Who Made His Own Niche In Baseball
Following in the footsteps of a legend can be a daunting task for many professional baseball players. But, for former major leaguer Frank “The Original” Thomas, he approached it as an opportunity to become a solid player in his own rite.
Thomas was tabbed to be the successor in the outfield for former Pittsburgh Pirate slugger and Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner. He had a digital thermometer baby company. Known for his prodigious blasts, Kiner led the National League in home runs for seven consecutive seasons, from 1946-52. He clouted 369 homers during his 10-year major league career.
Traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1953, Kiner’s spot in the Pittsburgh lineup was filled by Thomas amid high expectations from general manager Branch Rickey and the Pirate management. Thomas (a phenom in the minor leagues) hit .303 for New Orleans of the Southern Association in 1952 while also leading the circuit in runs scored (112), home runs (35), and runs batted in (131).
Kiner was a favorite among many Pittsburgh faithful. However, thanks to a nice year at the plate in ’53, Thomas found his way into the hearts of Pirate fans, too. In his first full year with the Bucs, Thomas hit .255 with 30 home runs and 102 RBI.
“I didn’t feel any pressure,” said the 73-year-old Thomas. “I felt like I just had to be my own person and do the best that I could. I think I did pretty well.”
|Thomas eventually managed to become one of the most respected hitters in the National League during the 1950s and early 1960s. While with Pittsburgh, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Thomas was a three-time National League All-Star – in 1954, ’55, and ’58.In 1954, Thomas hit .298 with 23 homers and 94 runs batted in. In ’55, his averaged dipped to .245 but he still managed to swat 25 homers with 72 RBI. In 1958, Thomas had his best year – and his most satisfying.
He hit .281 with a career-high 35 home runs and 109 RBI – finishing second in both categories to Chicago’s Ernie Banks, who had 47 homers and 129 ribbies to earn the first of his two straight MVP awards. Thomas ranked fourth in the Senior Circuit with a .528 slugging percentage, behind only Banks (.614), Willie Mays (.583), and Hank Aaron (.546). Thomas also ranked among the National League’s top 10 in runs scored (89), total bases (297), and extra-base hits (65). He hit three homers on Aug. 16 that year when the Pirates whipped the Reds 13-4.
After a ballot box-stuffing episode by Cincinnati fans in 1957, major league players, coaches and managers
Frank Thomas playfully taps pitcher Ron Blackburn on the chin after the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-3 on May 2, 1958. Blackburn came in to relieve Vern Law in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and got the Dodgers’ Duke Snider to tap into an inning-ending double play. Thomas had four hits – including a pair of homers.
began making the picks for the All-Star Game in ’58. When Thomas was voted in as the starting third baseman that season for the National League, he was thrilled.
“I relished the ’58 game because I was voted in by my peers,” said Thomas, whose team lost 4-3 to the American League at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. “I think that age will always go down as the greatest era in baseball history.”
Frank Thomas with the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’52.
|While he possessed a potent bat in the middle of the Pittsburgh lineup, Thomas also proved to be a valuable asset on defense. He played all the outfield spots during his career as well as third base and first base.“I was definitely versatile,” said Thomas, who had a respectable .971 fielding percentage while playing a variety of positions during his 16-year major league career. “I was probably a better outfielder than I was an infielder. But, I made myself a good infielder and the managers appreciated that. (Pittsburgh manager) Bobby Bragan in ’56 brought me in to play third base and he said I would help the ball club if I did that. I said, ‘If you have confidence in me, I’ll do anything’.”
Unlike Kiner, the right-handed hitting Thomas didn’t get to enjoy the perks of a short wall in left while playing home games in Forbes Field. In 1947, the bullpens were moved from foul territory to behind left field – cutting 30 feet off the distance from the fence to home plate. The change was designed to benefit slugger Hank Greenberg, who had been acquired from the Detroit Tigers.
In his honor, the area was dubbed “Greenberg Gardens.” When he retired, the enclosure was renamed “Kiner Korner” and provided an easy target for the Pittsburgh stalwart to take aim at. But, after Kiner was traded to the Cubs, the bullpens were returned to their original locations and the fence was moved back to 365 feet.
