From Junior to Big Hurt: How Frank Thomas went from Columbus to the Hall of Fame

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 11, 2014 

During Frank Thomas' sophomore season, Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird got a call from football coach Pat Dye.

Thomas was a talented baseball player trapped in the hulking 6-foot-4, 240-pound body of a tight end.

"Big Frank" was several years from being the "Big Hurt."

Dye wanted to know two things: How good of a baseball player was Thomas, and could he earn a living playing the game? Dye's questions came after Thomas had flashed big-league power and potential as a freshman baseball player and was struggling with injuries on the football field.

Baird, after just one season of coaching Thomas, assured Dye he had the necessary talent to play professional baseball. Dye then made a decision that Baird suspects you would never see a Southeastern Conference football coach make today.

"Coach Dye said, 'Good, we will keep him on a football scholarship and let him play just baseball,'" Baird remembers.

More than 25 years later, Dye clearly made the right call.

And on Wednesday, it all translated into baseball immortality.

Thomas was selected on the first ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame after his 19 big-league seasons, mostly with the Chicago White Sox. He becomes the first Columbus native chosen for any of the professional sports halls of fame. Thomas will be inducted in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 27 along with former Braves manager Bobby Cox and pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

"I'm a Georgia kid, so going in with Glavine and Maddux and Bobby Cox, it means a lot to me," Thomas told MLB Network last week. "The whole state of Georgia is going to be there and I'm blessed I'll be able to be there with those guys."

Thomas is a Georgia kid, who admittedly grew from a boy to a man during his three years at Auburn, then set down roots in Chicago as a dominant American League hitter. He earned more than $104 million in salary and bonuses during his career, according to baseball-reference.com. During 13 of those seasons, Thomas made $5 million or more.

"Astronomical" is how Bobby Howard, Thomas' coach at Columbus High School, describes it today.

Thomas, 45, now splits time between Chicago and Las Vegas, where he owns a recording label.

"There are a lot of fingerprints on Frank Thomas," Howard said.

And Howard's were among the first. The two men have remained close -- exchanging text messages Wednesday after Thomas got the news he was in the Hall of Fame.

"Thanks Bobby it started with you!! Unreal day," Thomas texted his old coach an hour after the announcement.

Father's influence

Thomas grew up in Midtown's Boxwood neighborhood, a middle-class area located behind where the Columbus Public Library stands today.

His mother, Johnie Mae, still lives in Columbus.

If Thomas' life and career has fingerprints all over it, there is no doubt who was the thumbprint.

"In this community, Frank was 'Junior,'" Howard said. "His father was 'Big Frank.'"

And Frank's father, who worked in animal control for the city of Columbus, had the attention of all the neighborhood boys.

Columbus real estate broker Karl Douglass grew up in the same neighborhood and played on a Peach Little League all-star team with Thomas in 1981.

Early on, according to Douglass and others, the man that put Thomas on the right track -- and made certain he stayed there -- was Frank Thomas Sr.

"Big Frank put the fear of Jesus into every kid in that neighborhood," Douglass said.

Even when Thomas got to Auburn, his father played a role when called upon.

"I remember one time I called Big Frank and said, 'I need your help," Baird recalled. "Frank had missed two economics classes and I was afraid he would fall behind. 'Big Frank' assured me he would take care of it."

Later that day, Baird saw Big Frank's van on campus. The coach never asked exactly what happened, but he knows one thing -- "the problem was solved."

The elder Thomas died in 2001. "His dad was so concerned about every little thing about Frank," Howard said.

The big miss

By the time Thomas reached his senior baseball season at Columbus High, he had already been on a state championship team, signed a football scholarship with Auburn and would have been an all-state basketball player if he had not been injured.

All that was left was another state title and selection in the Major League Baseball amateur draft.

Neither happened. The Blue Devils lost to Brookwood in the state championship series. And every big-league club passed on Frank during the June draft, something that still baffles Baird.

"When Frank was in high school, I was convinced he was going to sign with the baseball club that drafted him," Baird said. "I thought he would not come to Auburn."

After the fact, Baird said scouts would say they did not draft him because they knew he was going to play college football.

"That was to cover their tail," Baird said. "I had one scout tell me, 'I have never seen him pull the ball.' I said, 'You are sick … good luck.'"

Howard thinks he knows what happened.

Most of the pro scouts came to the Bi-City tournament early in the season. Frank was coming off ankle surgery and didn't play well.

"He couldn't run," Howard said. "He was rusty and didn't have a good tournament -- he went something like 3 for 15. The scouts came in and said that was a football player trying to play baseball."

Wrong.

As badly as the scouts missed on Thomas, it set the tone for local scouting for years to come.

"Columbus didn't have a reputation back then," Howard said. "I have always said, them missing Frank put us on the map. You could tell the higher-ups were saying, 'That can never happen again.' I don't know if people lost their job over it, but they were highly scrutinized."

Jeff Boatner, now a Columbus High assistant and programmer at TSYS, was a sophomore hitting cleanup behind Thomas.

"Going to Auburn and playing football was the best thing that happened to him," Boatner said. "It transformed his body."

Howard recalls seeing an Auburn-Georgia doubleheader game during Thomas' freshman year. In the first game, Thomas pounded the ball.

"I think he went 2-for-4 with a double off the wall and a home run," Howard said. "Steve Webber, now a scout with the Yankees, was coaching Georgia. He came over to me between games and said, 'Is this guy really that good?"

He was.

Baird tells similar stories.

"We were playing Mississippi State and Ron Polk was their coach," Baird said. "We were talking before the series and he said they were just going to throw Frank breaking ball after breaking ball. The whole time he was talking I was thinking to myself, 'Please do. Please do just that.'"

Baird credits Howard and the Columbus High program for having Thomas ready to compete.

"He was so refined and sophisticated when he got here," Baird said. "He knew the strike zone better than five or six guys I had played with in the pros."

The summer between his sophomore and junior seasons, Thomas played in the prestigious Cape Cod League, where the top college players play essentially a minor league schedule.

John Castleberry, now a scout with the San Francisco Giants, coached Thomas that summer.

"At that time he was still a work in progress," Castlebury said. "At the time, he was a little immature. You could tell he was going through a maturation process."

When he returned to Auburn, he dominated the SEC and earned league MVP honors.

The major league teams that passed on Thomas three years earlier were lined up this time. He was taken with the seventh pick by the White Sox.

The Orioles had the first pick and took LSU pitcher Ben McDonald. The Braves had the second pick and took high school catcher Tyler Houston, a huge bust.

Another of the fingerprints on Thomas was his White Sox hitting coach, Walt Hriniak. Howard was with Thomas and Hriniak in Chicago several years ago when the White Sox put him on their wall of honor.

"You cannot understate the impact Walt Hriniak had on Frank," Howard said. "Frank loves the guy."

In 2010, Hriniak put Thomas' career in perspective during an interview with the Chicago Tribune.

"This isn't any B.S.," Hriniak said. "People ask me who was the greatest hitter I ever saw and I said if you needed a base hit, Wade Boggs ­-- but as far as the best all-around hitter, it was Frank Thomas, hands down. He could win a game with a single down the right-field line or home run to left.''

In late July, Baird and Howard plan to be in Cooperstown for Thomas' induction.

"I am going," said Howard, who drove to the Hall of Fame in August 2010 from Williamsport, Pa., when he was attending the Little League World Series.

Baird has never been to Cooperstown.

"I was going to go a few years ago and decided not to," he said. "I made a decision to wait and see it for the first time when Frank went in."

Douglass, the childhood friend from Boxwood, is also figuring out how to go to Cooperstown this summer.

But more than anything, he is thinking about Thomas' father.

"Big Frank probably would have cried," Douglass said. "He was so proud of his son and loved him more than the day is long."

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