When you think of Chicago pro sports in the 1990’s, a few names might come to mind.
Michael Jordan, Sammy Sosa, Mike Ditka, the list goes on.
But Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox dominated his league like no other in the 90’s and cemented his status as one of the great sluggers in baseball history.
Nicknamed “the Big Hurt”, Thomas manned first base and designated hitter for the White Sox from 1990 to 2005 and terrorized the American League with his power and hitting abilities.
1990 Chicago White Sox
Frank Thomas pic.twitter.com/tWnDRX9eky
— OldTimeHardball (@OleTimeHardball) January 10, 2022
A fruitful career led to Thomas being elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.
Early Life/High School
Thomas was born May 27, 1968 to Charlie Mae Thomas and Frank Thomas, Sr in Columbus, Georgia.
The Thomas family was working class.
Frank Sr. was a bail bondsman and Charlie Mae was employed as a textile worker.
Thomas’s parents encouraged Frank to stay out of trouble in his younger days, and he turned to athletics in his free time.
Thomas enjoyed hanging out at the local boys club and began playing a variety of sports, including baseball, football, and basketball.
Thomas excelled in these sports, and being bigger than peers his same age, he successfully lobbied his father and coaches to play up in age.
He started playing little league baseball and Pop Warner football with 12 year olds.
He was just nine years old at the time.
Thomas’ size and ability frightened other players, and he began drawing intentional walks in little league games, the pitchers being too scared to throw the ball over the plate.
Tragedy struck the Thomas family in 1977 when Thomas’s two-year-old sister Pamela succumbed to Leukemia.
This had a profound impact on Thomas as a young man and throughout his baseball career.
He began to focus strongly on his athletic endeavors and was determined to take his talents to the next level for himself and his family, promising he would become a great professional baseball player and use his talent and potential money to help.
Speaking of his sister’s passing to the Chicago Tribune, Thomas said:
“It was sad. It affected me. But it’s something you don’t look back on. The way I’ve dealt with it is to totally forget about it. As the years went by, it got easier and easier.”
Thomas would collaborate with The Leukemia Foundation in his playing career, donating money in his sister Pamela’s memory.
Attending Columbus High School in his Georgia hometown, Thomas continued to excel in baseball, but also had impressive years in basketball and football.
He played forward on the basketball team and was a standout tight end on the football team.
Thomas was a starter and batted cleanup on the baseball team in just his sophomore year at Columbus, a year in which the team would win the state championship.
He cemented himself as a prolific hitter with professional potential his senior year, in which he hit .440.
Thomas wanted to play professional baseball, and was expecting to be drafted and hopefully signed in the 1986 amateur draft, but wasn’t.
Surprised and saddened, Thomas would later tell the Chicago Tribune:
“I saw a lot of guys I played against get drafted, and I knew they couldn’t do what I could do.”
Always the competitor, Thomas did not let this setback derail his dreams and enrolled at Auburn University on scholarship to play football.
Coming into Auburn, Thomas began reminding coaches of Bo Jackson, another two-sport athlete who had just left the Tigers for the NFL and MLB.
Pat Dye, Auburn’s head football coach at the time commented:
“From the standpoint of a big, strong athlete, he was like Bo Jackson playing tight end. He had great coordination, he had great athletic ability, no fear.”
Dye believed that Thomas could be a legitimate professional football player at tight end, but recognized his skill and desire to play baseball.
While being recruited to Auburn, Thomas was offered a football scholarship but was always told he could play baseball too if he wished.
He received a similar offer from his home state Georgia Bulldogs.
Starting his Auburn Tigers career on the gridiron in the fall of 1986, Thomas was a backup tight end and did not stand out.
Auburn, Tight End 1986 pic.twitter.com/oy7IsyTYVB
— Random College Athletes (@RandomAthletess) September 10, 2021
He totaled just three catches all season, but his coaches saw potential in his size and athletic ability.
After an ankle injury following his freshman season, Thomas decided to leave football and focus his efforts on his true dream of being a professional baseball player.
Pat Dye, sticking true to his word, did not argue with Thomas’s decision and encouraged him to follow his dream, though believing Thomas had the potential to be a great tight end.
He once said:
“If he had stuck with football, he’d be going into the Hall of Fame as a football player.”
Following an uneventful football season his freshman year, Thomas took the Tigers baseball team by storm.
