The Big Hurt Bids Adieu

Originally written in February 2010.

 

 

An era ended Friday afternoon when Frank Thomas, the greatest White Sox player ever, retired. Maybe, I’m overly sentimental, but, I cannot remember the game without the man known The Big Hurt. His major league debut occurred on my fourth birthday; along with Ken Griffey, Jr., Thomas was the A.L. superstar during my formative years as a baseball fan. Unlike Griffey, he was never known for an outstanding glove; all he did was hit: and boy, he excelled at that.

Throughout the first decade of his career, Thomas was on pace to become the greatest right handed hitter in the post war era. The Big Hurt combined great home run power with plate discipline. He consistently hit for average and routinely collected more than one hundred fifty hits a year throughout the first decade of his career. Then, injuries began taking their toll, wearing down both his body and his statistical greatness. Like Mickey Mantle, the last few years saw his career batting average drop precipitously; unlike the Yankee legend, Thomas retired with his career average just north of the .300 mark.

Radio Announcers each have their own traditional home run call. White Sox fans grow up listening to Hawk Harrelson’s signature: “You can put it on the board…YES!!!,” whenever the good guys in black hit one out of the park. Harrelson, who gave Thomas his nickname The Big Hurt, made that call for a Thomas long ball 448 times.

The first thing fans noticed in August 1990 was the size. Frank Thomas was huge; just 22, he stood 6’5” and weighed 250 pounds. Fans expected big things quickly from the young first baseman and Thomas began delivering overnight. He played in all sixty games following the August call up and put up impressive numbers: 7 home runs (hr), 31 runs batted in (rbi’s), an on base percentage (obp) of .454 and an one base plus slugging (ops) of .983.

Fans spent the winter of 1990 wondering what Thomas could produce over a 162 game season. Thomas did not disappoint, collecting 32 hrs and 109 rbi’s his first full season. He captured the silver slugger, no small feat for a rookie first baseman (a position that requires huge offensive production).

Thomas only got better. He won the 1993 and 1994 AL MVP awards. This accomplishment puts him in elite company; throughout baseball history only Jimmie Fox (1932-33) and Albert Pujols (2008-09) have won the award two consecutive years while playing first base. During 1993, he led the White Sox to the postseason for the first time since 1959. In 1994, he put up absolutely gaudy numbers. Through the 113 games played before the player’s strike, he hit .353, bombed 38 balls out of the park, and knocked in 101 runs. He was on pace to win the Triple Crown, a feat no one has accomplished since Carl Yastrzemski’s 1967 season. The White Sox also were a game ahead of the Indians when play ended, on pace for a second straight October appearance.

In April 1995, play resumed. The White Sox were no longer the same dominant ball club. The Cleveland Indians, ripe with young talent including Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Kenny Loften- dominated the division throughout the rest of the decade. While the White Sox went from contenders to pretenders, Thomas continued putting up great years. 1995-1997 typified his career number: simply outstanding-.325 average, 38 homers and 125 rbi’s. His first seven full years had him on pace for all time greatness.

1998 started two things-the first year performance enhancing drugs became a fixture in the vernacular of sports fans and the first time Frank Thomas began looking ordinary. Both these developments played out throughout the next decade. Many consider 1998 baseball’s saving grace. The home run chase between Sammy Sosa and  Mark McGwire captivated a nation. In August, a reporter’s discovery of androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker, for the first time, led some to question the validity of what we were seeing. Early on, Frank Thomas became an advocate of drug testing. He battled the unions and spoke up for players less talented than he-those whose careers and livelihoods were under assault by a growing number of cheaters who filled major league rosters. 1998 was also a year in which Thomas looked, well, ordinary. His batting average dipped below .300 for the first time while his OPS dropped more than two hundred points. He still put up decent numbers, but for the first time, one could no longer assume he would hit for .320 and collect 35 homers, 125 rbi’s.