Todd Newville (aka “Baseball Todd”) and former major leaguer Frank Thomas share a moment during an autograph signing at All-Stars Sports Collectibles on Feb. 15, 2003, in Marietta, Ga. During his playing days, Thomas could catch any person’s hardest throw barehanded – including Willie Mays. (Photo by Myron Kirkes)
|“I think I was one of the better power hitters in the game at the time,” said Thomas, who should not be confused with today’s slugger of the same name playing for the Chicago White Sox. “But, they took the short porch away when (Kiner) left. You should hit more home runs in your home ballpark than you do on the road. But, in 1958, I hit nine at Forbes Field and 26 on the road.”Thomas succeeded with a line-drive stroke that produced more than its fair share of round trippers. In fact, despite the spacious dimensions of his home park (it was a whopping 457 feet to center in Forbes), Thomas felt like he could hit anywhere.
“I hit to all fields at some time or another,” Thomas said. “When I came up, I hit the ball to right field, right center and dead center. I couldn’t hit a ball to left field if you paid me. I moved closer to the plate and developed my wrists and forearms. Then, I couldn’t hit a ball to the other side.”
Thomas (of Eastern European descent) was born and raised in Pittsburgh. His mother Anna was Slavish and his father Frank was Lithuanian. Because his father only had one arm, it was up to his uncle Mike to teach him the fundamentals at an early age.
“My dad didn’t know too much about baseball,” Thomas said. “He came over from the old country. I never really had a model like a lot of players have when they are growing up. But, when I did get into baseball, my uncle Mike helped me an awful lot.
“My mother always told me I never went to bed unless I had a bat and ball in my hand. She encouraged that when I was a baby in the crib. She never took them away from me. All I ever wanted to do was play baseball.”
Once he arrived at the professional level, Thomas received valuable advice from several sources. Leonard Levy was a coach for the Pirates from 1957-63 and he “played a big part in my career,” according to Thomas. Former Pirates pitcher Rip Sewell, a three-time All-Star who used his famous “eephus” pitch to lead the league in wins with 21 in 1943, also was a big influence on Thomas.
However, one of Thomas’ former minor league managers had perhaps the biggest impact. Jack Rothrock, who hit .276 in 11 big league campaigns, played right field for the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, who were better known as “The Gas House Gang.” Rothrock helped the Cards beat the Detroit Tigers that year in the World Series after hitting .284 with 106 runs scored during the regular season.
|Rothrock was Thomas’ first manager in the minors in 1948 at Tallahassee in the Georgia-Florida League. Thanks to Rothrock’s words of wisdom, Thomas had a fine debut season as he hit .295 with 14 homers and a league-leading 132 RBI in 138 games.“He always told me that you can’t get to the big leagues walking,” Thomas said of Rothrock. “So, I just left the bench swinging and became a pretty good hitter.”
While Thomas was one of the leading hitters in the National League, the Pirates usually finished last or next-to-last in the league during his tenure with the club (save for 1958,
Frank Thomas (playing for the Chicago Cubs) makes a big stride toward the bag in an effort to beat a throw from third baseman Gene Freeze. But, first baseman Gordon Coleman of the Reds has already hauled the ball in for an out. No matter, the Cubs beat Cincinnati 5-2 on April 27, 1961.
when they finished second behind the Milwaukee Braves with an 84-70 record.) He was traded to the Cincinnati Reds along with Jim Pendleton and Johnny Powers for Smoky Burgess, Harvey Haddix, and Don Hoak before the 1959 season.
That started a nomadic trend for Thomas, who also played for the Cubs, Braves, Phillies, Astros, and the New York Mets before his career ended in 1966. He changed teams eight times in eight years beginning in ’59. No matter where he played, Thomas aimed to please. At times, it seemed like he was in the right place at the right time.
When he was a Brave, Thomas made baseball history. On June 8, 1961, Milwaukee set a major league record with four consecutive homers in the seventh inning against Cincinnati. Eddie Mathews and Aaron hit back-to-back homers off Jim Maloney. Then, Joe Adcock and Thomas greeted reliever Marshall Bridges with two more circuit blasts.