In the spring of 1987 he hit 22 home runs for a batting average of .380.
Thomas continued his tear for two more years, becoming a standout player at Auburn and in the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
In his sophomore and junior seasons, Thomas led the SEC in hitting and was named the SEC baseball player of the year in 1989.
Thomas is remembered now as one of Auburn’s greatest players ever, and was the first Auburn Tiger inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and has also been inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
As a Tiger, Thomas ranks second in batting average (.382), fifth in RBI (205) and third in home runs (49).
In between college seasons, Thomas also furthered his abilities and profile and played baseball for the U.S. Pan-American team in 1987 and played in 1988 for the Orleans Cardinals in the Cape Cod Baseball League, a premier summer league for collegiate players.
After being passed over in the draft out of high school, Thomas’s time for the pros had finally arrived.
He entered the 1989 draft as a standout player with a good resume.
He was eventually drafted by the Chicago White Sox seventh overall, in a draft that included the likes of Mo Vaughn and Chuck Knoblauch.
Drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 1st round (7th) of the 1989 MLB June Amateur Draft from Auburn University (Auburn, AL). pic.twitter.com/ptvYoGcwvq
— Scouting_Baseball (@scoutingbasebl) November 24, 2021
Following the Draft, Thomas reported to the minor leagues.
Thomas’s minor league career did not last long, as he was called up to the big league White Sox in August of 1990, just a year after being drafted.
He made his major league debut on August 2nd in Milwaukee against the division rival Brewers.
He went 0-4 in that game, but Thomas impressed immediately and posted a .330 average in just a 60 game stint towards the end of the season as a first baseman.
He would hit his first career home run on August 28th against the Twins in Minnesota.
— Baseball by BSmile (@BSmile) August 28, 2021
He quickly cemented himself as Chicago’s starting first baseman for the next decade and a half.
Nicknamed “the Big Hurt” due to his immense size (he stood 6’5 and weighed 240 pounds) and his ability to “hurt” the baseball and opposing pitchers with his slugging ability, Thomas became a feared hitter and one of baseball’s most exciting new talents.
He established himself as one of the league’s most complete hitters as he could hit for power, hit for average, and draw a lot of walks.
In just his first full season in 1991, Thomas was already in the MVP discussion.
He hit over 30 home runs and drove in north of 100 runs, winning his first Silver Slugger award and leading the league in on-base percentage.
He would finish 3rd in MVP voting as a 23-year-old with very little professional experience.
After another impressive season for Thomas in 1992, Thomas led the White Sox to the AL West title in 1993, winning his first MVP award in just his third full season.
He won the award unanimously on the backs of a season in which he hit 41 home runs, batted to a .317 average, and totaled 128 RBI.
Thomas had backed up the immense hype surrounding him with his amazingly consistent offensive production in his short career thus far.
Thomas had taken his ultra-competitive spirit from his younger years and college career to the big leagues.
Again speaking with the Chicago Tribune, Thomas said:
“Concentration is key. I try not to be distracted. Lately, I’ve been blowing a lot of people off because they’ve been getting in the way. I don’t like to do that. But to be successful, I’ve got to find time for myself.”
The 1994 season was marred by controversy as the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players had expired at the end of 1993.
This led to a player’s strike in August and the remaining games were cancelled, along with the postseason and World Series.
Despite the distractions, Thomas put up another monster year offensively and won his second MVP award.
Thomas became the sixth player in American League history to win consecutive MVP awards, joining the likes of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Jimmie Foxx, another first base slugger.
Throughout his MLB career, Thomas was amazingly consistent in his performance year to year.
Between his first full season in 1991 and 1997, Thomas finished in the top 10 in the MVP race every year.
𝐉𝐮𝐥𝐲 𝟏𝟏, 𝟏𝟗𝟗𝟓
During the 1995 All-Star Game, Frank Thomas launches a rocket down the line to hit the first ever White Sox home run in an All-Star Game, one day after winning the Home Run Derby.
Frank is the most under appreciated superstar in Chicago sports history pic.twitter.com/mpkiRYkbkk
— This Day in Chicago Sports (@ChiSportsDay) July 11, 2020
While not often leading the league in one particular offensive category, Thomas routinely batted over .300, hit over 30 home runs, and drove in over 100 runs during the early period of his career.
As time went on, nagging injuries began to bother him and he began mixing time at his natural position at first base and being the White Sox’ designated hitter.
