Obituary: Frank Thomas (1929-2023)

RIP to Frank Thomas, an All-Star slugger from the 1950s and ’60s. He is not to be confused with the more recent, Hall of Fame member Frank Thomas. Between the two of them, they hit 806 home runs, which surely is a record for more homers hit by a single name. The elder Thomas died at the age of 93 in his hometown of Pittsburgh on January 16. Thomas played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1951-58), Cincinnati Reds (1959), Chicago Cubs (1960-61, 1966), Milwaukee Braves (1961, 1965), New York Mets (1962-64), Philadelphia Phillies (1964-65) and Houston Astros (1965).

Frank Joseph Thomas was born on June 11, 1929, in Pittsburgh. The family lived in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which was very close to Forbes Field. Thomas was born five blocks away from the park and said that he spent a lot of his youth climbing the fence at Forbes to get a look at his baseball heroes — the Waner brothers, Pie Traynor and Arky Vaughan to name a few. He got his education at Mount Carmel College in Ontario, Canada, which his SABR biography notes was a seminary school. Thomas said in a 1958 interview that he studied for the priesthood for more than four years. “Then when I was in a novitiate in New Baltimore, Pa., in 1947, I struggled with myself. I already had been assigned my religious name — Godfrey — and was wearing a habit. But should I become a ballplayer or a priest? Finally I took my problem to a priest who agreed I should go into baseball. He told me to pray for the best.”

Thomas stood 6’3″ and weighed 190 pounds when he was 18 years old. Upon leaving the seminary, he played neighborhood ball and then joined a semipro team in Carnegie. Pittsburgh scouts saw him and offered Thomas $150, but then the Cleveland Indians offered $3,100. Pirates general manager Roy Hamey offered $100 more than Cleveland, and Thomas signed. That money paid off his parents’ mortgage. A Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram report stated that Thomas was talented enough to move straight to Triple-A, but he was advised by veteran ballplayer Al Lopez to spend at least a season in the low minors. So he went to Class-D Tallahassee, hit .296, slugged 14 homers, became an All-Star, and won a team MVP award, a $100 watch, and a new suit courtesy of a local men’s clothing store. He was on pace to shatter the Georgia-Florida League record of 141 RBIs but fell short with a still-impressive 132.

Pittsburgh didn’t bring Thomas to the majors immediately. He spent a few more years gradually moving his way up the minor league system, hitting for a good average and slugging long home runs. His biggest battles in the minor leagues involved his salary. He was late in signing his 1951 contract because he wasn’t satisfied with the offer. He stated that he would be losing money if he was expected to sign for his 1950 salary of $2,250. It would be the first of many battles with Pirates boss Branch Rickey. Thomas, when he did sign, hit 23 homers for New Orleans of the Southern Association in 1951, including four in a span of three days in June. Rickey and the Pirates brought him to the major leagues for the first time in August.

Thomas made his debut as a center fielder on August 17, 1951. He was 1-for-4 in an 8-3 win over the Chicago Cubs, with a double off pitcher Paul Minner and a sacrifice fly. He played regularly in center field through the end of the season and finished with a .264 batting average. He homered twice and drove in 16 runs. Despite the positive debut, Thomas spent just 6 games with Pittsburgh in 1952 as a September call-up. He was sent to the minors in early April during spring training, and he was so upset that he threatened to quit baseball. It took a long conversation with manager Billy Meyer and Branch Rickey Jr. to cool him off. Rickey Jr., aka “Twig,” offered a small raise as a consolation. Meyer was upset that Thomas played poorly after a winter spent playing ball in Puerto Rico and came to training camp overweight with a sore arm. Thomas was not happy about returning to New Orleans.

“I don’t like the weather at New Orleans,” he said. “It’s too hot here. Last year I lost 32 pounds in this heat, and I just can’t stand it. And I don’t think I got a fair chance this spring.” Thomas dominated the Southern Association, with a league-leading 35 home runs, 40 doubles and a .303 batting average. The Pirates finished in last place with 112 losses, and the primary center fielder, 19-year-old rookie Bobby Del Greco, hit .217. Though never expressly stated, Thomas’ season in the minors seems like a punishment for his attitude.

Thomas’ contract negotiations sometimes went smoothly — he was the first Pirate to sign in 1952. Here he is with Branch Rickey Jr. Source: The Pittsburgh Press, January 11, 1952.