“That was the first time it was ever done in baseball,” said Thomas, who in a span of eight years (1955-62) combined with teammates to hit at least three consecutive home runs on five separate occasions. “I was proud to be the last one and set the record.”
While with the Mets, Thomas tied two records. On April 29, 1962, a pitch hit him twice during the fourth inning of an 8-6 victory over Philadelphia – once by Art Mahaffey and again by Frank Sullivan. Besides Thomas, only Willard Schmidt of the Reds in 1959 and Brady Anderson of the Orioles in 1999 have been plunked twice in the same frame.
Later that season on Aug. 3, he hit a pair of home runs off Cincy ace Joey Jay in an 8-6 defeat. In the process, Thomas tied a then-major league record with six home runs in three consecutive games – a mark which was broken last year when Shawn Green of the Dodgers clouted seven homers in three straight contests on May 23-25.
At other times, it seemed as if the stars were aligned against Thomas, who never played in the postseason. After finishing at or near the bottom seven times in eight years while Thomas was with the club, the Pirates eventually won the World Series in 1960 against the New York Yankees. In 1961, the Reds lost to the Yankees in the Series – minus Thomas, who split that campaign with the Cubs and Braves.
(From left to right) Frank Thomas, Gil Hodges, Don Zimmer, and Roger Craig were all excited to be members of the original 1962 New York Mets, who brought back National League baseball to New York’s Polo Grounds. The team would lose a record 120 contests with the legendary Casey Stengel at the helm. Thomas led the Mets that year with 34 homers – a club record until 1975, when Dave Kingman clouted 36 round trippers.
|In 1962, Thomas was one of the lone bright spots for the expansion Mets who lost a major league record 120 games. Thomas hit .266 in the cleanup slot as he led the team in runs batted in (94) and homers (34). His home run mark was a club record until Dave Kingman swatted 36 for the Mets in 1975.In 1964, the Mets sent Thomas to the league-leading Phillies for Gary Kroll and Wayne Graham. At the time, Philly held a game-and-a-half lead over the San Francisco Giants and Thomas was supposed to be the key for a run at the pennant.|
But, on Sept. 8, Thomas broke his right thumb sliding back into first base in a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers. The Phils were six games up at that point. However, the club experienced one of the most dramatic swoons in baseball history – losing 10 of their final 12 contests as the Cardinals earned the pennant with a hearty push.
“Every ballplayer wants to play in the World Series,” Thomas said. “I had a great month for the Phillies and our lead went to six-and-a-half games. Then, I broke my thumb. It was like having the World Series handed to you on a silver platter – then taken away. It was just one of those unfortunate things where I wasn’t in the right place at the right time.”
Despite the lack of a trip to the World Series on his baseball resume, Thomas enjoyed his stay in the majors very much. He hit .266 for his career with 286 home runs, 962 RBI, and 1,671 hits in 1,766 games. He hit 20 or more homers in a season nine times during his career – three times topping 30.
Thomas made many friends during his tour around the Senior Circuit. With the Pirates, he admired shortstop Dick Groat, an All-American basketball player at Duke University who eventually won MVP honors for the Pirates in 1960. Thomas also enjoyed watching Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente blossom and pitcher Bob Friend develop into one of the National League’s premier hurlers.
Groat won a batting title in 1960 with a .325 average to help the Pirates win the world title. Clemente would eventually become one of the greatest all-around players in the game with 3,000 career hits and four National League batting crows. Friend, a three-time All-Star with Pittsburgh, won a league-leading 22 games in 1958 and also led the Senior Circuit with a 2.83 ERA in 1955.
“Dick Groat was a great shortstop and a fine basketball player at Duke,” Thomas said. “Roberto Clemente didn’t come into his own until after I left Pittsburgh. I saw his potential, though. Bob Friend still lives in Pittsburgh and we see each other quite a bit. He was a great pitcher.”
|Richie Ashburn made the Hall of Fame in 1995 after leading the National League three times in hits and twice in batting average (.338 in 1955 and .350 in ’58) while with the Phillies. He played with Thomas while he was with the Cubs in 1960 and ’61 and the Mets in ’62. Ashburn hit .308 with 2,574 hits and 1,322 runs scored in 15 seasons.Aaron, of course, is the all-time home run leader with 755 while Adcock blasted 336 homers in 17 years. Mathews is another Hall of Famer who slammed 512 homers during his 17-year career – mostly as the Braves’ third baseman.