1996 Chicago White Sox
Harold Baines and Frank Thomas pic.twitter.com/zPm41o3O56
— OldTimeHardball (@OleTimeHardball) December 31, 2021
While preferring to play first, the team was concerned with further wear and tear on his body.
Eventually, Thomas gradually became the team’s primary designated hitter as the 1990’s entered the 2000’s.
Thomas had an excellent 2000 season after some disappointing years in the late 1990’s where injuries and personal matters limited his production and time on the field.
He hit 43 home runs, batted .328, and totaled 143 RBI, making it the eighth season in which he hit at least 20 home runs, had 100+ RBI, and batted .300.
Only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had more of these seasons in their careers than Thomas.
As the 2000’s went on, Thomas continued to be ravaged by nagging injuries leading to missed games.
His father died in 2001, and soon after Thomas revealed that he would have season-ending surgery on his right arm.
He would only get the chance to play 20 games during that season.
In multiple seasons he would miss over half of his team’s games.
The White Sox won the World Series in 2005, but Thomas was only able to play in 34 games the entire season.
His contract was bought out following the World Series, making Thomas a free agent.
Thomas finished his decade and a half long White Sox career as the team’s all-time leader in home runs, RBI, doubles, walks, and runs.
Thomas would finish his career playing for the Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays, where he would be a productive offensive player but continued to deal with injuries.
He would hit his 500th career home run as a member of the Blue Jays in 2007, and retired after sitting out the 2009 season.
Thomas finished his impressive career with 521 home runs, a career .301 batting average, almost 2,500 hits, and 74 wins above replacement (WAR).
He made five all-star teams, won four silver slugger awards, and of course won back-to-back MVP awards in 1993 and 1994, with nine top-10 finishes in total.
Following a prestigious big league career, Thomas was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014 and had his number 35 retired by the White Sox.
The White Sox also erected a statue honoring Thomas at U.S. Cellular Field (now Guaranteed Rate Field) in 2011.
Major League Baseball in the 1990’s was in the midst of the “steroid era”, an era in which a great deal of players began using performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids to gain an edge on the field and speed up recovery time.
This led to a massive increase in offensive production throughout the league.
Many players of Thomas’s era have had difficulty joining the ranks of the Hall of Fame due to the controversial use of these drugs, namely Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire.
Thomas, however, has been vocal about his disdain for these drugs and continues to maintain his clean and fair standing.
In a press conference following his Hall of Fame election, Thomas proclaimed:
“I’m 100 percent clean. Doing it the right way was something I prided myself in.”
Following his election to the Hall of Fame, Thomas has taken up a number of business ventures.
He is the founder and CEO of W2W Records, a record label based in Las Vegas.
He also started a brewpub in 2014, as well as his own Big Hurt Beer.
Also since 201, Thomas has worked as a studio analyst for MLB broadcasts on Fox Sports, and serves as a business consultant with his former White Sox, where he is a significant part of the marketing department and a face for the team.
“I always want to be around this team.”
Thomas said of his position upon his hiring in 2016.
“You guys knew that and I never wanted to leave this place. So many memories, so many years.”
He went on to say:
“I’m really happy to be back here and to come back with a role to the team that, a place that I spent my entire life it seems like, and to be a help anywhere I possibly can.”
Thomas’s latest venture was to partner with Chicago real estate developer Rick Heidner to purchase the Field of Dreams site in Dyersville, Iowa.
The site was famously featured in the 1989 film of the same name, starring Kevin Costner.
The site hosted the first ever MLB game played in Iowa on August 12, 2021, dubbed the first ever MLB Field of Dreams game.
Thomas’s White Sox beat the New York Yankees in the game on a Tim Anderson walk-off home run, 9-8.
The Big Hurt has remained a staple in baseball culture from the time he made his debut in 1990.
Terrorizing the league with his bat and size, Thomas carved out a Hall of Fame career absent of controversy, performance enhancing drugs, or clubhouse drama.
He remains a fixture on baseball fans’ television screens, remains an inspiration for young athletes, and is one of the greatest professional players the game has seen in its long and storied history.
He left a huge impact on those who played with him and those who coached him, like his Auburn football coach Pat Dye to Ken Macha, his manager in Oakland in 2006, who had to say this about Thomas:
“His professionalism was tremendous. He instilled an attitude in our team that it didn’t matter who was out there, we could beat them.”