Jim Thome spoke softly and carried a big stick during his HOF major league career

By Robert Grayson

Jim Thome sure knows how to make a lasting impression. Take his major league record–setting 13 walk-off home runs, for instance. They were long, arching, majestic walk-off blasts that seemed to take forever to leave the ballpark. It was as if they were moving in slow motion, reminiscent of the round-tripper Roy Hobbs hit in the closing moments of the film “The Natural.”

None of Thome’s walk-offs ever shattered the outfield lights, as Hobbs’s homer did, but they all brought down the house. And let’s not forget the other 599 long balls Thome hit during his 22-year Hall of Fame career (1991-2012) as well, giving him a total of 612 home runs in the majors. He’s one of only nine big league players to ever reach the 600 or more home run plateau. Breaking down those home run stats a bit more, in addition to 13 walk-offs, 60 of Thome’s 612 homers tied games and 173 put his team ahead. That’s quite a long ball resume.

“There’s a lot of hard work that goes into hitting those home runs,” the left-handed slugger said.

Roughly 24 years of hard work, when you include Thome’s stints in the minors.

“I never thought about hitting 500 home runs or 600 home runs. I never thought about the end result. I thought about the daily process of improving. As players, we kind of just take it the way it is and go with it,” Thome said.

If you didn’t follow Thome’s career, or one of the six teams he played for, you might not realize he hit over 600 home runs in his career. He wasn’t a flashy player; in fact, he was quite the opposite, a quiet fellow who did his job and happened to slam round-trippers.

“When you hit a home run, you feel, ‘OK I want to do that again.’ That’s what kept me coming back all those seasons,” he said.

Thome was often overshadowed by guys he played with who made more noise and had a swagger, like Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle. There were others, too, who grabbed more headlines than Thome, even as he was hitting tape-measure dingers out of ballparks throughout the majors. But he didn’t mind; he didn’t crave the attention. He was there to play ball for the love of it and to make valuable contributions to his team.

Thome was a throwback. He wore his socks pulled up high, as players did in days gone by. It was a Midwestern boy’s way of paying tribute to his grandfather, an avid baseball fan. Thome worked hard, got his uniform dirty, and took those big, powerful swings like Babe Ruth, Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx—swings that wowed fans and sent baseballs flying.

Eminently approachable, Thome was the type of player you felt you could sit down with after the game and shoot the breeze, casually talking about some of the action you just saw. The slugger was more like the common man, himself in awe of the National Pastime and its stars, rather than a star himself. Wherever the five-time All-Star played, the fans appreciated what he did, and Thome has nothing but good things to say about those who came to watch him play.

With a laid-back, calm, friendly demeanor, Thome seems to shy away from the praise now being heaped on him for his Hall of Fame baseball career, especially by those from his hometown—Peoria, Illinois. Instead, he credits his high school, youth, and college coaches, as well as his family, for his success.

“I think everything starts at your roots. I was so fortunate and so proud to have grown up where I did,” Thome said. “Peoria is such a special place. I think of all my buddies, all the guys I played with on my high school team. Players I was fortunate to be around. I love the town. It’s where it all started for me.”

In that part of the Midwest, the Thome family is known for their baseball/softball exploits through the generations. In fact, they are considered diamond royalty in Peoria, the first family of baseball. Jim’s grandfather, Chuck Thome Sr., had dreams of playing professional baseball during the 1930s. However, he just couldn’t turn down a steady job he was offered locally. That didn’t stop Chuck Thome Sr. from getting a reputation as one of the top fast-pitch softball players in the blue-collar town and throughout the state of Illinois. 

Chuck Thome Jr., Jim’s dad, also played semi-pro softball, along with Jim’s Uncle Art. They were accomplished players, but it’s Jim Thome’s Aunt Carolyn who really rocked the Peoria softball scene. Local sports lore has it that when Carolyn was just 15 years old, a job was created for her in the mailroom at the local Caterpillar Tractor Company, so she could play with the company’s renowned women’s softball team, the Dieselettes. The men’s team was called the Diesels. The women’s team was so good they would draw thousands more local fans to their games than the men’s team would. Carolyn Thome, nicknamed “Cotton” because of her wavy, platinum blonde hair, consistently led her team in homers and doubles.

