This is a picture of a happy — and relieved — former major league slugger. Baseball's Hall of Fame announced its 2014 class Wednesday afternoon, and slugger Frank Thomas was among those elected to Cooperstown. He'll join Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, along with managers Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa, for induction ceremonies this summer. It's the biggest class since 1999, and was nearly bigger — but Craig Biggio missed by two votes.
Thomas admitted the past few days had been stressful as an announcement drew close, but he also said he had been following the Baseball Think Factory's vote count, which tracked Thomas at 89.4 percent of the vote.
"I was watching that Gizmo thing because people said it had been accurate," Thomas said.
In the end, Thomas received 438 votes out of a possible 571, for 83.7 percent. He's the first player whose primary position was designated hitter to make the Hall. Reporter Chuck Garfein of CSN Chicago was with Thomas when the Hall called and he got the great reaction above.
"I'm going to Coopertown!" Thomas told him.
For his career, Thomas batted .301/.419/.555 with 521 home runs (18th all-time). He won two MVPs, made five All-Star teams and won the 1997 AL batting title. He's 51st all-time in Wins Above Replacement, 22nd in slugging percentage, 20th in on-base percentage and 10th in walks. Chicago White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson coined his nickname — one of the best ever — "The Big Hurt," because Thomas would "hurt" the ball when he made contact. And he went about 6-foot-5, 270 pounds.
Thomas was going to be a Hall of Famer no matter where he played, but the bulk of his career was spent with the White Sox. He's the 11th player in the Hall who primarily played for them. And they're a very different franchise because of it.
Less than a year before the White Sox drafted Thomas, the franchise was in disarray. Attendance at Comiskey Park was cratering — not to mention that the ballpark itself was crumbling — and owner Jerry Reinsdorf was poised to move the team to St. Petersburg, Fla, which had built a stadium the Tampa Bay Rays use today.
But at the last political moment, after it was assumed the White Sox would fly south forever, the Illinois General Assembly voted to fund a new ballpark across the street from Comiskey. The team's legacy in Chicago, where it had played since 1901, was saved.
And when the White Sox took Thomas seventh overall in the 1989 draft, something nearly as important happened: They had acquired someone who would go on to become the best player in franchise history.
The team already had been drafting better in the years before Thomas joined the majors in 1990. By then he, Robin Ventura, Jack McDowell and Alex Fernandez had formed the core of a team that competed for the playoffs annually. Expectations for the White Sox had changed, going from perpetual afterthought in their own city because of the Cubs, to World Series contender. Most of their strength came from pitching and Thomas' powerful but selective right-handed swing.
The White Sox made the playoffs in 1993 and 2000 with Thomas in the middle of the lineup and finally won the World Series in 2005 with Thomas injured by the time the playoffs came around. But he had given the franchise legitimacy. Only Luke Appling and Eddie Collins come close to matching Thomas' career production. And those guys played, shoot, about a million years ago. And neither were sluggers. Dick Allen had his moments, but they were brief in Chicago. Harold Baines was beloved and had some great years. Carlton Fisk had to be shared with the Red Sox. And Paul Konerko is not in Thomas' class. There's only one Big Hurt.
As he has said before, Thomas wanted it to be known that he hit all of his home runs without the help of performance-enhancing drugs. One of the first active players to express a desire for expanded drug testing across the league, Thomas never had any credible evidence against him to suggest he used PEDs. Still, he gets a benefit of the doubt that others — such as Mike Piazza — do not.
Thomas said he looks forward to making it all official in Cooperstown:
“This is something that I will have to sit back in the next three or four days and figure it out because you can only dream so big, as this is as big as it gets for me. I’m a Georgia kid. Going in with Glavine, Maddux and Bobby Cox means a lot to me. The whole state of Georgia is going to be there and I am just so blessed that I’ll be able to be there with these guys.”
Hopefully for him, some White Sox fans will be there. Those who are up for a trip to Cooperstown — especially any who lament missing Fisk's induction in 2000 — should strongly consider going. Players like Frank Thomas just don't come around very often. Almost never.
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