By Mike Shannon
Louisville Slugger is one of the most famous brands in the world and a baseball name that stands for history, tradition, and authenticity. The most popular baseball bat maker in the world also knows how to throw a great party, which is what it did on Nov. 10, when it held its 11th annual Living Legend Award ceremony, honoring Chicago White Sox superstar Frank Thomas.
As usual, the ceremony kicked off the company’s biggest weekend of the year, with Hunt Auctions running a live auction of rare baseball memorabilia the following day.
Frank Thomas, the recipient of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory’s Living Legend Award, entered the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014 on the first ballot, after a 19-year career during which he re-wrote the White Sox record book.
Despite his obvious talent as a hitter, Thomas did not enthrall the scouting profession.
Undrafted out of Columbus (GA) High School, Thomas accepted a football scholarship to Auburn University. After his freshman year, he gave up football, but terrorized SEC pitching for three years. Scouts were still not sold on him, and the White Sox were mocked for making him their first round draft choice in 1989. A year later he was in the big leagues and quickly became the unstoppable force at bat that inspired White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson to dub him “The Big Hurt.”
Among all White Sox players, Thomas ranks first in home runs, RBI, runs, doubles, extra-base hits, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and walks. He’s third in hits, sixth in singles, and ninth in batting average. He finished his career with 521 home runs (tying him with Ted Williams and Willie McCovey), 2,468 hits, and a .301 batting average. The winner of two A.L. MVP Awards and a batting title, he was the rare hitter who combined power with high average, who hit to all fields and drew a lot of walks. The White Sox recognized his contributions by erecting a statue of him at Comiskey Park.
Louisville Slugger honored Thomas as the 11th recipient of the Living Legend Award.
Guests to the event were able to participate in a one-night silent auction of sports memorabilia (run by Hunt Auctions), as well as view many rare and exotic baseball items included in Saturday’s live auction.
Anne Jewell, executive director & VP of the Museum, took the stage as M.C.
Dave Hunt, of Hunt Auctions, praised Thomas by saying, “Each generation has some of ‘those guys’ (the greats who define their era), and Frank Thomas is one of those guys.”
Hunt concluded by admitting that he’d once underestimated the selling power of Thomas. Hunt’s Acquisitions Director, Jeremy Kraft, once urged Hunt to “go long” when the company had the chance to buy a stock of Thomas signed baseballs. Hunt thought a dozen would be plenty, but they sold out the first day.
“Jeremy, you were right,” he said.
Thomas was introduced by Barry Bernson a Louisville resident, White Sox fan, and acclaimed reader of audio books. Bernson told a winding story of how he became a baseball, White Sox, and Frank Thomas fan. The latter part was the easiest. Bernson said that in the 1990s he became aware of “a towering titantic force … the deadliest right-handed hitter in baseball” on the Chicago baseball scene, which was obviously a reference to Thomas. Bernson also called Thomas “the best DH ever! … A man of great rare gifts.”
“You got the sense,” he continued, “that every Thomas at-bat would end in something great.”
At one point Bernson asked if anybody in the crowd knew what Thomas and recent Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Bagwell had in common. Somebody shouted out, correctly, “Same birthday.”
After a video-poem reviewing Thomas’ career was shown, Thomas took the stage and was presented with the award, a beautiful ring specially made for him by Louisville Slugger.
With the broad smile on his face that fans have become accustomed to seeing, Thomas first addressed Bernson, “I’m offended by that description of me as a DH … I spent 12 years as a first baseman!”
After assuring Bernson and the crowd that he was only joking, Thomas saluted the producers of the video, calling it “spectacular.” He thanked a number of people and said, “It’s been fantastic being shown around the Louisville Slugger factory. Getting to pick up Babe Ruth’s bat … I’ve been like a kid in a candy store. I’m humbled getting this award because so many great men have come before me. And I respect them all tremendously.
“Growing up in Columbus, Georgia, there was only one way out, and that was through sports. There was no other way out. I go back there and see some of the guys I grew up with, and they’re still living in their parents’ houses. I’ve been really blessed, but I also took advantage of the opportunities that life gave me.
“I thought basketball was going to be my ticket at first; that was my first love. But I got hurt my junior year in high school, and I realized it wasn’t going to happen in basketball. Then I thought my thing might be football because I was big and strong, and in South Georgia football is everything. But I had the most talent for baseball.
“I was devastated at not getting drafted out of high school. I was lucky that I met Pat Dye, the football coach at Auburn, which was a good fit for me because it was close to my hometown and my mom and dad would be able to see me play in college. Coach Dye saved my life because he pushed me towards baseball. Yes, I was truly blessed, but I also worked hard and I made sure that I left everything on the field, day in and day out.”
At the conclusion of his acceptance speech, Thomas field questions, as he told those in attendance he preferred to do that rather than talk about himself.
Here is a sampling of some of the questions, and Thomas’ answers.