Thomas found himself in the doghouse again in 1953 when he asked for a pay raise. He may have found himself back in purgatory (aka New Orleans), but he started hitting so many home runs in the spring that Pittsburgh couldn’t ignore his power any longer. He didn’t play much in April, acting as a backup outfielder at all three outfield positions. Thomas was given a start on May 3 against St. Louis was was 3-for-4 with a double and home run, 2 RBIs, a walk and 3 runs scored. That one game boosted his average from .150 to .261, and he seldom left the lineup after that. His batting average fluctuated between the .290s to the low .200s before ending at .255, but he led the team with 30 home runs and 102 RBIs. When he was at his lowest point and facing another demotion to New Orleans, hitting coach George Sisler worked with him to improve his timing at the plate. The team’s former biggest power threat, Ralph Kiner, was traded to the Cubs in June of 1953, and that move left Thomas as the biggest bat in the lineup.

Kiner had been a columnist for The Pittsburgh Press while he played there, and he moved his column to Chicago with him. In September, he gave a little insight about how Thomas was viewed by the Pirate front office. During a luncheon in New Orleans, Rickey was asked by an attendee why he didn’t raise Thomas’ salary. The general manager replied curtly, “He’ll get a raise when he deserves one.” “I sure would like to sit in on the next salary conference between Thomas and Mr. Rickey,” Kiner wrote. “Frank really has some cards to play this time.”

Thomas reportedly doubled his salary from $6,000 to $12,000 in 1954 and clobbered 23 home runs. He did it in spite of Forbes Field’s reconfigured outfield, which removed the “Greenberg Gardens” that made the left field fence 335 feet from home plate. The new distance was a challenging 400 feet for a right-handed pull hitter like Thomas, because he had to hit the ball over the left field scoreboard. Rickey even acknowledged that the change posed a challenge to Thomas but was happy that the slugger posted a .298 batting average in ’54. “Frankly, I’d rather have Thomas hitting .300 than winning the home run title. Hitting .300 would make him a more valuable team man,” Rickey said. “Pitchers must pitch to him now, which is in his favor.”

Thomas never hit for such a high average again. He was named to the All-Star Team for the first time in 1954 and struck out against Bob Porterfield in his only at-bat. He would be an All-Star for three of his eight seasons with the Pirates and receive MVP votes in five. In his best year, 1958, Thomas slashed .281/.334/.528 for an .863 OPS, with career highs in home runs (35) and RBIs (109). He finished fourth in the MVP award behind Ernie Banks, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron. By then, he had moved to third base and was in the starting lineup for the National League All-Star Team. Thomas was 1-for-3 with a single off Ray Narleski and a walk against Bob Turley.

In Thomas’ 6 full seasons with Pittsburgh, he averaged a .277/.335/.480 slash line with 25 doubles, 27 home runs and 91 RBIs. He also led the team in contract disputes. Rickey, as revered as he is for his work in breaking baseball’s color barrier, also kept team purse strings as tight as possible. The Pirates were a perennial second-division team during this time, and they could lose 90 or more games with or without Thomas in the lineup. Thomas asked for salaries that seem shockingly low today but were unreasonable by Rickey’s standards. The outfielder even protested by taking a job at a Pittsburgh hardware store in March of 1955 when he should have been at training camp in Fort Myers, Fla., for spring training. Inevitably, the team and the player would find a compromise, and Thomas be a lineup staple for another year. In 1956, he led the majors with 157 games played. As younger and better-fielding outfielders like Roberto Clemente and Bill Virdon joined the team, Thomas moved to the corner infield positions more and more frequently. He was, to be charitable, out of his depth in the infield. However, his bat was so valuable that the team accepted the defensive shortcomings. Thomas took to the position changes without complaint, only saying he would play anywhere but catcher.

Source: The Chicago Tribune, June 26, 1960.

The 1958 season was a special one because the Pirates went 84-70 to finish second in the National League. It was the team’s best finish in years, even if the Bucs never seriously challenged the pennant-winning Milwaukee Braves. Toward the end of the season, Thomas was given his own night at Forbes Field. He said he never dreamed of a Frank Thomas night, “but I’ll admit I dared hope I would be a major leaguer and should wear a Pirate uniform,” he said.

Following the team’s strong season, general manager Joe Brown, who had taken over after Rickey retired in 1955, sought to improve the team and made a blockbuster trade on January 30, 1959. Pittsburgh sent Thomas, pitcher Whammy Douglas and outfielders Jim Pendleton and John Powers to the Cincinnati Reds for catcher Smoky Burgess, pitcher Harvey Haddix and third baseman Don Hoak. All three of the new Pirates helped the team win the World Series in 1960, so it was a brilliant deal for Pittsburgh. For Thomas, it began his career as an itinerant slugger; he played for six National League teams over the remaining eight years of his career.

