He has felt worthy of the Hall of Fame all along but the designated hitter-debate made Frank Thomas somewhat nervous.
Turns out, his anxiety was without merit.
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On Wednesday, Thomas became the first player who was a designated hitter in more than half of his games played voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The longtime White Sox slugger rode the gaudy offensive numbers he produced over a 19-year career to a first-ballot entry into Cooperstown alongside Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
Thomas received 83.7 percent of the vote on the 571 ballots cast by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and easily qualified for the Hall even though previous DH’s have had a stigma attached to their candidacy.
But Thomas said nothing about the last few days had been easy.
“All the conversations about first base/DH, it made it a little uncomfortable,” Thomas said. “If you followed me in Chicago, I played first base a very long time for this organization.”
Thomas largely was a first baseman for the first eight seasons of his career after he joined the White Sox in 1990. But upon his retirement in 2008, the majority of the games he played were at DH, where he appeared 56.1 percent of the time.
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Prior to Wednesday, Paul Molitor, a DH in roughly 43 percent of his games, was the Hall’s resident leader. Jim Rice, a DH in 26 percent of his appearances, is the only other Hall of Famer with more than a quarter of his games played there.
The DH has dogged the candidacy of Seattle’s Edgar Martinez, one of the most feared hitters of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Martinez, who has been on the ballot four times and finished his career with 68.3 Wins Above Replacement (Thomas had 73.2), received only 25.2 percent of the vote on Wednesday. His 2014 showing is 11 percent less than Martinez received in his first time on the ballot.
The DH stigma led White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and White Sox manager Robin Ventura to express concern last month that Thomas’ DH-first stature could hinder his chances to gain entry into Cooperstown.
“Some writers who say ‘I don’t want a DH to go in the first time,’ Reinsdorf said. “But Frank was a position player for a lot of his career. DH is a position. Frank was probably the best hitter of his era.”
Never an outstanding defensive first baseman, Thomas produced his best offensive numbers while he was in the field. Thomas won both of his AL MVP awards and twice more finished in the top three while at first base.
He had a .337/.453/.625 slash line at first base compared with a .275/.394/.505 line at DH.
As injuries caught up with him, Thomas more often found himself in the DH role. He credits the opportunity for keeping him employed and said the 2006 season, when he hit 39 home runs at age 38 for the Oakland A’s revitalized his candidacy.
But the switch from the field to DH isn’t as easy as you’d think, Thomas said, and he points to his splits as proof.
“DH extended my career and I’m proud of that,” Thomas said. “And I tell people right now, just because you’re DH, doesn’t mean it’s an easy position to play. It’s one of the most difficult positions in baseball to play. … It’s an extremely difficult position and I think I did as well as possible.”
Other Hall of Famers with more than 10 percent of their games played at DH include: Eddie Murray (18 percent); George Brett (18); Dave Winfield (14); Carl Yastrzemski (13) and Frank Robinson (11).