July 23, 2014
Frank Thomas, circa 1986, dressed for success as an Auburn tight end
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- Pat Dye says Frank Thomas could have been one of the all-time greats at tight end.
"If he had stuck with football, he'd be going in the Hall of Fame as a football player."
Frank Thomas, an Auburn tight end in 1986, stuck with his other sport, though, and that's why he will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday after a remarkable major league career that combined home run power with a steady batting eye.
He'll be the first to have played baseball in the Southeastern Conference to make it to Cooperstown.
Funny, though, his first SEC action was on the football field.
"He says he learned a lot on the baseball field that helped him in baseball," says Dye, Auburn's football coach back then. "He was a great kid and a great player."
Back then, Frank Thomas reminded Dye of another two-sport athlete who had just gone through Auburn.
"From the standpoint of a big, strong athlete, he was like Bo Jackson playing tight end," Dye said. "He had great coordination, he had great athletic ability, no fear."
He also had a mighty bat. Thomas hit .380 with 22 homers as a college freshman. He hit a gazillion more in the big leagues, or, more accurately 521 of them. He finished with a .300 career batting average, was a batting champ, a two-time American League MVP and five-time All-Star.
Everybody knew Thomas could play both sports, just like Bo, when he was coming out of Columbus High School in Georgia, so Dye signed Thomas, who was also one of the top tight end prospect around, to a football scholarship. Dye promised him he could always play baseball, too.
"The primary recruiting had to be football because that's where the scholarship was coming from," remembered Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird. "Frank's decision really came down to baseball because his father was a staunch baseball fan, and he knew Frank's future would probably be baseball. We had watched him in high school and knew how great he was.
"We just hoped," Baird said with a chuckle, "that the football guys didn't mess it up and he'd go somewhere else."
The other logical choice was Georgia. The Bulldogs had made the same offer of football and baseball. Thomas chose Auburn.
"He was a great high school prospect in both sports," Dye said. "When I went over to recruit him I said, 'I know you play football and baseball. We want to sign you to a football scholarship, but if you decide you want to play baseball, you can do that on a football scholarship.' That's what he did." His numbers didn't overwhelm as a backup tight end. Three catches in 11 games. But he was big and Dye saw great potential.
But Dye didn't argue when Thomas decided to play only baseball following his injury. True to his word, and something of an unusual step, he let Thomas stay on football scholarship, even though he would finish his career playing only baseball.
Baird remembered that took only a phone call.
"Coach Dye called me one day, and said, 'How good a player is Frank?' I said, 'He's one of the best I've ever seen." He asked, 'Can he make money for his family playing baseball?' I said, 'Without a doubt. He'll be a first-rounder.' He said, 'OK, that's what I really needed to know. He'll play baseball, but we'll keep him on football scholarship for as long as he's at Auburn."
Thomas' football days were over. He was a full-time baseball player. He played baseball three years at Auburn where he was a feared college hitter who ultimately became a first-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox.
"Obviously, he made the right decision and went on to have a great, great career in the major league," Dye said.
Auburn had other players who played both sports back then, but it Thomas and Jackson who are best remembered.
"They were as good as it gets at what they did," Dye said. "If Bo had concentrated on baseball, and hadn't gotten hurt, he would probably be going in the Hall of Fame in baseball and football. There should be a special category for him, just as an athlete."
Dye is happy to throw in there another star of that era, basketball great Charles Barkley.
"They played back in the '80s, and they could play today," Dye said.
But this weekend belongs to Thomas, baseball Hall of Famer.
"He's special. And a good guy," Dye said. "He's starting to come back to Auburn now that he's finished playing, and that's a big thing to our fans."
Dye won't be making the trip to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame ceremony. He'll be watching, though.
"Absolutely," he said. "He's one of my chillins."
Upcoming: Frank Thomas, Auburn baseball star.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine