July 24, 2014
The pros took notice of Frank Thomas when he was at Auburn. (Auburn Athletics photo)
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- Hal Baird remembers a Frank Thomas home run in Starkville that went over the fans in the left field stands and never stopped going.
"They were looking up as the ball went over their heads, and it looked like they were following a rocket launch."
Moon shot. That was Frank Thomas. Powerful. Three-year Auburn starter. Good batting eye. A 19-year major leaguer. All-Star. MVP.
A Hall of Famer.
Baird, Auburn's baseball coach when Thomas was launching those moon shots, will tune in Sunday as Thomas is inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., as he joins the game's immortals.
Thomas lit up the majors with the rare combination of homers and batting average. How so? In baseball's five major offensive categories -- home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, RBIs and runs scored -- Thomas was dominating.
"The club he was in had only two other people: Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. I saw that and thought, 'Oh my gosh. You're talking about the rarest of the rare air,'" Baird said.
That was Frank Thomas, big-leaguer from 1990-2008. He was mostly a Chicago White Sox, and that's how he'll go into the Hall of Fame.
The pros surely loved the Big Hurt coming out of Columbus High School in Georgia, right? Auburn did. Pat Dye offered him a football scholarship to play tight end, and Baird was happy enough to welcome him to the baseball team, too. But the pros surely missed on Thomas back then, failing to draft him.
"When we signed him he was one of the top-ranked tight ends. But the real surprise in high school was that wasn't drafted," Baird said. "A lot of people have scrambled to come up with explanations as to why. I kind of laugh at that. The fact of the matter is a lot of professional scouts just missed him. A lot of them said, 'Well, we know he's going to Auburn to play football.' He should have drafted. But Auburn was the beneficiary."
Thomas played one season of football at Auburn at tight end. An ankle injury made him turn to baseball exclusively. Dye kept him on football scholarship, though he didn't have to, and Baird got to pencil him into his baseball lineup.
"He came in the fall of '86 and we were in a bowl game that year, so we didn't really see him on the field playing baseball until January of '87. He hadn't swung a bat in I don't know how long, probably a good part of a year, but he was just incredible that very first day," Baird said. "I remember that first swing he took was a like a 2 iron that was one of the hardest hit balls you've ever seen. It just never went down from that. He had such few bad days with a bat in his hand. That's really hard to do. The learning curve for him, at every level, just wasn't very tough. He was physically intimidating and dominating and strong. He had all the attributes. I bet his vision was extraordinary because he knew the strike zone better than people who had been playing in the major leagues for 20 years. That was a huge asset for him. He could see the spin on pitches. He was just amazingly refined and sophisticated, and that was an extraordinary gift, and he came out of a tremendous high school program."
And in the SEC, "he was first-team all-conference in a league that had a bunch of good first basemen. You could tell from the first day he was in for a real treat."
You couldn't miss Frank Thomas.
"That was a huge part of the equation," Baird said. "He was 6-5, 250-255. That's really something, and because of that, he had real strength. But he also had great vision. None of the ballparks were big enough for him. He was bigger and stronger, and a different type of athlete.
"People like to talk about Bo because they were close together at Auburn, but they were different kinds of athletes. Baseball was a passion and a vocation for Frank, where Bo had less baseball experience. Bo had done track as well as baseball. And although Frank had played football, he had spent a lot of time in baseball and knew how to play. He studied pitchers, even at very young age, and remembered how guys tried to pitch him.
"He had a very professional approach to hitting at a very young age."
Thomas hit 21 home runs as a freshman at Auburn. He hit .403 as a junior, the year he was drafted.
"By the time he was a sophomore, almost all of the distractors were gone," Baird said.
Thomas is royalty in a game of record and stats. The record books will tell you he is the only major league player to have seven consecutive seasons of a .300 average and at least 100 walks, 100 runs, 100 RBIs, and 20 home runs.
"Most scouts will tell you the bat is the hardest thing to evaluate, but Frank, by the time he had gone through the SEC for a couple of years, it was major league teams deciding how high he would go."
So, by the 1989 draft, it was just how quickly Thomas would go in the draft. The White Sox picked him seventh overall. This is what the pros saw:
"Frank was willing to take his walks, and that was very important for a guy like him because he was going to be walked a lot. Hitters who get impatient will often expand their strike zone and not hit some of those pitches."
Thomas waited until he saw a ball he could drive.
"It was the total package. Home run hitters who hit .300 are really something," Baird said.
That separated Thomas from the many.
"No slumps. No slumps. Very few bad games. I read a comment where he said he really expected something good to happen at the ballpark every day. At Auburn, it was pretty true. There were so few days in which he didn't do something big," Baird said.
The pros, who missed on him coming out of high school, didn't miss when he was draft eligible again.
"He was in the minor leagues a short period of time, and he was the American League Most Valuable Player in 1993, that was just three years after he left Auburn. All of that seemed to be within his grasp because of his ability and his dedication. It was almost like he was on a mission. I think he knew early on he had something special."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine