Frank Thomas was a one and only “Original” far more than just being blessed with a name that came to fame for another individual.
Mets fans shed a tear yesterday, along with fans from any of the six other teams that Frank Joseph Thomas played for in his 16-year major league career, when word came out of Pittsburgh that the former All-Star outfielder had passed at the age of 93.
The Pittsburgh native had taken a fall in 2021 and was confined to a wheelchair since, but still braved the journey to Citi Field in August of last year for the highly-anticipated Oldtimer’s Day that celebrated the 60-year history of the New York Mets.
“It’s good to be back, good to be remembered,” said Thomas at the event.
“I’m so thankful that my dad was able to go to Oldtimer’s Day,” said Maryanne Pacconi, Thomas’ daughter, in a statement released by the Mets with the news of his passing. “It meant the world to him to see his old teammates. I was thrilled with how the fans greeted him. I was so happy to see him in uniform again. We will treasure those memories forever.”
He reveled in sharing memories and the stories from his era with teammates such as Jay Hook, Ed Kranepool, Steve Dillon, and Ken McKenzie.
Thomas was there from the beginning, having been “bought” by the expansion franchise in November of 1961 from the Milwaukee Braves, a course-change that didn’t sit too well with the three-time All-Star at the time.
“The Braves General Manager, John McHale, signed me at the end of ’61 and said, “Frank, you’re going to be my left fielder in 1962.” A month later, he sent me to the Mets.”
For the Mets and their skipper, the legendary Casey Stengel, Thomas was their primary left fielder right from Opening Day. And he became the team’s best hitter, banging out 34 home runs and driving in 94 runs to lead the club in both categories.
Those are Pete Alonso/Aaron Judge numbers, boys and girls, and here is the proof:
Thomas’ home run total represented 24% of the team’s total home run output of 139 longballs. His RBIs represented 16% of the team’s run production.
In 2022, Alonso’s 40 home runs was 23% of the team’s HR total (171), and his team-record 131 RBIs claimed 17% of the 735 runs produced. Judge’s AL record-setting 62 home runs was also 24% of the Yankees’ home run total of 254, and his 131 RBIs was 17% of the team’s 764 runs batted in.
Amazing correlation, isn’t it. Then you’ll really be amazed when you hear that after his impressive 1962 season, Mets President George Weiss was NOT going to offer a Thomas a raise. Thomas went to Stengel to plead his case, and he did, which resulted in a $5,000 raise for his righthanded slugger.
To also put those numbers in perspective, other than Thomas’ 34 home runs in 1962, the second highest home run total on the club was by Marvelous Marv Throneberry with 16. Sixteen! And other than those 94 runs batted in, the second highest total was by Felix Mantilla with 59.
Thomas once said of his “marvelous” teammate: “Throneberry stood (at the plate) like (Mickey) Mantle until he swung the bat.”
Yes, of course, the ’62 Mets became beloved and legendary for their ineptitude, and lost a record 120 games. But Thomas always liked to point out that they lost over 50 games by one-run or in the late innings, so had they been just a little bit more efficient in those areas, they would have been a contender. Well, who knows, they didn’t often look like a contender, but who’s going to blame him for that bit of wishful thinking.
There was a fabled story about the ’62 Mets with Thomas reportedly as a participant that Thomas refutes. Supposedly, Mets shortstop Elio Chacon, who spoke little English, taught centerfielder Richie Ashburn that when he shouted, “Yo lo tengo,” it means, “I got it,” and to back off.
Nonetheless, there was a game when the two collided going for a popup, but somehow, the story involved Thomas in the collision, shouting, “What’s a yellow tango,” or something like that.
Thomas claims the tale was fabricated. “Never happened. I confronted Richie about it, and all he said was, ‘Yeah, but it makes a good story!’”
It wasn’t a moment as disputed as the day Babe Ruth supposedly pointed before hitting a home run, but it’s a story that has lasted 60 years thus far, so who knows.
Thomas’ team mark of 34 home runs stood as the franchise record until 1975, when Dave Kingman broke it with 36. His RBI total wasn’t touched until 1970 when Donn Clendenon eclipsed it with 97.
Thomas also was a participant to a very positive moment of baseball history in 1961. He was the “cleanup” hitter of sorts in a quartet of Braves batters that struck four consecutive home runs. In a game against Cincinnati, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, and Joe Adcock all went deep, back-to-back-to-back. Baseball had never seen four batters hit one out in order. Thomas completed the first four-in-a-row home run derby.
