The unknown home run hitter

The Pirates' Frank Thomas was an unspectacular ballplayer until the Dodgers and Giants moved west. Their friendly new parks helped make him the league's top slugger
July 27, 1958

Frank Joseph Thomas is a large, brawny young man with a pleasant job, a lovely family, a reasonable mortgage and good teeth. He enjoys the comfort of a highly adequate paycheck twice a month, and, in these days of high tensions, his emotional disturbances are about like those of The Chase Manhattan Bank. The son of a Lithuanian immigrant, Frank basks in the adulation of a sports-loving land, where, at the age of 29, he is crowding the threshold of fame. You would have to say that he is a happy man.

Since this is the middle of the baseball season, however, and since Thomas plays third base and sometimes the outfield and occasionally first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he is a very busy young man, too, and seldom finds time to think about these things. One does not stop to count one's blessings while leading the league in home runs and runs batted in, for some tricky character is almost certain to pick just that moment to slip a fast ball over the outside corner. But when Frank does relax, it is a relatively simple matter for him to select the one man who has done the most for his career.

He was carefully nurtured through the sprawling Pittsburgh farm system by Branch Rickey. He was brought up to the big leagues by Branch Rickey. He was personally instructed in the art of hitting by Branch Rickey. And he has become one of baseball's higher-salaried performers, not without the endorsement of Branch Rickey. Who, then, has done the most to lift Frank Thomas above the masses and give him the chance to gain lasting fame? Walter O'Malley.

Until O'Malley moved the Dodgers to the West Coast and sucked Horace Stoneham and the Giants along in the backwash, Thomas was a right-handed hitter getting 23 or 25 home runs a year in a league which has long paid a premium to muscular left-handers. This year, however, with the arrival of the now-infamous screen perched 250 feet down the Los Angeles Coliseum's left-field line, and the jet stream which blows pop flies over the left-field fence in San Francisco, Thomas and the National League's other right-handed power hitters have been having a ball. Gone from the top of the home run statistics are Snider and Kluszewski and Musial, to be replaced by players like Banks and Walls and Cepeda and Boyer and Mays. And, of course, Frank Thomas, who heads the list.

With the 1958 season only a bit more than half gone, Thomas has hit 26 home runs. Of those, 13 came in the 22 games he played in San Francisco and L.A. "I don't want to sound like I'm popping off," says Frank, who has the not-unearned reputation of being a very candid young man, "but I know that if I could play 77 games, a home-park schedule, in the Coliseum, I could break Ruth's record of 60 home runs."

The very thought is enough to make rival National Leaguers shudder, for it is almost universally accepted among them that he is probably right. Of all the players in the league, none is so ideally equipped to go crazy in the new parks as Thomas, a very powerful athlete who just naturally wallops the ball high up in the air and sharply down the line. Yet no one screamed "cheapie" when he hit all those home runs on the Coast early this year, for Frank's fellow professionals admit that it couldn't happen to a more deserving guy. For five years they have watched him labor in spectacular anonymity in Forbes Field, and it is about time that he had a chance to shine.

Forbes Field, the home park of the Pirates, is a nightmare for home-run hitters and the bane of Frank Thomas' existence. Last year, for example, when 219 home runs were hit in Cincinnati's Crosley Field and 185 at the Polo Grounds and 172 in Ebbets Field, only 73 were hit in Pittsburgh. There it is 365 feet from home plate to the left-field wall, and these are 365 good reasons why Frank Thomas has remained perhaps the least-known really good hitter in all baseball.

NO MORE GARDENS

In 1953 he hit 30 home runs, and this was more homers than even Ralph Kiner hit in his first full year as a Pirate. But in 1953 Forbes Field still included an appendage known as Greenberg Gardens, a low fence built some 30 feet closer to home plate than the regular left-field wall and constructed as a repository for baseballs off the bat of Hank Greenberg. When Greenberg retired at the end of that year, the Garden was left intact, for by then Kiner was dropping baseballs in there with great regularity, too. But in 1953 Kiner was traded to the Cubs, and the Pirates were suddenly confronted with a disturbing statistic: far more opposing home runs were going over the short fence than could be mustered by the home team, even with Thomas' help. So the next season the fence was missing.

"I didn't mind too much," says Frank, "because it was best for the team. Sure, it cut down on my home runs, but you have to face it—those other teams were beating us to death, I don't like it, you understand. I could hit more home runs and make a lot more money someplace else. But that's baseball. I just keep swinging and do the best I can."

