The career of Frank Thomas developed during an era when team ownership looked upon their players as chattel. It was a time when most general managers ignored those profound words penned by Thomas Jefferson: "...That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." By their standards, Frank Joseph Thomas was considered a rebel. Much of his career was spent bickering with management over his monetary value. Early on in his career, Thomas' adversary in such battles was the notorious "El Cheapo." otherwise known as Branch Wesley Rickey.
During the 1950s his demands were considered selfish but by today's standards they would be probably be considered reasonable. His negotiations with Rickey became legendary around the Steel City. For instance, in 1955, Thomas was the lone holdout on a club that finished in last place, 38-1/2 games behind Rickey's old Brooklyn Dodgers. The Mahatma could not believe that this young man would have the audacity to challenge a $2,000 raise. He offered his slugging outfielder $15,000 for the 1955 season. Frank sought a salary of $25,000 after enjoying a solid season in 1954 when he belted 23 home runs, drove in 98 runs with a career-high batting average of .298. On top of that, he gathered 24 MVP votes that year on a team that lost 94 games.
What Thomas should have realized was that he was dealing with the same general manager who was quoted in informing future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, after he won his seventh consecutive home run title in 1952, "We finished in last with you, we can finish last without you." When Thomas held out for 17 days in 1955, he kept in shape by working out at the University of Pittsburgh. While he did not get the desired salary of $25,000, his salary was raised to $18,000. This compromise did not sit well with Mr. Rickey, either.
Frank Thomas was a homegrown product and grew up in the shadow of Forbes Field. His hometown ordained him the second coming of Ralph Kiner. Before his playing career he was a seminary student studying for the priesthood but could not shake the itch for the game of baseball. He forfeited a career in the priesthood, but the first eight years of his major league career consisted in him trying to be the answer to the prayers of the Pirate faithful.
Thomas' professional career began in 1947; he was assigned to play with Tallahassee of the Class D Georgia-Florida League. In 1948 the team would make the playoffs only to lose to Waycross, three games to one. Frank played in the outfield, made the all-star team and led the league in RBIs with 132.
In 1951, Thomas was invited to spring training for the third season. Eventually the Pirates sent him packing to New Orleans to join the Pelicans of their Class AA entry in the Southern Association. Frank played for Rip Sewell, the former Pirates pitcher who was also the inventor of the "eephus" blooper pitch. He was selected to play the outfield in the all-star game. His play that season earned him his first late-season audition with the parent club. Frank appeared in 39 games and smacked two home runs. His first career homer was off of George Spencer of the New York Giants on August 30, 1951.
The next year he went back to New Orleans for some more seasoning. His manager was Danny Murtaugh, the future leader of two World Series-winning teams. The Pelicans lost a one-game playoff for fourth place in 1952. "I guess that it was good luck in disguise because I had one heck of a year," commented Frank. His season at New Orleans proved to be a monster of a year. He again represented his team in that year's all-star game but also led the league in homers with 35, which was second best in New Orleans' history, scored 112 runs and drove in 131 while batting .303, good enough for second on the team behind Paul Smith's .323. On August 6, 1952, when the Pittsburgh press asked why Thomas was still in the minors, especially when the club was in dire need of hitting, Rickey was hard-pressed to answer. Frank was brought up briefly for six games and managed only two singles. Although he only played in six games, Frank felt that he finally made the team.
Thomas made only $6,000 down in New Orleans, but when he made the Pirates in 1953, he requested an additional $1,000 attached to his salary. Rickey's response was, "I can't pay major league salaries to minor league players." Fred Haney, the Pirates' skipper, assured the youngster that he would get every opportunity to prove himself at the big league level. Thomas responded with 30 home runs and 102 runs batted in, which is still a record for rookie center fielders -- and better than contemporaries Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
Frank had become a regular after the Pirates traded Ralph Kiner to the Cubs. When Kiner departed, so did "Greenberg Gardens," later known as "Kiner's Corner." Thomas later figured that had the wall remained, his homer totals would have doubled and most likely he would have finished his career with more than 500 dingers. The wall was highly unpopular with the Pirates' pitching staff. Former Pittsburgh star pitcher Murray Dickson was not enamored of the wall and was not sad to see it removed. He was frequently the leader in home runs allowed by a pitcher and he felt that his home park was greatly responsible. "With some justification, the 'Greenberg Gardens' was largely responsible for my record," Dickson once said ruefully. The wall's removal increased the distance in leftfield to 365 feet.