Thomas had nowhere to play in Cincinnati except for third base. Frank Robinson occupied first base, and the Reds outfield consisted of Jerry Lynch, Gus Bell and exciting rookie Vada Pinson. Thomas didn’t field well and didn’t hit well in Cincinnati, and attempts to move him to left field and first base didn’t improve his batting. There were some extenuating circumstances — Thomas’ stellar 1958 season was interrupted in August when he tried to hit a Tom Acker inside fastball, which shattered his bat and sent splinters into his thumb. He hit 3 home runs over the rest of the ’58 season, and offseason surgery to remove pieces of cartilage from his hand didn’t leave him in good shape for his Reds debut. After hitting just 12 home runs with a .225 average, Cincinnati traded Thomas after one season to the Chicago Cubs for reliever Bill Henry and outfielders Lee Walls and Lou Jackson. The Cubs obtained him with the hope that he could provide lineup protection for Ernie Banks, who was being intentionally walked more than any player in baseball. Thomas raised his home run total to 21 with the Cubs in 1960 but still hit a disappointing .238. A couple of weeks into the 1961 season, the Cubs traded Thomas to the Milwaukee Braves for utility player Mel Roach. The Braves’ first series after the trade was in Chicago, so Thomas put on Roach’s uniform and helped lead the Braves to an 8-5 with with an RBI double against his former teammates.

By then, Thomas had undergone a second surgery on his hand and was healthy. He revived his career with the Braves and hit .284 with 25 homers. For the 1961 season at least, he filled the left field hole that had been plaguing the Braves for several years. At the end of the season, Milwaukee sent him to the expansion New York Mets. The Mets also received infielder Rick Herrscher in May of 1962 and sent veteran Gus Bell to the Braves.

Thomas was a bright spot in the historically bad 1962 Mets season. He homered 34 times and drove in 94 runs. He held the single-season Mets home run record until Dave Kingman hit 36 in 1975. He hit home runs on April 28 and the first game of an April 29 doubleheader to lead the Mets to a franchise first — a two-game winning streak. (They then lost the second game of the doubleheader 10-2). He tied a record when he homered twice in three consecutive games between August 1-3, but the Mets lost all three games. One of the home runs was a grand slam, and the other five were solo shots. His performance earned him a second season with the Mets. Thomas was bothered by a bad back in 1963, and his power fell off noticeably. He hit 15 home runs and had just 9 doubles in 126 games. His home run totals stayed down in 1964, and the Mets traded him to Philadelphia in exchange for infielder Wayne Graham, pitcher Gary Kroll and cash.

Thomas and Mets manager Casey Stengel didn’t always see eye to eye. Thomas didn’t agree with all of Stengel’s moves and said so, and Stengel felt that Thomas was too much of a pull hitter. He also, according to Daily News writer Dick Young, got into a screaming match with a Mets trainer on a team flight and took a swing at a reporter. Stengel, at least, gave Thomas a good report as he headed out of town.

“Maybe he talks too much and maybe he gets angry,” Stengel said. “But he busts his tail for you, and how can you laugh at 34 home runs?”

Thomas’ time with the Phillies started well. The team was in pennant contention, and Thomas was used as relief for first baseman John Herrnstein. He hit 7 home runs over 39 games with Philadelphia, giving him 10 on the year. He broke his thumb in late September but kept playing, wearing a cast. The ending with the Phillies, though, was an unfortunate event that stained Thomas’ legacy and derailed a potential Hall of Fame career… or two.

The incident happened on July 3, 1965. The contemporary reports stated that Thomas and teammate Dick Allen got into a fist fight by the batting cage — reports conflicted on who threw the first punch, but the majority stated that Allen did it. Thomas swung a bat at Allen, and the blow glanced off his shoulder. Then they were separated by teammates. That evening, Thomas hit a pinch-hit home run and Allen drove in 4 runs with a pair of triples. After the game was over and the Phillies had lost 10-8, Thomas was placed in irrevocable waivers.

