to have worn a White Sox jersey to be inducted to the Hall of Fame.
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“After a couple of years he started putting up numbers like (Lou) Gehrig and (Jimmie) Foxx and (Mel) Ott and (Babe) Ruth,” Reinsdorf said. “You knew if he stayed healthy 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.”
Reinsdorf said he didn’t know in 1990 if Thomas was destined for Cooperstown because it took him 98 plate appearances before he hit the first of 521 career home runs. He wondered if Thomas would ever hit for the power that eventually led him to two Most Valuable Player awards.\
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But by his first full season, 1991, now White Sox manager and then-teammate Robin Ventura remembers how Thomas set himself apart.
Thomas improved his strikeouts per plate appearance from a solid 4.44 PAs in 1990 to 6.26 the next season as he struck out 112 times in 701 trips to the plate. Thomas walked 138 times in 1991, had 32 home runs and 109 RBIs en route to a third-place finish in the MVP vote, one of six top-5 finishes.
“Back then it was just swing as hard as you can and see how far you're going to hit it,” Ventura said. “But he took his walks. He didn't like striking out and that was a change at that time to see somebody his size bring that part of the game to somebody his size.”
“He just came up and had it right away. Again, you're talking about a guy that didn't swing-and-miss a lot. That just was different. It made it stand out.”
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White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson recalls noticing three weeks into his career that Thomas, the seventh overall pick of the 1989 draft, was always ahead in the count. When Thomas finished his first two months with 44 walks and 54 strikeouts to accompany a .330/.454/.529 slash line, Harrelson believed he was on the way to something special.
But Harrelson, who gave Thomas his nickname, “The Big Hurt,” is still almost in disbelief of the run the slugger went on from 1991-98 when he averaged 35 home runs, 117 RBIs, 118 walks and 78 strikeouts. Over that stretch, Thomas struck out only once per an absurd 8.47 plate appearances.
“You watch him and you watch him and he did things I've never seen,” Harrelson said. “That first eight years, I've seen some great right-handed hitters, I played against some great right-handed hitters. The first eight years, he was the greatest right-handed hitter I ever saw. He did things you just can't do.”
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