MICHAEL: Although the vast majority of reader responses to You Stink! have been quite positive, there are a few folks out there who just don’t get it. Some of them have even accused us of being mean-spirited. This allegation cannot be further from the truth. Our selections for You Stink! were not meant to be personal in any way. We do provide detailed statistics for all of our picks, and we will be the first to agree that there are plenty of good ballplayers mentioned in our book that were unfortunately stuck on bad teams. This is the quandary of professional sports.
One of the biggest thrills for me as a baseball historian has been the opportunity to engage in discussions with some of the game’s greats. At one point I had the pleasure of arranging exclusive interviews with retired players. Although I did not question them, I always scheduled a pre-interview phone chat. In many cases these conversations lasted for over an hour as the interviewees were more than happy to revisit their glory days. My favorite of these talks was the one I shared with Frank Thomas, aka “The Original.” Frank is one of the classiest guys I’ve ever met and even has his own blog.
Over the course of his Major League Baseball career (1951-1966), Frank Thomas played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Braves, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and Houston Astros. He hit 30 home runs in 1953, his first full major league season with his hometown Pirates, followed up by 11 straight years with double-figure home runs, his best campaign coming in 1958 when he finished second in the National League to Ernie Banks with 35 HRs and 109 RBIs. Frank was also an All-Star outfielder in 1954-55 and was the NL’s starting third baseman in the 1958 All-Star Game.
Click here for complete Baseball-Almanac.com bio.
On the flip-side, several of Frank’s teams were statistically terrible and a few even made it into the pages of You Stink!. In March of 2004, I commissioned an article in which Frank was interviewed by baseball writer Harold Friend. The finished piece highlights the ups and downs of a stellar career and reinforces the idea that good players can be part of bad teams. Here is an excerpt:
Frank “The Original” Thomas was a fine hitter and versatile defensive player who played in the 1950s and 1960s. He is a fascinating individual who made the National League All-Star team three times and who holds many baseball records, including hitting six home runs over a three game span, a mark that Shawn Green recently broke when he hit seven home runs in a three game span. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Thomas.
HF: Mr. Thomas, you made your major league debut in 1951. What is the most significant difference between the game in the 1950s and the game today?
FT: (One word) Money
HF: That is a great answer and says it all. There is no need to elaborate. Anyway, your first year as a regular was 1953 when you hit 30 home runs for a Pirates team that hit only 99 home runs. The only other Pirate to have a home run total in double figures was Cal Abrams, who was not a slugger. How difficult was it for you as a hitter without anyone in the lineup to protect you?
FT: It was tough but I did the best I could and let the chips fall where they may. I hit 30 home runs and had 102 RBIs in 1953, which are still records for a rookie center fielder.
HF: I bet not too many fans know that. I certainly didn’t, and the fact that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were rookies just two season earlier makes the record even greater. What are some other records that you hold?
FT: I started at third base for the National League All-Star team in 1958 and hit 35 home runs that season, which is still a record for a Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman. When I was with Braves in 1961, we hit 4 home runs in the same inning. Mathews, Aaron, and Adcock hit home runs. I followed with a home run and we set the record which Minnesota and Cleveland later tied. I was the first player to hit the FOURTH home run in an inning. In 1962 I was hit by a pitch twice in the same inning but not too many people know that I made the last put out in the Polo Grounds against the Giants in 1957 and hit the first Mets home run in the Polo Grounds in 1962.
HF: Being a rookie is always difficult. Who on the Pirates influenced you the most when you first joined the team?
FT: Lenny Levy, who was a coach with the Pirates, gave me good advice and always kept after me to keep improving. Frankie Gustine was like a father to me and Ralph Kiner told me to watch how they pitched to him because that would be the way they would pitch to me.
HF: I read that you used to challenge other players to measure a distance of 60’6″ and then to throw a baseball as hard as they could and that you told them you would catch it barehanded – and you always did.
FT: I never lost. The toughest was Don Zimmer because he knew that holding your fingers across the seam wouldn’t produce movement on the ball so Zimmer would throw me a spitter but I still caught it. You see, as a kid, I played fast pitch softball without a glove and I got used to catching barehanded. The whole thing about catching fastballs barehanded started down in Waco, Texas in 1949 when a guy from Brooklyn, Bill Pierro, dared me to catch his fastball without a glove. I caught his first three and he said he hadn’t warmed up, so he warmed up and I caught his next five. One time when I was with the Mets, we were playing the Giants. Richie Ashburn, who was our centerfielder, bet Willie Mays $100 that I could catch his hardest throw bare handed. Willie took the challenge and I caught his first throw but he said it didn’t count because he hadn’t warmed up. Then he said the bet should be for $10, not for $100. Willie warmed up and I caught his throw. Willie is great.
HF: Mr. Thomas, you played in an era of superstars and you were an All-Star three times. Whom do you consider the greatest player of your era?
FT: Willie Mays because he could beat you so many ways. He could hit, hit with power, run, steal bases, field, and throw. It was a pleasure to play against him.
HF: Who were the three or four greatest pitchers you faced?
FT: Don Drysdale was the toughest pitcher for me. Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax were outstanding. I could always hit Don Newcombe.
HF: You and Yogi Berra. Mr. Thomas, you were originally an outfielder but were moved to third base and started at third base for the 1958 National League All-Star team. Alex Rodriguez has been moved to third base this year. What will be some problems that he will face?
FT: Well, I think he will be fine. One reason is that he is an infielder. A third baseman either makes the play or he doesn’t because it is mainly a reaction position. The toughest play is the swinging bunt which a shortstop doesn’t see much. As a shortstop, Jeter is great on that play. I don’t think Rodriguez will have too much trouble at third base.
HF: The 1953 Pirates won 50 and lost 104 while the 1962 Mets won 40 and lost 120. You hit 30 home runs for those Pirates and 34 home runs for the Mets and led the Mets in runs, hits, doubles, homers, RBIs, total bases, and slugging. How did those teams compare to each other?
FT: Well, the 1962 Mets were a good club but they had no pitching. The Mets could score runs but we lost a lot of games in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning. I wonder how we would have done if we had a closer like Mariano Rivera. Veterans like Richie Ashburn, Gil Hodges, Gus Bell, Charlie Neal, Gene Woodling and I could do some damage. The 1953 Pirates were a young team that would develop. If the Pirates today had stayed with the youngsters they had six or seven years ago, they would be a tough team today.
HF: In 1964 the Mets traded you to the Phillies, who were leading the league, in August. You were doing quite well for the Phillies, batting .294 with 7 home runs when you broke your thumb. The Cardinals went on to win the pennant by one game over the Phillies and Reds. What are your thought about what might have been if you had been able to play the last month of that season?
FT: Gene Mauch was the Phillies manager and he told me that cost us the pennant. I was really hot that August and I was hitting everything they threw me. I was on second base and when I tried to get back to the bag I slid headfirst. My thumb hit the pin that anchors the base and that was it. I put ice on the hand, stayed in the game and got two more hits. I went back to the hotel after the game and kept icing the hand but the ice melted and the hand blew up. At the hospital I wanted the doctor to give me Novocain so I could play but he refused. They put the hand in a steel cast which stopped me from playing.
HF: You played for a number of teams, including the Pirates, Mets, and Phillies. Do you identify with any one team more than the others?
FT: No. I am grateful to have put on a major league uniform and to have been a major league player.