Question: Who was the toughest right-handed pitcher you ever faced, who was the toughest lefthander you ever faced and who was the best player you played with or against?
Thomas: Jeff Nelson was the toughest right-hander on me. He was 6’8” and he hid the ball well. I just couldn’t pick up the ball well against him. I was something like 2 for 30 against him. I run into Jeff now and then, and he tells people, “I owned him!” We laugh about it. Randy Johnson was the toughest left-hander. He threw 100 miles per hour and had a big downward breaking ball. And the best player, Ken Griffey Jr. and Robbie Alomar.
Q: Did your brief acting career, being on “Married with Children” and stuff like that, help you with the broadcasting job you have now?
Thomas: Not at all. I was always talking baseball in the clubhouse before and after games, so the broadcasting thing has been a natural for me.
Q: In your own mind what was your biggest accomplishment?
Thomas: My biggest accomplishment was winning the batting title. I’m still the largest man to win a batting title. And I did it with no infield hits, no speed hits. So I’m proud of that. (Note: Thomas won the A.L. batting title in 1997 with an average of .347.)
Q: What do you miss most about being a player?
Thomas: Baseball has changed a lot since I retired, and I’m not sure I really miss it. I miss the other players, my teammates, the people. But analytics has taken over the game, and I’m not a fan of analytics. The new stats are taking the managers out of the game; they’re ruling all the decisions. And analytics can’t see heart. They can’t judge heart. If I’d been judged by analytics, I’d never have gotten to the major leagues.
Q: What was your most memorable game?
Thomas: That would be a walk-off grand slam I hit to beat the Twins in extra innings in 2003. It was the night after we’d made a big trade to get Robbie Alomar from the Mets. It was a sold-out crowd, and the fans were really jazzed because of the trade. (Note: the game Thomas referred to occurred July 2, 2003, and he hit a 2-run walk-off homer in the 12th inning, not a grand slam. The night before, the White Sox had also made another multi-player deal to also acquire Carl Everett from the Texas Rangers. Making his White Sox debut, Alomar was the runner who scored ahead of Thomas on his walk-off homer.)
Q: When did you know that you’d made it as a major leaguer?
Thomas: I knew I’d made it when I got called up to the big leagues and walked into the clubhouse in Milwaukee before my first game. I took a look around and said, “Oh, my God.” They gave me a locker right next to Carlton Fisk. The first thing he said was, ‘Rook, rookies are meant to be seen, not heard. Keep your mouth shut, your eyes open, and if you hit the ball the way we’ve heard you can, you can help us win.’ (Note: Thomas’ first game came in the opener of a doubleheader August 2, 1990, and despite going 0-4 he was credited with the game-winning RBI in a 4-3 White Sox victory on a slow roller that allowed the decisive run to score from third.)
Q: Do you have any advice for kids who want to play professional baseball?
Thomas: Yes. Follow your dreams and have fun. Kids today play travel ball and it’s too fast, it’s too much. They get burnt out and lose interest in the game by the time they get to high school.
Q: What’s your favorite baseball movie?
Thomas: That’s easy. ‘Mr. Baseball.’ I was The Promising Rookie, Davis.
Q: What players playing today do you enjoy watching?
Thomas: The game is in good hands with guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton. They’re great players, and I really enjoy watching them. Yeah, the game is in good hands.
Q: What do you think of Bo Jackson?
Thomas: I missed Bo at Auburn, he was gone when I got there, but as you know we played together on the White Sox. I think he was the most incredible athlete who ever lived. If he hadn’t gotten injured there’s no telling what he might have accomplished. We’re still friends today. He’s one heck of a man.
Q: What’s your opinion of Mariano Rivera? How good do you think he was?
Thomas: The thing about him was that he only had one pitch, and you knew it was coming. But it had late movement and you couldn’t square it up.
Q: What is your favorite Cubs-White Sox memory, of the rivalry between them?
Thomas: The Cubs winning last year was such a big deal that a lot of people forget we won in 2005. But I wasn’t jealous; I was happy for them, proud of them. And they have a lot of good guys on that team. I’m a fan of Rizzo and Bryant, and Rizzo and I do a lot of charity work together. I guess my favorite memory was the time A.J. Pierzynski was needling a Cubs batter and the guy slugged A.J. in the face. I mean, it was funny. A.J. just rolled over on top of home plate – he didn’t care. That’s the kind of guy he was, always doing or saying something funny.
Q: What player do you think is the most like you?
Thomas: Miguel Cabrera. He hits for power and for average and he hits to all fields. He told me he copied my style of hitting. He might wind up being the best right-handed hitter of all-time.
Q: How long do you think it will be before the White Sox are contenders again to win the World Series?
Thomas: 2020. They have a super core of talented kids, and they’re going to get better and better. In 2019 they’re going to start to charge, and after that, watch out.
Mike Shannon is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.