Frank "The Original" Thomas was a fine hitter and versatile defensive player whose career spanned the 1950s and 1960s. Frank was on the National League All-Star team three times.
Doc Friend: Mr. Thomas, you made your major league debut in 1951. What is the most significant difference between the game in the 1950s and the game today?
Frank Thomas: Money.
Doc Friend: That is a great answer, and it says it all. There is no need to elaborate.
Anyway, your first year as a regular was 1953, when you hit 30 home runs for a Pittsburgh Pirates team that hit only 99 home runs. The only other Pirate to have a home run total in double figures was Cal Abrams, who was not a slugger.
How difficult was it for you as a hitter without anyone in the lineup to protect you?
Frank Thomas: It was tough, but I did the best I could and let the chips fall where they may. I hit 30 home runs and had 102 RBI in 1953, which are still records for a rookie center fielder.
Doc Friend: I bet not too many fans know that fact. I certainly didn't, and the fact that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were rookies just two season earlier makes the record even greater.
What are some other records that you hold?
Frank Thomas: I started at third base for the National League All-Star team in 1958 and hit 35 home runs that season, which is still a record for a Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman.
When I was with the Milwaukee Braves in 1961, we hit four home runs in the same inning. [Eddie] Mathews, [Hank] Aaron, and [Joe] Adcock hit home runs. I followed with a home run, and we set the record which Minnesota and Cleveland later tied.
I was the first player to hit the fourth home run in an inning.
In 1962 I was hit by a pitch twice in the same inning, but not too many people know that I made the last putout in the Polo Grounds against the Giants in 1957. I also hit the first New York Mets home run in the Polo Grounds in 1962.
Doc Friend: Being a rookie is always difficult. Who on the Pirates influenced you the most when you first joined the team?
Frank Thomas: Lenny Levy, who was a coach with the Pirates, gave me good advice and always kept after me to keep improving. Frankie Gustine was like a father to me, and Ralph Kiner told me to watch how they pitched to him because that would be the way they would pitch to me.
Doc Friend: I read that you used to challenge other players to measure a distance of 60 feet, six inches and then to throw a baseball as hard as they could at you. You told them you would catch it barehanded—and you always did.
Frank Thomas: I never lost. The toughest was Don Zimmer because he knew that holding your fingers across the seam wouldn't produce movement on the ball, so Zimmer would throw me a spitter, but I still caught it.
You see, as a kid, I played fast pitch softball without a glove and I got used to catching barehanded.
The whole thing about catching fastballs barehanded started down in Waco, Texas in 1949 when a guy from Brooklyn, Bill Pierro, dared me to catch his fastball without a glove. I caught his first three and he said he hadn't warmed up, so he warmed up and I caught his next five.
One time when I was with the Mets, we were playing the Giants. Richie Ashburn, who was our center fielder, bet Willie Mays $100 that I could catch his hardest throw barehanded.
Willie took the challenge and I caught his first throw, but he said it didn't count because he hadn't warmed up. Then he said the bet should be for $10, not for $100. Willie warmed up, and I caught his throw. Willie is great.
Doc Friend: Mr. Thomas, you played in an era of superstars and you were an All-Star three times. Whom do you consider the greatest player of your era?
Frank Thomas: Willie Mays because he could beat you so many ways. He could hit, hit with power, run, steal bases, field, and throw. It was a pleasure to play against him.
Doc Friend: Who were the three or four greatest pitchers you faced?
Frank Thomas: Don Drysdale was the toughest pitcher for me. Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax were outstanding. I could always hit Don Newcombe.
Doc Friend: The 1953 Pittsburgh Pirates won 50 games and lost 104, while the 1962 New York Mets won 40 games and lost 120.
You hit 30 home runs for those Pirates and 34 home runs for the Mets. You led the Mets in runs, hits, doubles, homers, RBI, total bases, and slugging.
How did the 1953 Pirates compare to the 1962 Mets?
Frank Thomas: Well, the 1962 Mets were a good club, but they had no pitching. The Mets could score runs, but we lost a lot of games in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning. I wonder how we would have done if we had a closer like Mariano Rivera. Veterans like Richie Ashburn, Gil Hodges, Gus Bell, Charlie Neal, Gene Woodling, and I could do some damage.
The 1953 Pirates were a young team that would develop. If the Pirates today had stayed with the youngsters they had six or seven years ago, they would be a tough team today.
Doc Friend: In 1964 the Mets traded you to the Phillies, who were leading the league, in August. You were doing quite well for the Phillies, batting .294 with seven home runs, when you broke your thumb. The Cardinals went on to win the pennant by one game over the Phillies and Reds.
What are your thoughts about what might have been if you had been able to play the last month of that season?
Frank Thomas: Gene Mauch was the Phillies manager, and he told me that cost us the pennant. I was really hot that August, and I was hitting everything they threw me.
I was on second base, and when I tried to get back to the bag I slid headfirst. My thumb hit the pin that anchors the base, and that was it.
I put ice on the hand, stayed in the game, and got two more hits. I went back to the hotel after the game and kept icing the hand, but the ice melted and the hand blew up. At the hospital I wanted the doctor to give me Novocain so I could play, but he refused. They put the hand in a steel cast, which stopped me from playing.
Doc Friend: You played for a number of teams, including the Pirates, Mets, and Phillies. Do you identify with any one team more than the others?
Frank Thomas: No. I am grateful to have put on a major league uniform and to have been a major league player.
Doc Friend: Thank you very much Mr. Thomas for taking the time to speak with me.
Frank Thomas: You're very welcome.