The entire Thome family is enshrined in the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame. Carolyn Thome has also been inducted in the National Softball Hall of Fame and the Illinois State Softball Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, Jim Thome’s older brothers, Chuck III and Randy, were baseball and basketball standouts at Limestone High School in Bartonville, a suburb of Peoria. They both played competitive fast-pitch softball after that. That’s quite a brood.

So Jim Thome had his work cut out for him, to say the least, when he got to Limestone High School in the fall of 1984, and he didn’t disappoint. He achieved All-State honors in both baseball and basketball while in high school. He played shortstop in high school and hoped to attract some major league attention before graduating from high school in June 1988. When he didn’t, Thome attended Illinois Central College in East Peoria for the 1988-1989 school year and continued playing both baseball and basketball. In his first year in college he earned Junior College All-American honorable mention honors in baseball.

Here’s where the story takes an odd twist. While playing shortstop in his first year at Illinois Central, a scout for the Cleveland Indians was in the stands during one game and noticed him.

“I didn’t have a great game, but I hit some rockets,” Thome recalled.

The scout, convinced that he had found a diamond in the rough, called Thome over and asked him if he would sign with the Indians if the team drafted him.

“I said sure,” notes the new Hall of Famer, flashing a big smile as he remembers the life-changing event.

It took a while for the Cleveland Indians to pick Thome in the June 1989 draft. He went in the 13th round, the 333rd player selected. The team offered him a $10,000 signing bonus, but he held out for $15,000. He now confides, “I was going to take whatever they offered me. I just wanted to play pro baseball.”

Thome was thrilled to be signed by a Midwestern team. His no-nonsense work ethic would come to exemplify the Indians’ organization, an image the club wanted to project.

It’s hard not to say “Thome” and “home runs” in the same breath, but that hulking man with the powerful arms didn’t start out as a fence buster. After being drafted in 1989, the Peoria native was sent to play rookie ball with the Indians’ Gulf Coast League (GCL) team in Sarasota, Florida. Being away from home for the first time was tough on Thome, and he didn’t have a good season in rookie ball, batting only .237 with no home runs in 186 at-bats. In addition, he was asked to change positions partway through the season at rookie ball, moving from shortstop to third base. That transition took something of an adjustment for the young infielder.

There was a bright spot, however. In Sarasota, Thome met Charlie Manuel, a hitting instructor and coach in the Indians’ system, who would later become a major league manager. Manuel believed in the young Midwesterner and thought he could hit, and hit with power. Despite his disappointing season at Sarasota, Thome stayed in Florida after the GCL season ended and played in the Florida Instructional League. During that time he worked diligently with Manuel. The two men formed a bond that would last for Thome’s entire career.

By the 1990 season, both Thome and Manuel would start seeing the results of all that hard work. The Peoria native started the 1990 season at rookie ball with the Burlington (North Carolina) Indians in the Appalachian League. Now playing pro ball with greater confidence, Thome batted .373 with 12 homers and 34 RBI. Promoted to the Advanced Class-A Kinston (North Carolina) Indians in the Carolina League for the latter part of the 1990 season, Manuel’s student continued to produce and batted .308. Thome was named the Cleveland Indians’ Best Minor League Player of the 1990 season.

In 1991, Thome started the season as the everyday third baseman for the Double-A Canton-Akron Indians in the Eastern League. He batted an impressive .337 in 84 games and earned a promotion over the summer of 1991 to the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox in the Pacific Coast League. At Colorado Springs, Thome was reunited with Manuel, who was managing the Sky Sox.

The up-and-coming slugger hit .285 in 41 games with Colorado Springs and piqued the interest of the Indians enough for the big league club to call him up in September. Thome was in the Cleveland Indians’ lineup on Sept. 4 against the Minnesota Twins and got his first two major league hits. It took him another month to hit his first big league home run, but it was a memorable one.

