COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Frank Thomas was always driven to excel, and that sure served him well.
“I was never that blue-chip prospect,” he said. “I had to outwork my opponents.”
Hard to imagine now that Thomas was ever anything except a huge star.
For Thomas, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound former Chicago White Sox slugger known as the Big Hurt, life has come full circle — from awe-struck rookie in 1990 to baseball royalty.
Thomas was elected in January to the Hall of Fame, along with pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Also to be inducted Sunday are managers Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox, who were selected in December.
“This is the top 1 percent in all of baseball that gets in the Hall of Fame,” said Thomas, the first player elected to the Hall of Fame who spent more than half of his time as a designated hitter. “As a kid, the big dream is being a professional. But to make it to the Hall of Fame? Come on, you’ve got to pinch yourself. I’m very fortunate it happened for me, especially first ballot.”
Thomas won AL MVP awards in 1993 and 1994 and finished his 19-year career with a .301 batting average, 521 homers and 1,704 RBIs.
He also won the 1997 AL batting title and helped show that in more recent times a power hitter could also be selective at the plate.
Thomas played 16 years for the White Sox and established himself as the best hitter in franchise history. He’s the only player in major league history to log seven straight seasons with a .300 average, 20 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 walks.
Heady territory for a guy who didn’t take baseball seriously until he was 12 and many thought would end up as a star tight end in the NFL because of the devastating blocks he delivered.
“Hitting was something I took very serious. The way I swung the bat at times, you’d think I was 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds,” said Thomas, who decided to focus solely on baseball as a sophomore at Auburn. “But I cared about getting hits and scoring runs. A lot of people didn’t know that about my game. Yes, I hit a lot of home runs, drove in a lot of runs, but there were many days that I was just content getting singles and getting on base and letting the other guys drive me in.”
Just as impressive: Thomas, Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, and Ted Williams, are the only players in major league history to retire with a career batting average of at least .300, 500 home runs, 1,500 RBIs, 1,000 runs scored, and 1,500 walks.
The effect of the Steroids Era was front and center at last year’s induction ceremony. The 2013 class consisted of Jacob Ruppert, umpire Hank O’Day and catcher “Deacon” White — all three had been dead for more than 70 years — and was picked by a select 16-member committee.
It marked just the second time in 42 years that members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America failed to elect anyone. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clemens — all linked to steroids — didn’t even come close in their first year of eligibility.
That was not lost on Thomas.
“I played in an era that people are going to be thinking about for a long time,” said Thomas, who was plagued by injuries in his later years. “I’m proud that I stuck to my guns and did things the right way, the proper way.”
Induction day probably will seem like a reunion of sorts for Maddux, Glavine, and Cox, who were mainstays together on the Atlanta Braves for a decade.
“To have the opportunity to go in with two guys that were a teammate and a manager for a long time, guys that were such a big part of my career but also helped make me a better player, that’s a great opportunity,” Glavine said. “Every once in a while, I’ll have some moments where it’s hard to get my brain around what’s going on.”
Maddux was elected by an overwhelming margin, receiving 97.2 percent of the votes from the BBWAA. He won 355 games, four straight Cy Young Awards and a record 18 Gold Gloves. Glavine, who was selected by nearly 92 percent of the voters, had 305 wins and two Cy Young Awards.
Both Maddux and Glavine relied on pinpoint control to get the job done, changing speed and location on their pitches to keep hitters guessing.
Maddux won Cy Youngs from 1992-95 (Randy Johnson is the only other pitcher to win four straight), completing his impressive run with two remarkable years. During the strike-shortened 1994 season, Maddux went 16-6 with a career-best 1.56 ERA — the cumulative NL ERA was 4.21 — and the next year finished 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA.
Glavine was on the mound when the Braves won Game 6 to clinch the 1995 World Series and give the city of Atlanta its lone major sports title. The lefty pitched one-hit ball over eight innings in a 1-0 victory over Cleveland.
“I competed against those guys. They knew how to pitch,” said Thomas, picked on nearly 84 percent of ballots. “They were warriors.”
Considering the size of this induction class — it equals those of 1971, 1955 and 1953 as the largest ever — and the imposing credentials of the inductees, officials are expecting a very large crowd as the Hall of Fame continues the celebration of its 75th anniversary.
Heck, they’ll need extra seats just for Torre’s entourage.
“I’m looking forward to a huge turnout,” said Thomas, who’s from Georgia. “I’m so happy and proud. To go in with the three most iconic managers of my time, it doesn’t get any better than that, to be a part of that group.”