The best he has been able to do in the last four years is a total of 96 home runs, a figure not calculated to banish from the headlines the names of Musial and Aaron and Mathews and Mays. In fact, the casual fan, when the name Thomas comes up, is often moved to ask, "Who's he?" But the pros themselves figure things differently. They believe that in another park Thomas would regularly produce 35 to 40 home runs a season and they recognize him as a skilled and versatile ballplayer with very good hands, reasonable speed for a man who stands 6 feet 3 and weighs 205 pounds and a tremendously powerful and accurate arm. They are also aware of his charming ability to play any one of half a dozen positions. As a result, the Pirates are besieged each year with offers for his services from just about every club in the league.

"They are all after him every year," says Joe Brown, the youthful general manager of the Pirates. "I know Mr. Rickey once turned down $400,000 in cash for him. And that's a lot of cash."

The Pirates have hung on to Thomas with a deathlike grip, however, and the reason is plain enough. They couldn't get along without him. A young team struggling to rebuild over the past half dozen years, the Pirates have managed to develop a club with speed, sharp hitting, good defense—and absolutely no power at all. Last year they hit a total of 92 home runs, and Thomas hit a fourth of these. In one stretch of 31 games at home, the Pirates could hit only three balls out of the park. Thomas hit all three.

A KID ON CRUTCHES

Frank was born and raised in Pittsburgh only 10 minutes from the ball park, and his father (whose name in the old country was spelled Tumas) and mother still live in the same house in which they have lived for 35 years. As a kid, Frank used to sneak into the Pirate games whenever he could find an open gate.

"I remember once when I hurt my leg," he says, "and was on crutches, outside the dressing room waiting for the players to come out. Rip Sewell saw me and he came over and asked me what happened. And then he walked a block or so down the street with me, his arm around my shoulder. In 1950, when I was at Charleston, I played for Sewell and I told him about it. He didn't remember, but I sure did. I'll never forget it."

Frank was raised in a devout Roman Catholic home, and at the age of 12 he decided that his future lay in the priesthood. Accordingly, he was bundled off to Mount Carmel College, a seminary in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Four years later he decided he would rather play baseball, so he abandoned his novitiate to go home to the sand-lots of Pittsburgh. Within a year he had signed a Pirate contract—a neighborhood priest named Father Moriarity talked Pittsburgh into matching Cleveland's $3,000 offer so that Frank could play before the kids he once played with on the sandlots—and set out on the road to the big leagues.

There are those in baseball, many in the Pittsburgh organization, who firmly believe that Branch Rickey is the greatest man who ever lived. From this group, Thomas would prefer to be excluded.

"He may know a lot about baseball," says Frank now, "but he didn't know much about me. He kept me in the minors after I was ready for the big leagues, and then, when I finally got up here, he wouldn't pay me what I was worth."

Even after Thomas had shortened the careers of several Southern Association pitchers with 35 home runs, 131 runs batted in and a .303 average for New Orleans in '52, Rickey wanted to send him back for more seasoning. But Fred Haney, then manager of the Pirates, talked Rickey into letting the kid stay.

"Sure, I battled Mr. Rickey to keep him," says Haney, who is now manager of the World Champion Milwaukee Braves but has never completely succeeded in forgetting those less fortunate days. "He was striking out a lot—I remember Ruben Gomez struck him out four times in one day—but I liked his stubbornness and I liked his confidence. I wanted to give the kid a chance. We weren't going anywhere, anyway, and you could see that Frank might be a hell of a ballplayer some day. The only way to find out was to put him in there and let him play."

The opportunity—along with a little coaching from George Sisler on the location of the strike zone—was apparently all that Frank needed. He drastically reduced his strikeouts and in the second half of the season hit 24 home runs.

"All I got paid that year, though," says Frank, "was the $6,000 minimum. And then Branch Rickey had the nerve to offer me a contract for the next season with just a small raise. We argued and I talked to the reporters and Branch got mad and said he wouldn't talk to me at all, we could just do our negotiating through the newspapers if that was what I wanted. Eventually I ended up playing in '54 for $12,000. What I really felt I deserved was $15,000."

The next year, despite a .298 average and 94 runs batted in, Thomas and Rickey had contract troubles again. "This time I held out," says Frank, "and if it hadn't been for Dorothy and the baby, I think I would just have stayed at home. Rickey kept comparing me to Kiner and I kept telling him that if he wanted to compare me with Kiner, why didn't he pay me like Kiner."

He lost 17 pounds with a bad virus attack that spring, and it wasn't until August that he really began to hit. It was his worst year, but he still made his first All-Star team. "I figured Durocher had picked me just because of the rule that says each team in the league must be represented," says Frank, "and I went around to thank him. 'Listen, boy, I didn't do you a favor,' Leo said. 'You belong on this All-Star team.' It was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me in my life."