This decline seemed more pronounced in 1999; Thomas must have felt like he fell off a cliff. He was hurt and nothing he did masked the pain. It was a forgettable year by all accounts. At 31, was the end near? Thomas silenced all doubters with a remarkable renaissance in 2000. In this, his last great year, Thomas put up the best numbers of a sterling career. His .328 average, 43 home runs, and 143 rbi’s won him A.L. comeback player of the year.

After 2000, nothing was the same. Thomas spent the last few years in Chicago battling his own body, White Sox management, and the player’s union. He largely failed in all three ventures. Injuries plagued him in three of his final years in Chicago, he never hit .300 again, and his influence as team leader and Mr. White Sox began to wane. This five year period saw Thomas go from consummate insider to a stranger in a clubhouse he once owned. By 2005, the writing was on the wall, management wanted Thomas out of town. Ironically, this took place during a rebuilding effort that helped Chicago win its first championship since 1917. That 2005 season, Thomas played in just 34 games and hit a woeful .219.

The end of his White Sox tenure was acrimonious at best. A contentious relationship with general manager Kenny Williams left Thomas with a bitter taste in his mouth. That off-season, he ended his relationship with the team by signing a free agent deal with Oakland. He called out both his owner and his general manager on his way out of town.

Legends should never wear another uniform. Something is visually off when Joe Namath sported a Rams jersey, Hakeem Olajuwon donned a Raptors uniform, or Willie Mays roamed center field for the New York Mets.  Thomas ended his career with stints in Oakland and Toronto, where he hit his 500th home run as a Blue Jay. Finally, plagued by injuries and age, Thomas succumbed to mortality in 2008, never playing again.

Thomas also spent this time switching uniforms and chasing records in an ongoing quarrel with the MLB player’s association. Led by influential men such as Donald Fehr and, Marvin Miller before him, the MLB union is the strongest in this country and holds much more power than entities as the AFL-CIO. While organized labor has withered in the last two decades, the player’s association has only gained strength. Its position of power—coupled with a fear of another work stoppage after the disastrous 1994 strike, led owners to let the union have its way in collective bargaining agreements. By 2004, it was apparent that MLB had a steroid problem. Revelations by former NL MVP Ken Caminitti shortly before his death, coupled with Jose Canseco’s bombshell book Juiced, led baseball leaders to hearings on Capitol Hill. For years, Thomas quietly pushed his union superiors about the need for steroid testing. The union refused to listen and saw this as a potential concession they’d be forced into at the negotiating table. Owners, meanwhile, had no interest in performance enhancing testing either. The Long Ball brought millions of fans back to baseball beginning with the magical summer of 1998. Owners risked losing entertainment value and serious money if the truth about steroid use came out. Thus, both union and ownership had a vested interest in keeping quiet and preserving the status quo.

Frank Thomas did not. He saw inferior players putting up astronomical numbers and threatening his legacy. He was clean and he wanted the public to know his record was legitimate; let the cheaters suffer public humiliation and the wrath of fans, Thomas thought. With this mindset, Thomas agreed to testify in front of Congress. That St. Patrick’s Day 2005 was a national day of shame, when the myth of baseball’s renaissance came crashing down. Congress threatened baseball’s anti-trust exemption and forced Commissioner Bud Selig to clean up the sport’s act. The sport implemented a drug testing system and Selig commissioned George Mitchell, the retired Maine senator, to head up an investigation into the players involved in the “steroid era.”  This investigation resulted in The Mitchell Report-a document which detailed the results of a 21 month effort chronicling the effects of steroids and human growth hormone on major league baseball. Many considered the effort a sham; Mitchell, for his part, got little support for current players. Frank Thomas was the notable exception.

This career puts Thomas in the pantheon of right handed sluggers. Only Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Aaron have hit more home runs and for a higher average throughout their career.[1] His numbers, even after the Steroid Era made us all re-evaluate power numbers, will always impress: .301 average, 521 home runs and 1,704 rbi’s. Those numbers shape his legacy, but The Big Hurt also goes down as the greatest White Sox player in history. More importantly, he became a spokesman and symbol for drug testing in an era when all too many were willing to ignore the steroid culture. That alone is worthy of praise.

I omitted the cheaters Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez-both guilty of steroid use from this list.

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