After the 1953 season, Thomas went back to Rickey to discuss salary, especially after his successful full season at the major league level. "I'm a major leaguer now and want to be paid accordingly." Rickey asked him how much he wanted and Frank said $15,000. This did not set well with the Mahatma, who paused, thought about it and suggested, "You go along with my offer of $12,500 and if you have another good year, I'll take good care of you." While it was against his better judgment, he accepted.
In 1954, Thomas, after playing his second full season, made some observations about being a big leaguer -- especially playing in front of the fans from his home town. To him, there were both advantages and disadvantages. The fans expected to see more out of him and although he was a native, it did not mean unconditional love. In Danny Peary's book, We Played the Game, he shared an example of this: Frank did not drink in a city full of shot-and-a-beer drinkers. When he walked to Forbes Field for a game, he had to pass several local drinking establishments that he would not stop in. This presented a problem, as some of guys that he grew up with would taunt him, "Are you too good for us now?" So Frank would go in and have a 7-Up or glass of milk. "Then if I made an error at the park, someone would point out that I was in a bar before the game," Thomas said.
In 1954, Thomas played 153 games in the outfield, batting .298, with 23 home runs and 94 RBIs. He went to Rickey expecting a substantial increase for 1955 but was offered $15,000 and was then compared negatively with Ralph Kiner. "If you are going to compare me, give me the same opportunity," Thomas replied. "Put back Greenberg Gardens for me and I'll hit you 50 homers because I can tattoo the scoreboard." Thomas refused to sign Rickey's contract and became a holdout. Rickey warned him, "Go ahead and hold out. I'll keep you out of baseball for five years." Rickey's attitude was typical for general managers of the era.
Rickey always claimed he would never divulge anyone's salary in public but one afternoon, Frank turned on the television and a reporter claimed that "If Frank Thomas doesn't get a $25,000 contract, he won't sign."
Thomas was working at his cousin's hardware store when Rickey's son, Branch Jr. (known as "Twig"), called. Frank got his cousin on an extension to listen to the conversation. He succeeded in getting the offer up to $18,000 for the 1955 season. Still, this did not make Thomas very happy, citing that he had a family to feed and if the Pirates want an unsatisfied player, he would sign for that amount. Unfortunately, Thomas got sick with the flu and dysentery during spring training causing him to lose 17 pounds over three weeks. The team's physicians were cavalier about his condition: "There's nothing wrong with you that a few base hits won't cure." Haney brought him back playing too soon. Rickey called up Thomas claiming the writers would blame him if Thomas had a bad year. The general manager also divulged that he would not be returning for the 1956 season, claiming that the ballplayer was the first to know. "I'll tell whoever takes my place not to cut your salary." Thomas answered that if he ended up with a poor year, he would take the consequences. He did not want any favors from the Mahatma, yet 1955 proved to be his one bad season for the Pirates: 25 home runs, 72 RBIs and a batting average of .245.
In 1956, Joe Brown became the new general manager of the Pirates. That season Lee Walls played a lot of left field, so Thomas moved to third base at the request of manager Bobby Bragan. Bragan appreciated his athleticism and remarked, "He was our long ball man, but he was a team player and had great hands." Frank played in 157 games, ties included. He batted .282, which was third on the team to Bill Virdon and Roberto Clemente. The new third baseman also contributed 25 home runs and 80 RBIs, second to Dale Long on the team in both categories. Brown repeated what Rickey had mentioned to him and offered a $1,000 raise. Thomas accepted but warned the new GM that they would negotiate on his terms from now on.
In 1957, Thomas played in 151 games that were split between first base, third base and left field. A little-known fact is that Frank a home run in the final New York Giants game at the Polo Grounds and would return and hit the first New York Mets home run there in 1962. Thomas enjoyed a decent season despite playing several positions. His year-end totals were a .290 average, 23 home runs and 89 RBIs. Brown raised his salary to $25,000 for 1958.
The Pirates slugger was worth the investment. Frank had his best year of his career. He ended the season with 35 home runs -- still a record for a Pirates third baseman -- and 109 RBIs. On August 16, 1958, Thomas clouted three consecutive home runs against the Cincinnati Reds, putting Pittsburgh seven games behind the league-leading Milwaukee Braves. At last, he seemed happy. He enjoyed the new California venues of Seals Stadium in San Francisco and the Los Angeles Coliseum. Frank especially enjoyed the new home of the Dodgers and loved taking aim at the Coliseum's short left-field fence. He boldly predicted that if he played in Los Angeles, he could challenge Babe Ruth's single-season record. His new manager, Danny Murtaugh, inserted him at the hot corner for each game. That season, he started the All Star Game at third, which he claimed was his proudest accomplishment, since the players chose the starters. That year the fans voted him the most popular Pirates player. Thomas was the most feared Pirates batter by the other teams around the league. He was the one Pittsburgh player that other teams offered to trade for. Frank loved playing half of his games in Pittsburgh; he lived in the South Hills of Greentree with his growing family. In Peary's book, he counted Vernon Law, Bob Friend, Bill Mazeroski, Roy Face, Roberto Clemente and Bob Skinner as friends. Thomas felt that Dick Groat was the real leader of the club but felt that he himself also contributed leadership to the club. Frank seemed to finally be comfortable playing in Pittsburgh!