Coming just two days before the season ended, Thome hit a two-run blast in the top of the ninth inning into the upper deck in right field at the old Yankee Stadium. The homer came off New York reliever Steve Farr on an 0–1 fastball and gave the Indians a 3–2 lead at the time. Cleveland went on to win the game by that 3–2 score. The homer couldn’t have come at a better time. Thome was struggling at the plate and the round-tripper let him finally exhale after a period of trials and tribulation with the bat on the major league level. He hit only .255 for the Tribe, but at 21 years old, he was still a young player, trying to develop into a major leaguer.

Looking back, Thome said that he wasn’t really ready for the major leagues when he arrived in September 1991. And that was especially true of his defense. He had eight errors in 27 games with Cleveland in 1991, mostly on errant throws he made from third to first. The third baseman called his early exploits in the field “very humbling.” However, he worked hard on his defense and proved he could play the hot corner.

The Cleveland Indians, who hadn’t fielded a good team in decades, felt they had to do something to excite their fan base. That resulted in rushing some young players, like Thome, to the majors. Despite the best efforts of the Cleveland front office, the Tribe still ended up losing 105 games in 1991.

For his part, Thome was determined to stay with the big club in 1992 and help turn Cleveland’s fortunes around. But the promising star would fall victim to the injury bug in 1992.

During spring training with the Indians in 1992, Thome hurt his right wrist and was sent down to rehab at Double-A Canton-Akron. While working to build up the strength in his wrist, Thome injured his right shoulder. That sidelined him until June, but when he returned to the Cleveland lineup, the third baseman had trouble regaining his old form at the plate. That landed him back with the Triple-A Sky Sox. Thome responded by batting .313 and helping the team win the 1992 Pacific Coast League Championship.

The 1993 season would be an eventful one for Thome, even though it didn’t seem that way at the outset. The Indians thought it would be better for him to start the campaign in Triple-A to get a bit more seasoning. This time he would be playing in the International League with the Charlotte (North Carolina) Knights. Once again, Thome and Manuel would be reunited, as Manuel was the Knights’ manager. This stint in the minor leagues would have quite an impact on Thome’s career. Manuel took a new approach and decided to make the 6-foot-4 Thome into a true home run hitter.

Thome said Manuel told him “to swing for the fences.” He said “you will strike out more, but it’s the guys who hit with power who make the big money.” So, with that, the Knights manager started to remake Thome’s stance.

“He opened up my stance and got me to look for a ball I could hit a long way,” Thome said.

Before that, Thome had a closed stance, with his front foot close to the plate so he could hit the outside pitch. His old cuts were powered mostly by his wrists and arms, but Manuel was incorporating Thome’s hips and upper legs into the future Hall of Famer’s new swing. Still, Manuel saw that Thome was tight at the plate, and just couldn’t relax.

Then one day early in the season, the Knights were in Scranton, Pennsylvania to play the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons. This was the setting for one of the most famous stories in Tribe lore.

Manuel came into the Charlotte clubhouse just around game time and saw the team gathered around the television watching the popular baseball movie “The Natural.” The manager had strict rules against watching television before games, a time he felt players should be preparing themselves for the upcoming contest on the field, Thome remembered. The players were about to turn off the TV, but then Manuel saw Roy Hobbs (played by Robert Redford) in the batter’s box and said, “Hey, leave that on.” The skipper watched Hobbs’s dramatic final at-bat in the movie, where the powerful slugger hits the game-winning, pennant-clinching home run, and tells Thome to come into his office.

Hobbs, by the way, in what some might seem as an eerie coincidence, played for the fictional New York Knights.

“You saw that Hobbs fella. He pointed the bat at the pitcher. That’s how you’re going to hit from now on,” Thome said Manuel told him, recalling the now-memorable moment that altered the way he stood at the plate for the rest of his career.

“It was a relaxation mechanism. I started to use it and I wasn’t tense in the batter’s box anymore. It let me settle down at the plate, loosen me up. It was like a trigger. It let me get ready to hit,” Thome said.

Pointing the bat at the pitcher before each pitch became Thome’s trademark. The stance is so memorable that the Cleveland Indians built an eight-foot statue in Thome’s honor at Progressive Field, depicting him in that intimidating pose at the plate.

