By David Moriah
Frank Thomas was a right-handed slugger who struck fear into the hearts of pitchers during a long career in the major leagues, played in multiple All-Star games and finished his career with a home run total that puts him in the top 1 percent of all players who ever wore a big league uniform.
No, not that Frank Thomas! I’m talking about the original Frank Thomas. Though his career was not quite good enough to land him in the Baseball Hall of Fame alongside the more recent right-handed slugger of the same name, the first Frank Thomas can look back with pride at what he accomplished during his time in “The Show” from 1951-66.
Frank Joseph Thomas was born in 1929 and is still going strong at age 87. His mind is sharp as he recalls memories from a 16-year career spent with seven teams, all in the National League. Though he wore the uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates for the most seasons (eight), and had stints with the Cubs, Phillies, Braves, Reds and Astros, he is perhaps best remembered as one of the original N.Y. Mets.
With the Mets, Thomas started in left field in the first game in Mets history in 1962, and proceeded to slug 34 home runs while driving in 94 runs for an otherwise miserable Mets team. The Mets set a major league record that inaugural season with 120 losses and only 40 victories, so Thomas’ performance was one of the few highlights for forlorn Mets fans. His home run tally stood as the most for a Mets right-handed hitter until Dave Kingman bested the mark in 1975.
Thomas retains a clear memory for all those numbers, and for plenty of other details from his career.
“My lifetime home run total was 286,” Thomas states proudly, “which is No. 156 on the all-time list of career home runs in baseball.” (Note: Since the interview, conducted in 2015, Thomas has moved down to No. 160.)
Thomas goes on, “That’s in the top 1 percent of everyone who ever played Major League Baseball. How many people can say they were in the top 1 percent of their profession?”
Thomas not only knows the numbers, but also has a custom-made plaque that lists every one of the 286 home runs with accompanying details.
“It tells the date, who the pitcher was and how many men were on base, and at the end it tells which right-handed pitcher and which left-handed one I hit the most homers off. Harvey Haddix was the left-handed pitcher and Don Drysdale the right-handed one.”
Thomas wore the nickname “The Big Donkey” during his career. There are a few legends as to how he earned that colorful moniker, but surely it has something to do with his being taller than the average player of his era and a colorful character.
The Big Donkey is in fact a baseball card collector himself, and someone with a special affection for Sports Collectors Digest and our readers.
After his career ended, he put together a fabulous collection of cards that included every Topps card issued from 1952 until 1992. At that point, disaster struck the Big Donkey. A fire swept through his house and destroyed all of his cards.
“Nobody got hurt, and I wasn’t going to do anything about (the collection) but somebody put an article in Sports Collectors Digest about it and from that time on I got cards from all over the country, from Alaska, and all over the world, from Japan. As a result, I rebuilt everything except for eight cards from the 1952 set.”
The missing eight?
“Well, the Mantle, of course, Roy Campanella, Hoyt Wilhelm, Smokey Burgess, Bill Dickey, Dick Williams and I can’t remember the other two.”
In addition to his fondness for cards, Thomas saved some of his bats and collected signed team balls from every team he played with and against every year. Sadly, the fire destroyed those as well. What pieces of his collection that did survive, and the 1952 Topps set he had mostly rebuilt, he put up for auction a few years ago.
“I’m getting up in age, and my kids didn’t want them and I didn’t want it to be a burden for them, so I decided to put it all up for auction so someone else could enjoy them as much as I did.”
When asked which auction house he used, Thomas declined to state the name.
“Let’s just say they weren’t reliable, and now those guys are in jail.”
He did receive some money from the deal, but not as much as had been promised.
Thomas, of course, appeared on plenty of cardboard treasures himself. His two favorites are the 1957 Topps, in which he is pictured as a third baseman for the Pirates, and the 1958 Topps that depicts him as third baseman-outfielder, also with Pittsburgh.
Although the Big Donkey no longer has much in the way of memorabilia, he has plenty in the way of memories, along with an easy willingness to share some of his favorites. He’s especially proud of being the clean-up man for the first time in major league history that four men hit consecutive home runs.
On June 8, 1961, while playing for the Milwaukee Braves, Thomas followed a heady trio of Braves sluggers (Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron and Joe Adcock) and launched the fourth home run in a row against the Cincinnati Reds.
Thomas, a notorious “needler” of people as well as a prankster, reported on a recent visit to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
“I was in the museum and I asked them, ‘First of all, why don’t you have any pictures of me in here? And then, ‘Why didn’t you come after me for my bat after I hit that home run?’ It was the first time in history that had ever been done.’ ”
Of course, the Hall of Fame staffer he was needling had probably not even been born before that day in 1961 when Thomas and the Braves made baseball history!
Showing off his still sharp mind, Thomas responded quickly to a question of whether it’s been done since.
“It’s been done seven times,” Thomas declared. “Minnesota, Cleveland, Red Sox, the Dodgers have done it twice and the last one was the Diamondbacks in 2009.”
Actually, he was a little bit off. It has indeed been done seven times, but the Dodgers did it only once, he missed the White Sox, and the Diamondbacks did it in 2010. However, surely most fans would cut him a little slack for how close he came to the facts at age 87!
Ironically, one of Thomas’s most vivid memories is of an incident he claims never happened, despite its being one of the most well travelled and amusing anecdotes of early Mets history. Written about many times, it was featured as a story told by the great baseball writer Roger Angell in Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball. The tale has Frank Thomas in left field, Elio Chacon at shortstop and Richie Ashburn playing out the last season of his Hall of Fame career with the bumbling Mets in center field.
As the story goes, Ashburn was having a terrible time coordinating with the Spanish-speaking Chacon on short fly balls. The solution, facilitated by the bi-lingual Mets outfielder Joe Christopher, was for Ashburn to master the phrase “Yo la tengo!” or “I got it!” to wave Chacon off.
All was in order until a pop-up that had Ashburn shouting furiously, “Yo la tengo!” Chacon dutifully gave way, only to have Thomas run over Ashburn and ruin the carefully planned multi-lingual solution.
The legend often concludes with a dazed Thomas asking a dazed Ashburn, “What the hell is a yellow tango?”
Great story, and it’s been passed around countless times, but Thomas insists it’s all a fabrication.
“Richie Ashburn made it up,” Thomas states flatly. “The shortstop, Chacon, spoke Spanish, and Richie says ‘How do I say I got it! in Spanish?’ One day Richie yells ‘Yo la tengo!’ but they ran into each other anyway!”
That should have been that, but Thomas insists Ashburn fudged the facts a bit to have Thomas crash into him and utter the infamous line, “What the hell is a yellow tango?”
“I confronted Richie about it, and all he said was, ‘Yeah, but it makes a good story!’ ”
Thomas harbors no ill will toward the deceased Ashburn, as it’s kept his own name alive in baseball lore and legend. Besides, the Big Donkey is a man who can spin a good baseball yarn himself.
The other Frank Thomas may have a plaque in Cooperstown, but the original Frank Thomas had a mighty fine career himself, along with plenty of memories to savor and fans who remember him fondly.
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.