But Thomas was more than just his numbers and baseball proficiencies. The big and strong (6’3”, 200 lbs.) outfielder (who also played many games at first and third) early in his career picked up the nickname, “The Big Donkey,” a monicker he was obviously not too fond of, actually considered the priesthood as a career path as a teenager.
He attended a seminary school in Ontario and it was there he made the seminal decision that baseball was his life’s journey.
“I told my wife before we got married, you know, baseball is my first love,” Thomas told Mets broadcaster Howie Rose in a 2019 interview that can be found on You Tube, “(and) you’re No. 2. And after I finished baseball, you moved up to No. 1. (But) if you give me more static, you’ll move back to No. 2.”
Thomas married Dolores Wozniak in 1951 and they joyfully went to just about any and all baseball events together during and after his career until her death in 2012. They enjoyed eight children, 12 grandchildren, and at last count, ten great grandchildren.
The Original Met, who broke in with the Pirates in 1951 – with Ralph Kiner as a teammate and beloved confidant – and also spent years with the Reds, Cubs, Phillies, and briefly with the Astros, in addition to his time with the Mets and Braves, could be considered “feisty” by some, as he always spoke his mind.
It was more of a quiet “John Wayne-like” confidence that was as friendly as it was feisty. He could recall virtually every detail from his career with savant-like accuracy.
He was very “fan-friendly” and literally answered every piece of mail or autograph request with handwritten missives in return.
“I’ve been very fortunate and I thank the Good Lord for it, because any ballpark I’ve gone into, fans were good to me.”
As noted, he was a frequent guest at hundreds of baseball events in retirement and even made the annual trek to Cooperstown during Induction Weekend where he set up a personal autograph booth and signed photos from his career for charity. He was quite a “salesman” and could quickly guilt you into buying one of his signed photos for $20, and by all accounts, that money went to very legitimate charities benefitting children with disabilities or life-threatening illnesses.
After Frank “Big Hurt” Thomas became well-known for his batting prowess with the Chicago White Sox, the “first” Frank Thomas became the “Original” Frank Thomas, and signed all of his autographs with that designation.
And with hundreds of friends, baseball acquaintances and fans from over the years, if you became a friend of Frank Thomas, you became a friend for life.
With an address book of many, many friends, Thomas each year created a custom Christmas card that he sent out every year as early as November. It would feature a collage or image from his career, sometimes one or more of his baseball cards or other baseball related scene.
His unique Christmas card this past holiday season featured a Mets-centric theme, with a color shot of Thomas in his Mets uniform surprinted over a sepia toned shot of four 1962 Mets leaping in the air at the Polo Grounds with the message, “Celebrate the Season with family and friends!”
Thomas was even a baseball card collector, and was much more involved in the hobby than your average major league player who might only be concerned with their own cards. At one point, he owned every Topps baseball card from 1952 through 1992, but a fire in the early ‘90s destroyed his home and including his card collection.
He also had saved bats from his career and from his teammates, a custom- made plaque that listed and detailed all of his major league home runs, and had amassed signed team baseballs from every club he played with, but those, too, were lost in the fire.
When card collectors heard about the fire, they started volunteering cards from their sets to help Frank replace his collection. He would occasionally trade his autograph for cards, or at least thank his benefactors with an autograph or two. He acknowledged receiving cards and letters from literally all over the country and all over the world.
After a few years, he rebuilt his collection short of just eight cards from the ’52 set, but those missing ballplayers included the likes of Mickey Mantle, Roy Campanella, Bill Dickey and other highly priced collectibles.
After some more years passed, Thomas decided to auction the collection for charity. “I was getting up in age, my kids didn’t want them, and I didn’t want it to be a burden for them, so I decided to put it all up for auction so someone else could enjoy them as much as I did.”
Unfortunately, the auction house Thomas sided with cheated him out of a good portion of the funds collected, and they ended up going to jail.
For his 16-year career, Thomas batted .266 – which ironically is the exact average he produced in 1962 for the Mets – with 286 home runs, and 962 RBIs, with 792 runs scored, .320 OBP, .454 SLG.
Yes, Frank Thomas was an “original” one and only. We’re going to miss him.
God bless Frank Thomas. RIP, Frank.
Story by permission of Andy Esposito, courtesy of NYsportsday.