Following Thomas’ dismissal from the team, the Phillies gave a general statement about Thomas being waived for the good of the team, and Allen was ordered not to talk to the press. Thomas, who was no longer beholden to team rules, freely gave his side of the story. “I’ve been unfairly blamed,” he said. In Thomas’ version, Allen was getting on him about striking out with two runners on base in the previous game. When Thomas dropped down a bunt in the batting cage, Allen said, “That’s 21 hours too late.” Thomas, by his own admission said, “You’re running off at the mouth like Mohammed Cassius Clay.” He then added that Allen was the one who got into the batting cage with him, Allen was the one who hit him first, and Allen was the one who refused Thomas’ apologies before and after Thomas struck him with the bat.

Thomas’ attitude was well known. “The small trouble with Frank Thomas is that nobody can stand him. He has the most abrasive personality in baseball,” wrote Young. But even Young excused the fight as, essentially, Frank Thomas being Frank Thomas. Phillies fans liked Thomas. He was the tough, white, veteran gamer. Allen was the young, black, unknown quantity who was leading the NL in batting at the time. The white columnists who wrote about the Phillies couldn’t believe that Thomas was waived and Allen suffered no punishment. “So Thomas, who just last September played with his broken arm in a cast to try and help the fading Phils capture the pennant, will now be exiled from the famed ‘City of Brotherly Love,” wrote Tennessean columnist Jim Andrews.

Allen had gone through hell in the Phillies minor leagues, playing in places like Little Rock, where black players were subject to verbal abuse and threats. The Phillies had been slow to integrate, and Allen was the team’s first African-American star. He didn’t have it easy with the team, and his forced silence while Thomas told his version of the fight made Allen the villain. A 2015 Philadelphia Inquirer pieced various reports together. Thomas admitted he was a “needler” who liked getting on people who couldn’t take it… like Allen. The late reporter Bill Conlin said that Thomas earlier asked Allen to carry his bags to the hotel lobby and called him “boy.” Thomas probably thought it was a hilarious joke. It was “needling.”

Thomas poses with Mets manager Casey Stengel after he was traded from New York to Philadelphia. Source: Star Gazette, August 8, 1964.

It was racist and inexcusable. Calling Allen “Mohammed Cassius Clay” (or Malcolm X, according to some reports) was as well. That’s not just looking at it in the lens of 2023. It was racist in 1965, too. For Thomas, life went on. He was acquired by the Houston Astros and then the Braves over the rest of the 1965 season, and he played a few games for the Cubs in 1966 before retiring just shy of his 37th birthday. Allen, though, was booed by the Phillies fans, who had sided with Thomas. He had to wear a batting helmet on defense to protect his head from thrown objects. He started drinking, which affected his performance, and he asked to be traded out of Philadelphia. He, like Thomas, ended his career playing for a number of different teams. In spite of it all, Allen put together a wonderful career, one that should be rewarded with induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But if his time in Philadelphia had gone better, had the fight not taken place, maybe his Hall of Fame case becomes more of a slam dunk.

Incidentally, the treatment of Allen by the Phillies fans was one of the reasons why the Cardinals’ Curt Flood refused to accept a trade to Philadelphia, which essentially ended what to that point had been a great career. Had Philadelphia not gained a bad reputation among African-American ballplayers as a result of the Thomas-Allen fight, maybe Flood would have accepted the trade and played at a high level for another four or five seasons. One could make a Hall of Fame case for Flood, too.

Thomas never really backed down from his belief that he was treated unfairly. As late as a 2017 interview, he portrayed himself as just being too honest. “People don’t like the truth. I don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Try to harm me? If I have something to say, I will say it to your face.” 

Thomas played in the majors for 16 years. He had a slash line of .266/.320/.454, and his 1,671 hits included 262 doubles, 31 triples and 286 home runs. He drove in 962 runs and scored 792 times. He had a career OPS+ of 107 and an OPS of .774.

During his career, Thomas was known as “Big Donkey” or “Lurch,” after the Addams Family butler. He added an additional nickname decades after his playing career ended. That happened when the other Frank Thomas, the Hall of Fame White Sox slugger known as “The Big Hurt,” came to the majors. The first Frank Thomas seemed to enjoy seeing the new Frank Thomas do so well and began signing his baseball cards as “The Original.” He also attended many Old Timers Games hosted by his numerous former teams.

Thomas was predeceased by his wife Dolores and daughter Sharon. He is survived by children Patty, Joanne, Maryanne, Frankie, Peter, Paul and Mark, and their families.

For more information: New York Times

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2 thoughts on “Obituary: Frank Thomas (1929-2023)

  1. An excellent summary of Frank’s life and career.
    One item to correct. Ralph Kiner was traded from the Pirates to the Cubs
    in June of 1953 not June of 1963.
    Keep up the outstanding and informative work.

    Liked by 1 person

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