Over the next few weeks, we’ll be examining the merits—and relative lack of merits—of all 36 players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot for the purposes of better informing the electorate, i.e., you. All entries in the series can be found here.
When I was a kid, my brother and I used to hang out in a card and memorabilia shop near our house. On Saturdays, when the weather was too shitty to do anything outside and spending yet another afternoon sifting through tubs full of Legos just seemed like too much, we’d grab a few friends and walk to to the card store. Sometimes we’d buy a few packs, but mostly we liked to stare at the cards that the shop’s owner kept in a big glass case. These were the expensive cards, the ones that we were allowed to hold and gawk at in the store, but knew we could never own. There was the Hideo Nomo rookie card, the Manny Ramirez card with that awful green striped shirt, and, of course the Holy Grail: the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. My brother loved to look at the Griffey card, but my attention was always drawn to another section of the case, where I would stare at a particular Frank Thomas card.
In the foreground of the card sat the White Sox’s stadium, and in the background Thomas loomed like Godzilla, stepping gracefully over the wall behind home plate and onto the field, a bat slung over his right shoulder and a grin on his face. Honestly, it’s a pretty corny-ass baseball card, but at the time it captured everything about Frank Thomas.
This was an action hero in the performance of his duties rather than a ballplayer, an impossibly large man—nicknamed “The Big Hurt” for Christ’s sake—whipping a bat that looked like a toothpick in his massive hands through the zone with more speed and power than you’d ever seen before. In my eyes, Frank Thomas really was bigger than the stadium he played in.
Eventually, it wasn’t enough to just own enough Frank Thomas cards to fill a binder. I had to meet the man face to face. So when my family took its annual trip to spring training in Tucson, Ariz., I resolved that I would be leaving with Frank Thomas’s autograph.
I finally got my chance at a White Sox-Rockies game. We got to the stadium early, and I staked out my place along the first base line, adjacent to the Sox dugout. The stands were raised up a few feet from the field in that spot, and I was going to have to dangle my arms over the chest-high guard rail in front of me in order to toss my ball and pen down to Thomas. I remember being terrified that I was way too small to pull this off.
A few minutes before the game was set to start, I got my chance. The Big Hurt emerged from the dugout and took a few steps down the foul line, observing the throng of autograph seekers that had immediately popped up around me as soon as they glimpsed him from the dugout. He surveyed the scene for a moment, and then stepped right toward me. I had been stupid to worry about having to throw my ball and pen to him; he was so huge that he was able to just reach up and take them gently from my hands.
I really wanted to say “Thank you” as Thomas returned the ball and pen to my hands, but I couldn’t; the crush of people behind me had begun to surge forward, pinning me against the guard rail. One bar was pushing hard into my chest, and the other was jamming right into my stomach. I couldn’t wiggle my way free, I was in a lot of pain, and it was starting to become hard for me to breathe. You’re going to die in a goddamn spring training baseball stadium, you moron was the one thought filling my terrified child brain.
In the same moment, Thomas also got a little overwhelmed by the crowd. Balls and jerseys and pictures were being shoved in his face from all directions. People were just screaming whatever laudatory phrases they could think of: You’re the best, Frank! You’ll break every record in the book, Thomas! Big Hurt, baby! We love you, Big Hurt!
Thomas took a few steps back, and I caught his eye for the second time. I was crying at this point, and making weird, desperate noises with my mouth. The Big Hurt opened his mouth and bellowed.
All the yelling stopped for a moment.
“QUIT PUSHING, DAMMIT!”
The pressure on my chest and stomach suddenly released. I squirmed back through the crowd and found my seat.
An inescapable part of growing up is watching the superhumans of your youth become decidedly less superhuman. John McClane goes bald, Michael Jordan starts dressing like an eighth grader, and Sammy Sosa turns into a Pinterest-using vampire.
That never happened with Frank Thomas. Even when he was slogging through his final seasons in Toronto and Oakland, he was still a demigod. Just watch this CSN segment, in which a retired Frank Thomas rides the Red Line to Sox Park with a sports reporter, and try not to think about how easy it would have been for Thomas to just punch a goddamn hole through one of the little pillars in the train station. There’s a life sized statue of him at Sox Park; you should go see it if you ever get the chance. His forearms are the size of your thighs.
I took the ball that Thomas autographed and put it in a fancy plastic case. It stayed on the shelf all the way through high school; I’d take it in my hands and stare at it at least two or three times a month. After a while, the autograph on the ball began to fade, and eventually you could only make out the faint contours of where the signature had been.
It was up on the shelf, blank and unremarkable to the untrained eye, for years, and was eventually packed away in my mom’s attic with baseball cards and other bits of memorabilia when I left for college. I still think about that ball all the time.
So, right. You all should vote for Frank Thomas to make the Hall of Fame because he maybe kinda sorta saved my life one day. But even if you don’t vote for him, it won’t really matter. He’s still The Big Hurt.
Art by Sam Woolley