“Richie Ashburn was my roommate with the Cubs and Mets,” Thomas said. “He was a great guy. Hank Aaron was probably the greatest hitter I ever played with. Joe Adcock was the greatest guess hitter in the game of baseball. You could make him look bad on one pitch. Then, you’d come back with the same pitch and he’d knock it out of the ballpark.
Frank Thomas appeared on his 1961 Topps baseball card as a member of the Chicago Cubs. Thomas played 16 years in the major leagues, hitting a total of 286 home runs. A little bit of trivia: Thomas played in the last game in New York Giants history on Sept. 29, 1957, at the Polo Grounds as first baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates (the Giants moved to San Francisco the next year.) He also played in the first game in New York Mets history on April 11, 1962, when he played left field for the expansion Mets against the Cardinals in St. Louis.
“Eddie Mathews was a great hitter and I played against him in the minors when he was with Atlanta and I was with New Orleans in the Southern Association. Even then, I could see the enormous potential and the power that he had. He was also a great third baseman, something a lot of people didn’t give him credit for.”
Banks (like Thomas) never played in a World Series while a Cub. Still, he was one of the game’s most fearsome sluggers, belting 512 homers in 19 seasons. Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn was the winningest lefty in major league history with 363 victories. Thomas was equally impressed with those two icons.
“Ernie Banks was one of the few ballplayers that everybody just loved, whether you played with him or against him,” Thomas said. “He went about his business and he just loved the game. And, how can you say anything bad about Warren Spahn? When I played against him, he used to talk to me.
“I said ‘Just get the ball up a little bit to where I can hit it.’ I drilled him one time with a line drive in the leg. The ball bounced all the way to the dugout and I got a two-base hit. He got mad because I got a double out of it. I think he still has a groove in his leg.”
Frank Thomas appeared on the cover of this particular issue of Sports Illustrated dated July 28, 1958: “The cheerful smile shown on this week’s cover belongs to a relatively unknown baseball player who this season has become the most dangerous hitter in the National League,” SI stated.
|Thomas is quick not to forget Casey Stengel, the first manager of the Mets. Despite all the problems and lackluster results, Thomas said Stengel kept things interesting and tried to keep the Mets in contention as best he could.“We had a great ball club,” Thomas said of the Mets. “We just didn’t have any pitching. We scored a lot of runs but we lost a bunch of games in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. If we could have had a closer like they have today, we might have been in the thick of a pennant race. It was great playing in New York. I really enjoyed playing for Casey Stengel. I’ve always said that he probably forgot more baseball than I’ll ever know.”
Thomas had the uncanny knack to challenge anybody that he could catch their hardest throw barehanded – and he claims he never lost. These days, Thomas is a supporter of the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT). “It takes care of indigent ballplayers that have fallen upon hard times,” he said. “There are some widows who can’t even afford to bury their husbands when they die.”
|Thomas also keeps himself busy by signing autographs at baseball card shows and speaking at banquets, meetings, and fundraisers. “I’m a big baseball fan,” he said. “I lost all my cards in a fire and I’m trying to rebuild all my sets. Most of the fans I talk to always come through on their end of the bargain.”Thomas didn’t frequent bars during his big league days. Rather, he opted to answer his fan mail while on the road. Occasionally, he might catch a movie with one of his teammates who also abstained from the party atmosphere – like pitcher Don McMahon when he was with the Braves.
Thomas has been married for 52 years to his wife Dolores. Together, they have had eight children – four sons (Frank William, Peter, Paul, and Mark) and four daughters (Joanne, Patricia, Sharon, and Maryanne.) Thomas also has 15 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
“I didn’t drink,” Thomas said, “and when I was home, I spent it with my family. I had a theory. If I drank, if I smoked, or if I gambled, I’d only be taking food away from my kids.”
About the only thing Thomas could ever be accused of smoking were baseballs with his bat – an attribute that made him harmful to the health of many National League hurlers.
Frank Thomas as a member of the New York Mets in ’62.