As a grinning Frank Thomas signed "HOF" on a baseball next to his autograph for the first time Wednesday at U.S. Cellular Field, it finally hit the best hitter in White Sox history just how indelible a mark he had left on the game.
"It's a gigantic moment for me,'' Thomas said a news conference.
None have been bigger for the player known as the Big Hurt.
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Most deservedly, Thomas joined former Braves pitchers Greg Maddux, also a former Cub, and Tom Glavine in the 2014 Hall of Fame class elected by the members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. He appeared on 83.7 percent of the ballots. A lifetime .301 hitter with 521 home runs who spent 16 of his 19 seasons in a White Sox uniform, Thomas possessed credentials that made his election inevitable — yet the Big Hurt's wait was anything but painless.
"It has been a long week, really bad last 72 hours … it makes everyone nervous,'' Thomas admitted with his wife and children in the first row. "I had an impact and I'm proud of that impact, and today to be here as a first-ballot Hall of Famer … what a day.''
The day, perhaps the best Chicago baseball will see in 2014, only could have been better if Maddux would have spent the majority of his career in town instead of leaving in 1992 and gone in alongside Thomas as a Cub. Alas, Maddux didn't, but this was a day more appropriate for Chicagoans to reflect and rejoice than regret. So touched was Thomas that he hesitated to thank former teammates and coaches besides personal hitting guru Walt Hriniak for fear of leaving somebody out.
"It's going to take me all the way to July (during his induction speech) to get that on paper,'' said Thomas, 45. "It's such a long list.''
Only Thomas' list of accomplishments might be longer. Raise a glass of Big Hurt beer to the toughest out ever on the South Side. An unparalleled career that began Aug. 2, 1990, at County Stadium in Milwaukee when he went 0-for-4 while batting fifth between Carlton Fisk and Sammy Sosa culminated with Wednesday's call from Cooperstown, N.Y.
One of just four players in major-league history with a career .300 batting average, 500 home runs, 1,500 RBIs, 1,000 runs scored and 1,500 walks, Thomas acknowledged putting early pressure on himself to live up to a Chicago standard set by Michael Jordan. In a different sport, Thomas delivered consistent excellence for a dominant seven-year stretch in the 1990s.
"Baseball royalty,'' White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf called Thomas in a statement.
Indeed, Thomas was to hitting what Baryshnikov was to dancing, a master combining fluidity and force to become the Hall's first primary designated hitter. His numbers made the argument an easy one. Though if you seek a livelier barroom debate, ask your buddy who is Chicago's best right-handed hitter ever, Thomas or Ernie Banks?
A broader consensus agrees Thomas will go into the Hall as the unofficial ambassador of clean baseball, a symbol for anti-PED players in a shrine at which alleged steroid cheats like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sosa are not welcome. Not that Thomas, who felt no vindication, wanted to dwell on cheaters on the day he prospered.
"It's getting old,'' Thomas said. "You don't want to speak for others but I can speak for myself. I'm 100 percent clean. Doing something the right way is something I take pride in.''
Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who prepared the Mitchell Report in 2007 on baseball's steroid problem, felt just as proud about the crowning achievement of the only active player who cooperated with him.
"As a baseball fan I have long admired Frank Thomas for his skill, commitment, and endurance,'' Mitchell told the Tribune in a statement. "After I conducted my investigation … I admire Frank even more. He was willing to directly confront that difficult issue."
Down in Thomas' hometown of Columbus, Ga., they say that was how Thomas was raised by parents Frank Sr. and Charlie Mae. Baseball coach Bobby Howard recalled the discipline Thomas became known for at the plate developing after his 6-foot-5, 255-pound clean-up hitter got tired of running as punishment for swinging at bad pitches.
"They put on a bulletin board 'If you want to run track, come out for baseball,' and I was trying to test Frank,'' Howard said on the phone. "He learned fast. He put us on the map.''
Yet, unbelievably, after nobody selected him in baseball's 1986 amateur draft, Thomas went to play football at Auburn as a highly rated tight end. Baseball became secondary until an injury early in Thomas' sophomore football season in the fall of 1987 made former Auburn football coach Pat Dye call Tigers baseball coach Hal Baird.
"Pat said, 'Is Frank good enough at baseball to make a living and take care of his family?' I said, 'Coach, he's the best I've ever seen. Why?''' Baird recalled in an interview. "He said, 'Frank and his dad want to give up football and if baseball's worth his while I'll keep him on scholarship until he gets drafted.' We didn't do anything after that except make sure Frank got to the park on time.''
A generation later, Thomas' time had come to celebrate being the first predominantly White Sox player since Nellie Fox in 1997 to earn induction. When Thomas left the White Sox for the A's in 2006 bitter and hurt — "The hardest thing I had to do in my life,'' he said — the thought of returning one day to express gratitude to the organization never entered his mind. But entering legacy territory changes people.
"When you are that big organization guy for so long, you feel like you are invincible and no one is invincible in pro sports,'' Thomas said. "I've done a lot of growing up since then. I'm just happy to be sitting right here in Chicago and right here at U.S. Cellular Field, holding my Hall of Fame press conference. I'm proud of that.''
With that, Thomas walked outside where a white limousine waited to take the White Sox legend off to baseball immortality.