COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – The first time Frank Thomas visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, he felt out of place.
“I looked around – it was my first full year in the big leagues – and said, ‘I really don’t belong here yet,’” Thomas recalled Monday of that visit in 1991.
“I wanted to make sure when I came back here, I deserved to be here. I had high expectations in my career.”
All these years later, the man they call the Big Hurt now belongs. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound former slugger received 83.7 percent of the vote from members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, and will join Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine as players inducted into the Hall this summer.
“It was a big dream. It [still] hasn’t sunk in yet. I just feel very, very blessed in this moment in time,” Thomas said. “You never take anything for granted. This is the top 1 percent in all of baseball that gets into the Hall. As a kid, the big dream is to be a professional, but to make it to the Hall of Fame ... I mean, come on.”
“You have to pinch yourself. I’m very fortunate, especially first ballot. You’re not prepared for this until it happens.”
Former managers Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre were also elected, and will be inducted in July.
“It doesn’t get any better,” Thomas said. “I had a lot of battles with these guys. They shut me down at times, but to go into the Hall of Fame with these guys, I’m really honored. I’m proud of every guy that’s in the Hall of Fame, because I know how hard it is to get here. I’m blessed to be part of the Mount Rushmore of baseball. I’m ecstatic.”
Thomas’ whirlwind of a year continued on the heels of his induction into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. He toured the Hall of Fame on Monday as part of his pre-induction indoctrination, and was beaming after wielding one of Babe Ruth’s bats and seeing the impressive collection of artifacts stored away.
“I got a complete history lesson today about the game of baseball. I’m proud I came,” said Thomas, who idolized both Ruth and Hank Aaron because they hit for power and average. “I was amazed to see exhibits with 100-year-old uniforms, gloves, spikes. I can’t believe they keep those things. It’s just amazing.”
Thomas followed his idols, to be sure.
Thomas, along with Ruth, Mel Ott, and Ted Williams, are the only players in MLB history to retire with a career batting average of at least .300, 500 home runs, 1,500 RBIs, 1,000 runs scored, and 1,500 walks.
“It’s something to leave a legacy,” Thomas said. “This is part of history. This is a piece of something you’ll be involved in the rest of your life, and after.”
He won AL MVP awards in 1993 and 1994 while playing for the Chicago White Sox, and finished his 19-year career with a .301 batting average, 521 homers and 1,704 RBIs.
Thomas played 16 years for the White Sox and established himself as the best hitter in franchise history – he won the 1997 AL batting title, holds nearly every offensive team mark, and is the only player in major league history to log seven straight seasons with a .300 average, 20 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 walks – before winding down his career and retiring in 2008 after brief stints with Oakland and Toronto.
Small wonder White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson gave Thomas that nickname.
Thomas said one of his biggest surprises was receiving a call from President Barack Obama after he was elected in January.
“He congratulated me,” Thomas said. “It was a really good talk, because he’s a big baseball fan, but he’s an even bigger White Sox fan, and watched a lot of my career. It was a special moment.”
Injuries forced Thomas into a role as a designated hitter in his later years, and made him the first inductee to have played the majority of his career as a DH.
“I don’t talk about that. People have wanted to label me that,” Thomas said. “For my first 13 years, I was the first baseman of the Chicago White Sox. I think a lot of people remember me the last 6-7 years of my career when I was DH-ing full-time. People forget history.”
“It also was a chance for younger players to get on the field, and one of those players, Paul Konerko, has had an unbelievable career,” Thomas said. “I watched the kid and said, ‘This guy can hit. He’s going to have an impact on our team.’ I didn’t have a problem that part of my career going to designated hitter.”