Now Frank's contractual relations with the front office, where Brown has replaced Rickey, are on a much more pleasant plane, although Thomas still figures that where the Pirates and money are concerned he is still way behind.

"Sure, he has some ideas of his own," says Brown, "but you wouldn't think so much of a person who didn't. Frank and I get along all right."

Bob Friend, the talented Pirate pitcher and the one man who has joined Thomas in giving the club a semblance of big league class in some of the rockier years in the past, calls Frank one of the best left fielders he has ever seen. "When he first came up, he got a terrific jump on a fly ball. He could run—I guess he's slowed down a little now—and he had those great hands. And, of course, his arm has always been one of the best."

But despite his hitting and his class in the outfield, perhaps Frank's greatest contribution to the Pirate cause has been his willingness to play almost any position—and the ability to play it well. In 1956 Bobby Bragan tried eight different players at third base. None fit. Then Thomas, who had long maintained that the 320 feet which separated the batter from him in left field was just about as close as he wanted to get, consented to try. He didn't exactly start old Pittsburgh fans to talking about Pie Traynor, but he fitted—and the Pirates had no more worries at third.

"For a man who never played the position before," says the current Pirate manager, Danny Murtaugh, "he does an outstanding job."

Then last year, when Pittsburgh found itself fresh out of first basemen, Thomas moved over there, and many are the National Leaguers who will tell you that this is the position where he really belongs. But this season, with Ted Kluszewski and now Dick Stuart available, Frank was needed more at third, and that is where he has spent most of his time.

It has been a good year. He won the starting third base job in the All-Star Game and won the National League Player of the Month award for June. And, celebrating his 29th birthday June 11 in San Francisco, he hit a bases-loaded home run and another home run to drive in seven runs as the Pirates beat the Giants 14-6. What would have been a third home run for the day—the bases were loaded again—just curved foul by inches.

One reason they love him in Pittsburgh is that Frank Thomas may be one of the most public-relations-conscious ballplayers in history. He never refuses an autograph and can frequently be found an hour and a half after games standing outside Forbes Field writing his name on programs and baseballs and bubble-gum cards before an endless line of Pittsburgh moppets, a line which sometimes includes their parents, too.

He has a national fan club which may be the largest in baseball, and around the league the big man with the blond, crew-cut hair and startlingly pale hazel eyes can frequently be found in hotel lobbies surrounded by bobby-soxers who want to know what he eats ("anything but chicken; after those years away at school, I never want to see another chicken"), what he wears ("sports coats and suits"), what kind of car he drives ("a 1958 Pontiac station wagon"), how many little Thomases there are ("four: Joanne, 5; Patricia Ann, 3; Sharon Ann, 2; and Frank William, 8 months") and how big his muscles are ("not big enough"). On his birthday and at Christmas, even on Father's Day, they send him presents.

He gets along well with newspapermen because he is friendly and cooperative and never ducks a question. And much of his off-duty time is spent in hospitals, visiting sick children. "It's not the sort of thing a lot of ballplayers do," says Les Biederman of the Pittsburgh Press. "He doesn't make a great big production of it. He just goes up there and visits around because he likes kids and wants to help. Once in the middle of the winter I dropped in to see a child who was a patient at Pittsburgh's Children's Hospital. The first person I ran into was Frank."

THE SLEEPY LONER

Although Frank Thomas is becoming a real name at long last with the fans, it is extremely doubtful if he will ever be voted the most popular player in the league among opposing players or even those on his own team. Very few of them really know him, and no one completely understands him. This is partially because he is something of a loner, without any really close friends in the game, preferring to spend his time with his family while the team is at home, and most of his time on the road asleep. ("It's my No. 1 hobby," says Frank.) But primarily it is because other players have now discovered that the surest way to find out what Frank Thomas really thinks is simply to ask him. He is an outspoken man and sometimes, perhaps unfortunately, his opinions are rather strong.

"I've been around Frank ever since he came up," says Bob Friend, "and he's all right. He's a real needier but I don't think he means anything by it. He's not mean, he's just having fun. But you have to admit that he has a real talent for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I know that he sometimes makes me so mad I could shoot him.

"Just the same, I like him. And I'll say this for him. He's got the perfect attitude for a ballplayer. He never broods when he's in a slump, he never takes his problems home with him. And out there on the field he's giving you everything he's got every minute of the time."

PHOTOMRS. DOLORES THOMAS LIFTS FRANK JR. WHILE JOANNE (LEFT) AND PATTY ANN HOLD HOBBYHORSE RIDDEN BY SHARON ANN PHOTOHITTING HOMERS in San Francisco and Los Angeles is Frank Thomas' trademark.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)