During that 1993 season at Charlotte, Thome had 25 home runs and 102 RBI, thanks to his newfound stance and power. He hit .332 and won the International League’s batting title. Thome was named Baseball America’s Triple-A Player of the Year and the International League’s Player of the Year. He was also called up by the Cleveland Indians in mid-August and this time he would stay in the Bigs for good.

“Minor league life can be very demanding,” Thome said. “Getting on buses, learning how to eat right, getting your sleep, performing and trying to get better every day. If Charlie Manuel is your manager, you’re getting to the ballpark at 11 a.m., even for a night game. But the grind is what prepares you for the big leagues.”

In 1994 things started to change for the Indians, spurred on by their move from the cavernous Municipal Stadium, just south of Lake Erie, to the more baseball-friendly Jacobs Field in downtown Cleveland. Thome started the season as the Tribe’s third baseman and Charlie Manuel was the big league club’s batting coach. The team’s young talent was starting to mature and Cleveland had a chance to become a contender.

The team had won 66 games by Aug. 11, 1994 and was one game out of first place in the American League Central Division when the season abruptly came to an end on Aug. 12, due to a work stoppage. Thome had 20 home runs and 52 RBI when play halted. He also hit the first walk-off homer of his career, a solo blast on June 15, 1994. The round-tripper sent Cleveland fans home happy, with a 4–3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays in 13 innings.

In addition, during the 1994 season, Thome worked extensively on his defensive skills with Indians coach and former Gold Glove third baseman Buddy Bell. Bell changed Thome’s arm angle when making throws to first. The coach also helped Thome plant his feet better before throwing.

Thome began feeling at ease at third base, as he never had before in his career. Things were really starting to come together for Thome and the Indians. Cleveland had a promising season in 1994, short as it was, and the Tribe was ready for bigger and better things.

In 1995, Cleveland put a talent-laden team on the field with players like Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar Jr., Eddie Murray, Manny Ramirez, and Omar Vizquel, in addition to Thome. The ’95 Tribe brought Cleveland their first American League pennant since 1954. Thome batted .314 for the season, with 25 home runs, and collected 73 RBI. The 1995 season started late. That’s because the work stoppage, which started in August 1994, didn’t come to an end until April 2, 1995. Play did not resume until April 25, 1995 and only a 144-game season was played, instead of the traditional 162 games.

Still, Cleveland won 100 games in that abbreviated 1995 season—the most in the majors. They took on the Atlanta Braves in the 1995 World Series. Coincidentally, the Braves had a young third baseman on their team, Chipper Jones, who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year, along with Thome.

It proved to be an exciting series, with five of the games decided by just one run. In Game 5, Thome hit a solo home run in the eighth inning to give Cleveland the one-run margin needed to win that game 5–4. But the Indians lost the Fall Classic to the Braves 4 games to 2.

Overall, the 1995 campaign was a thrilling season for Tribe fans, and the Indians, led by Thome, were considered one of the top teams in baseball.

“I truly believe that ’95 Cleveland Indians team was one of the best offensive teams in baseball history. That’s how good they were,” Thome said.

The 1995 season marked the start of five straight years the Indians won the Central Division. While they came in second in the Central in 2000, they still won 90 games, but didn’t make the playoffs. They reclaimed first place in 2001. In 1996, 1999 and 2001 the Tribe was ousted from the postseason in the American League Division Series (ALDS). In 1998, Cleveland won the ALDS against Boston, but lost the American League Championship Series (ALCS) to the Yankees. The loss to the Yankees came despite Thome going on an absolute tear in the series, hitting four home runs, collecting eight RBI and batting .304. During that run from 1995 to 2001, the Tribe was in the Fall Classic in 1997 in addition to the one in 1995.

In the 1997 World Series, the Indians took the Florida Marlins to the brink but lost the Fall Classic in seven games. A World Series ring would elude Thome once again, as it did in 1995, but he took it in stride, realizing how far the team had come since that 105-loss season in 1991.

“Those Cleveland Indian teams I played on from ’94 on were just great teams to be a part of. You play all year to get to the postseason and those teams got you there,” Thome said.

