COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — In 1991, Frank Thomas set foot in the Baseball Hall of Fame building for the very first time. Walking through the front door with White Sox teammate, Bobby Thigpen, he made it about 20 feet before noticing the giant room featuring the golden plaques of every Hall of Famer. Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron...
Thomas stopped dead in his tracks, turned back around, and headed straight for the exit. He wouldn't return to the Hall of Fame building again — until now.
"I never walked through this place because my whole thing was if I ever go into the Hall of Fame or the Hall of Fame building, I want to earn my way to get there," Thomas told Comcast SportsNet as he stood on the hallowed ground he purposely avoided all these years. The Chicago White Sox legend, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 27, was in Cooperstown on Monday to meet with museum officials and receive a private tour of the Hall of Fame along with his wife, Megan.
When Thomas made his major-league debut with the White Sox in 1990, your eyes could not escape the 6-foot-5 behemoth of a man who had the uncanny ability to hit a baseball. In the 1920's, the same was said about Babe Ruth. Here on the tour, it was as if the two men came face-to-face for the very first time. As he walked into the Ruth section of the museum, Thomas saw Ruth's old New York Yankees locker and stood there in awe and amazement. Not just because it was the Babe, or that his 1920 uniform still had an original stain on it. "It's got a little tobacco on it and everything," Thomas noticed.
But because it was starting to sink in that he and Ruth will always share the same home, here at the Hall — from here to eternity.
In fact, their Hall of Fame plaques will be about 15 feet away from each other.
How do you put that into words?
And how would Thomas feel knowing that if he was alive during the Ruth era, he wouldn't have been able to even play major league baseball because of the color of his skin?
Five minutes later, Thomas was standing in front of the exhibit for Jackie Robinson, the man who made it all possible. Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, paving the way for thousands of others to play the game, have a career, make millions of dollars, and in Thomas' case, stand in this very spot as a soon-to-be Hall of Famer.
"This is where it started for us as African-American ball players," Thomas said, his eyes starting to tear up. "This man was legendary. He was a hero. To do what he did and have the courage to do what he did. To see the hate mail in the cases here. There are no words for it. Just courage. And to be able to go out there and play the game, and as well as he played the game under those circumstances. Just amazing. It wasn't a child's game back then. It was much more than that. It was really easy for us. It was life or death for them."
The tour continued deep underground, inside the Hall of Fame's giant vault, a place where the public is not allowed. Thomas referred to it as "The War Room." There are rows and rows of bats, gloves, helmets, jerseys, etc, etc. The Hall of Fame has 40,000 three-dimensional items in the building, 86-to-88 percent of them are stored here in this highly secured room.
It's where Thomas and Ruth meet again. This time as he holds one of The Babe's bats.
"Wow," Thomas said, the moment his glove-protected hands touched one of the most important artifacts in sports history.
"It's one of only a couple notched bats known to exist,” said Erik Strohl, vice president of exhibitions and collections. "[Ruth] actually notched this bat for every home run that he hit until he broke it. So it has 28 home runs and he did that with a little pen knife."
Thomas held it over his shoulder. "It's not that heavy."
Strohl told him it was a 34 ounce bat.
"That's what I swung," Thomas said as he continued to connect the dots.
But times — as well as bats — have changed over the years.
"Those bats, we would have died for those bats nowadays. They're so hard," Thomas said of Ruth's bat which was made of Northern Ash. "To hit 28 home runs with that bat? That would never happen nowadays. You'd hit five or six and the bat's done."
They'd break. And as Thomas pointed out, you didn't have too many pitchers breaking 98 miles per hour on the mound back then, either.
As he walked through the Hall of Fame library, a room that contains a file for every single person who has played in the league since 1871, sitting there on a table was the thick file for Thomas.
When you opened the folder, the first page was a scouting report from March 22, 1988, signed by Mike Rizzo, then a 28-year-old scout for the White Sox, now the President of Baseball Operations for the Washington Nationals. At the time, Frank was a first baseman at Auburn University. Watching Thomas that day, Rizzo wrote, "Big and strong frame. Chest and upper body are big. Legs are big."
Note that popular word: big. The only word missing was "hurt."
Rizzo continued, "Power is outstanding. Should have 30-plus home runs."
"He was right," laughed Thomas, who ended up signing his first professional contract with Rizzo. Thomas reached the major leagues two years later.
That was how it all began.
Now walking in the Hall of Fame gallery, the place where Frank's plaque will live on the wall — this is where it ends.
"This is it. This is it for me," he said. "To come in and see those names on those plaques. I'm very familiar with all of them. That's when it sets in that you'll be a piece of history forever. That one percent of history in the game of baseball. I'm joining that this summer. I'm floored."
We stood in a section reserved for 12 future plaques, two rows where six will be filled this summer by Thomas, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and the three inducted managers: Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox. Strohl pointed to the blank plaque where Thomas will go — on the top row above Torre and to the right of La Russa.
"I was hoping I would be up top. I was worried about being down here because I was such a tall player."
Frank Thomas might always call Chicago home, but in terms of baseball, this is the address he always wanted.
"It's the perfect spot."