The comfortable feeling came to an end on January 30, 1959 when the Cincinnati Reds traded catcher Smokey Burgess, pitcher Harvey Haddix and third baseman Don Hoak to Pittsburgh for Thomas, outfielder Johnny Powers, pitcher Whammy Douglass and cash. The trade would go down as the worst in Reds history and many, including Frank, would remark that it was responsible for the Bucs' World Series championship in 1960! Before Thomas signed his contract, he informed Reds GM Gabe Paul that he had a bad hand and it was not healing properly. Paul was not worried; Frank asked for a salary of $40,000, which he got. The hand really bothered him and affected his play. The pain would bring tears to his eyes anytime he applied pressure. Both of the Reds' managers that year, Mayo Smith and Fred Hutchinson, had him on the bench a lot. Frank would kid, "I'd call home collect and no one would accept the charges and my kids were burning up my bubble gum cards." A doctor would later discover that tumors were growing on the nerves of his hand. This did not save him for being traded for the second time in one year. On December 6, 1959, he was traded to the Cubs for Lee Walls, Lou Jackson and Bill Henry.
In 1960, Frank had his hand operated on. He had only a fair season with the Cubs: a .238 batting average, 21 homers and 64 RBIs in 479 at-bats. His home run total was second to Ernie Banks. When Lou Boudreau replaced Charlie Grimm as manager during the season, he stopped using Thomas as a starter. Thomas approached Boudreau, asking him if he would be used only against lefthanded pitchers. The manager claimed that the decision came from the front office, but when Frank threatened to ask the front office himself; Lou admitted that it was his decision. Thomas lost respect for his manager. The manager and player had a couple of run-ins that left Thomas feeling that Boudreau was trying to show him up.
When the club was in Los Angeles, John Holland, the Cubs' GM, asked to see Frank. He offered him $1,000 if Frank would work with and coach the younger players. Thomas refused, but the GM stuck the money in Thomas' shirt pocket. Two weeks before the end of the season, Holland gave him an additional $2,000. Suspecting something, Frank told management, "If my contract for the coming year includes a cut in my salary, you are going to hear from me." He was right; his salary was cut by $8,000. Frank wrote a ten-page letter to Holland explaining how he felt the Cubs were trying to buy him out. Holland offered to take back the $3,000 and not cut his salary, which he did. Thomas gained a tremendous amount of respect for the GM; feeling Holland was fair and someone who he could talk to.
It was during his time in Chicago that he gained notoriety with his ability to catch a thrown baseball barehanded. Frank claimed that if someone held the ball across the seams, he catch their hardest throw from pitching distance. Richie Ashburn was his roommate when he was on the Cubs and would line up challengers for Frank. One afternoon when they were playing the San Francisco Giants, Ashburn presented this challenge to Willie Mays for $100. Mays tried it and Thomas caught it. Mays turned to Ashburn and told him to make the wager $10, and then he walked away. The "Say Hey Kid" never paid. Frank claimed that the most difficult person to catch was Don Zimmer; Zimmer would take a running start to get to the 60-foot, 6-inch distance, then stop and unleash a spitter. Even as difficult as this was, Thomas would still catch it.
Frank Thomas' next stop in his career was with Milwaukee. On May 9, 1961, as he was on the team bus heading to a game with the Braves, he was informed that he would be switching uniforms when the team arrived. He walked into the dressing room and was greeted by his new manager, Charlie Dressen, who told him that he would be the regular left fielder. Thomas performed well in a lineup with Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Joe Adcock. He enjoyed a productive year, batted .284 and smacked 25 homers in 423 at-bats. Braves general manager John McHale informed him that he wanted Thomas to come back for 1962. All Thomas requested was that he would have a contract to sign before he left for the winter. That November, he was hunting when his wife called to tell him that the Braves traded him to the newly formed New York Mets. He tried to get in touch with McHale but the Braves' GM never returned his calls. Once again a general manager was not upfront with him, which later led Frank to say, "General managers treated players like slaves."