“I don’t think you envision at the end of your career going into the Hall of Fame, but as a player I think you do envision winning a World Series. All those great teams we had in Cleveland in the ’90s—we were fortunate to be in the arena twice. I call the World Series the arena, and we came up short,” Thome said. “I wouldn’t replace being in a World Series. You have to give the teams that beat us in the World Series credit, but losing the World Series is heartbreaking, I have to tell you that. But you never lose sight of having played in the World Series or what it’s like to prepare all winter, play the season and then be introduced in the World Series. It’s the ultimate.”

The 1997 season was also eventful for Thome because he moved from third base to first base. The Indians traded for the power-hitting third baseman Matt Williams to make up for the loss of Albert Belle, who left Cleveland via the free agent route after the 1996 season. Tribe management asked Thome to make the move to first to open an everyday spot for Williams. Thome didn’t object, feeling that with him and Williams in the infield, Cleveland would have strong hitters at the corners.

“As I look back on it, the move to first base was the best thing for me, especially when you consider the problems I had with my back later in my career. So it was a good thing,” he said. “Third base is a very demanding position. You have to respect a guy like Chipper Jones for playing third base on the professional level for 17–20 years with the demand that puts on your body. I’m very proud to have played third base on the major league level.”

Thome played the first 12 years (1991–2002) of his career in Cleveland. He hit 30 or more home runs in seven of those seasons, including 52 round-trippers in 2002. He had 100 or more RBI in six seasons and batted over .300 three times.

Manuel remained the team’s hitting coach from 1994 to 1999 and then became the club’s manager from 2000 to 2002. Following the 2002 season, Thome became a free agent, and gave Cleveland every opportunity to sign him. Cleveland, however, was going through a rebuilding period and Thome, now 32, wanted a chance to play in another World Series.

Finally, he made the toughest decision of his career and left the Indians for the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies were looking for a power-hitting first baseman and went all-out to sign the Midwestern home run hitter. Thome didn’t disappoint, slamming 47 round-trippers and driving in 131 runs for the Phillies in his first year with the team in 2003. Manuel became the Phillies’ manager in 2004 and Thome responded by hitting 42 homers and collecting 105 RBI.

The 2005 season was a rough one for Thome, who was hit with injuries to his back and his right elbow. He had his elbow operated on in August and was forced to sit out the rest of the season. He played in only 59 games in 2005.

In November 2005, Thome was traded to the Chicago White Sox. Frank Thomas had left the team and the Pale Hose were looking for someone to take his place. Thome was the perfect replacement and would become the team’s designated hitter. The move brought the long ball hitter closer to home in Peoria, Illinois. That was important to Thome because his mother had passed away earlier in 2005 and he wanted to be near his father and the rest of his family.

But he left Philadelphia without winning a world championship. The Phillies played some exciting baseball, but did not make the postseason while Thome played for them. It didn’t take long for Chicago fans to find out that Thome had recovered from his injury-plagued 2005 season.

He started out the 2006 season by hitting 10 home runs in April on his way to winning the American League Comeback Player of the Year Award. He finished the season with 42 homers and 109 RBI while batting .288.

In 2007, Thome provided White Sox fans with one of the most memorable moments in Pale Hose history. The Chisox were playing the Los Angeles Angels at Cellular Field in Chicago on Sept. 16. Ironically, it was Jim Thome Bobblehead Day.

Thome was looking for his 500th home run. The score was tied at 7–7 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Darin Erstad led off the bottom of the ninth with a single. Then Thome stepped to the plate against Angels reliever Dustin Moseley. It was a tough at-bat and Thome worked the count to 3–2 when he slugged the next pitch to deep left center for a walk-off homer and the 500th round-tripper of his career.

“I never imagined my 500th home run would be a walk-off. I just didn’t think it would happen that way. It’s like a movie script,” Thome said.

The story gets even better. Will Stewart, the fan who caught the ball, gave it back to Thome. The powerful home run hitter, in turn, asked his dad to come with him and personally deliver the ball to Cooperstown. It was the pair’s first visit to the shrine.

In the 2008 season, after playing 162 games, Thome’s White Sox were tied with the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central. They played a one-game playoff on Sept. 30, in Chicago for the division title. Thome came through with another big homer for the Pale Hose, hitting a solo blast in the bottom of the seventh inning. The White Sox won the game 1–0 and took the Central Division crown. They lost the American League Division Series, however, to Tampa Bay, 3 games to 1.

In 2009, Thome once again played with the Chisox, but on Aug. 31, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were battling for a playoff spot. The Dodgers made the postseason and won the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals (3 games to 0). But they lost the National League Championship Series to the Philadelphia Phillies (4 games to 1). It looked as if Thome’s career was winding down in 2009, but he had a few more tricks up his sleeve.

A free agent in 2010, Thome was offered a contract by the Minnesota Twins, and headed to the Twin Cities. He turned around and hit 25 homers for the Twins and batted .283 that season.

It was in Minnesota that the now-500-home-run-club member got to meet and establish a special connection with one of his idols, the legendary Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew. He first met Killebrew in 2010, during spring training. Thome’s mentor, Charlie Manuel, played with Killebrew on the Twins from 1969 to 1972. He used to compare Thome’s towering home runs to Killebrew’s moonshots. The right-handed-hitting Killebrew crushed 573 homers in his career.

“Meeting him was a gift. I feel very lucky that we crossed paths and we had time to have talks about everything from hitting to life,” Thome said.

Killebrew died of cancer in May 2011, but not without leaving a lasting impression on Thome.

In 2011 Thome would reach another milestone in dramatic fashion. Playing with the Twins in Comerica Park in Detroit, the now-full-time DH hit two long homers in the game against the Tigers, the 599th (top of the sixth) and 600th (top of the seventh) round-trippers of his career.

A few weeks later the Twins traded Thome back to the Cleveland Indians. He played there until the end of the 2011 season and then re-signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for 2012. Later that season, on June 30, Thome was traded to the Baltimore Orioles, who had a good chance to make the postseason. The Birds won the Wild Card, but were defeated in the American League Division Series by the New York Yankees 3 games to 2. Thome retired after his stint with Baltimore.

Of his 612 home runs, 337 came with the Cleveland Indians, making him the team’s all-time leader in home runs. He also hit more than 100 homers with two other clubs—Chicago (134) and Philadelphia (101).

Through the years Thome learned how to hit big home runs, game-winning blasts.

“When you are a younger player, you come in those situations and have some anxiety. I won’t tell you no. But then you evolve as a player and you want to be that guy who gets up when the game is on the line. As my career evolved, I wanted to be put in a situation where I had a chance to win the game. I thrived on that, but that comes with experience and then, more than anything else, you want to be in there,” he said.

Thome was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year, his first time on the ballot. He got 89.8 percent of the vote. Thome will be shown wearing Cleveland’s block C logo on his cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.

“I would not have made it into the Hall of Fame without Charlie Manuel. He saw something in me that even I didn’t,” Thome said of his mentor.

“Charlie always said I did all the work. But he had the knowledge and he shared that with me,” Thome said. “I reaped the rewards of the knowledge he had. Charlie believed in me. That was the most important thing for me. He was a confidence-booster. I’d be going badly, in a slump, strike out six or seven times in a row, and there was Charlie yelling, ‘You’re getting closer, you’re almost there, you’re getting better.’ And I’m thinking, ‘what is he looking at?’ But, sure enough, we would continue to work and work and pretty soon I was hitting again.”

The former Cleveland Indian said that when he was elected to Cooperstown, he couldn’t help thinking about “all the people who helped me along the way—my coaches, managers who supported me and wrote my name into the lineup every day, my family, tremendous players who were there for me, fans.”

Off the field Thome and his wife Andrea do endless amounts of charity work. Much of it is centered in Cleveland and Chicago, but they also support at least one or two charities in the other four cities Jim played in. Raising funds for the Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria is a tradition Thome’s mother started and he and his wife have continued.

When he was elected to the Hall of Fame, Thome said that he couldn’t help but think of his hometown of Peoria, Illinois and how much fun it was growing up there.

“I wanted to go around and tell Midwestern kids like me that they could dream of a day like this and have it happen,” he said with a smile

Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at graydrew18@aol.com.

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