At 33 years of age, Frank had one of his best offensive years for the expansion Mets in 1962. Frank described the makeup of his new team: "We had a veteran ball club, with many players from winning traditions." He, along with his teammates felt that they would have a fair record. Unfortunately, the pitching quality did not match the team's hitting capability. This team would lose a record-setting (for the modern era) 120 games.
Thomas loved playing in New York. The fans were great. They were hungry for a National League team ever since the Dodgers and Giants left for California in the 1950s. Said Thomas, "I had fun on the Mets," whose fans took them into their hearts and forgave everything. No team got more enthusiastic support. In addition to the fan support, Casey Stengel took the pressure off of them from the media. He entertained both the fans and the press with his Stengelese.
Frank had several power outbursts; during one three-game period in 1962, Thomas hit six home runs. Since he was the Mets' power hitter, he was brushed back often and during one game on April 29, 1962, he was hit twice in one inning. The day before, he combined with Charlie Neal and Gil Hodges in hitting consecutive home runs. It was the fifth time in eight years that he combined with teammates to hit three consecutive home runs. Because he had star status in New York, he hoped he would make a lot of money in endorsements. His endorsement money amounted to all of $2,000. In 1963, while he was still productive, hitting .260 with 15 home runs, he got caught in a roster squeeze as the Mets gave playing time to young players like Ron Hunt and Ed Kranepool. He became expendable and a good prospect for a contending team. In 1964 such a deal happened.
On August 7, 1964, Frank was traded to the Phillies for Gary Kroll, Wayne Graham and some cash. It would mark the first time that Thomas played for a contender. After the trade, Philadelphia expanded a half-game lead to 6 ½ games. But that September 8 he fractured his right thumb sliding back into second base. Jim Bunning recounted that they were playing the Dodgers and the ball was hit to the left of shortstop Maury Wills. Thomas ran out in hopes of distracting him but then had to dive back to second and broke his thumb. He played the rest of the game and collected two more hits. But after 39 games, which he collected and home runs and batted .294, his season was over -- and so would be, in one of the most inglorious collapses in major league history, the Phillies' drive for the pennant.
On July 3, 1965, an incident of pregame horseplay occurred around the batting cage between Frank and Richie Allen before a contest with the Cincinnati Reds. Several versions have been given concerning the altercation. www.BaseballLibrary.com states that Thomas swung a bat at Allen during a disagreement. Others claim that Thomas used racial slurs. Whatever happened, Allen would belt a three-run triple in the seventh inning and Thomas a pinch-hit home run to tie the score in the eighth. The Reds would eventually win by the score of 10-8. Following the game, the Phillies released Thomas. He would move three more times after his Philadelphia sojourn, playing 23 games for the Astros and 15 more with the Braves that year and another five with the Cubs in 1966 before hanging up his spikes for good.
Frank's career totals for 16 years in the majors were 1,766 games, 1,671 hits, 286 home runs and 962 RBIs, with a career batting average of .266.
Frank Thomas still lives in Ross Township, Pennsylvania, in a two-story, five-bedroom house just outside his hometown of Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Dolores, have eight children and twelve grandchildren. Mark, their youngest son, is a priest. Frank spends his retirement playing in charity golf tournaments and used to play in old-timers games in Pittsburgh when they had them. Frank is a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates' Alumni Association and has participated in a number of fantasy baseball camps. As a 65-year-old, during the 1994 All-Star festivities at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Frank drove one deep into the gap.
He once summed up his attitude about life: "I always felt if you gave 100 percent at whatever you did, you didn't have anything to be ashamed of."
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Finoli, David and Ranier, Bill. The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia. Sports Publishing LLC, 2003.
Golenbock, Peter. Amazin'. St. Martins Press, 2002.
Johnson, Lloyd and Wolff, Miles. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd edition. Baseball America Inc., 1997.
Kuklick, Bruce. To Every Thing a Season. Princeton University Press, 1991.
O'Brien, Jim. We Had 'Em All the Way, Bob Prince and His Pittsburgh Pirates. Geyer, 1998.
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Peary, Danny. We Played the Game. Hyperion, 1994.
Ultimate Mets Database: www.ultimatemets.com/profile.php/PlayerCode=0008.
Robinson, James G. "Break Up the Mets". BaseballLibrary.com: www.baseballlibrary.com/baseballlibrary/features/flashbacks/o4_23_1962.stm.
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Baseball Almanac, www.baseball-almanac.com/players/player.php/p=thomafr03.
Personal letters between Frank Thomas and Bob Hurte, 1992-2004.