Frank Thomas Excelled with the Victory-Challenged Pittsburgh Pirates

Harold FriendChief Writer ISeptember 26, 2011

Rookie Frank Thomas Hit More Home Runs than Rookie Willie Mays, pictured above.
Rookie Frank Thomas Hit More Home Runs than Rookie Willie Mays, pictured above.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Frank "The Original" Thomas was a fine hitter and versatile defensive player who played during the 1950s and 1960s. He spent eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Thomas is a fascinating individual who made the National League All-Star team three times, and who holds many baseball records. The following is an interview I had with Frank Thomas.

HF: 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?

FT: Money.

HF: That is a great answer and 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?

FT: 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 RBIs in 1953, which are still records for a rookie center fielder.

HF: I bet not too many fans know that. I certainly didn't, and the fact that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were rookies just two seasons earlier makes the record even greater.

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What are some other records that you hold?

FT: 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. Mathews, Aaron, and 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, and hit the first Mets home run in the Polo Grounds in 1962.

HF: Being a rookie is always difficult. Who on the Pirates influenced you the most when you first joined the team?

FT: 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.

HF: I read that you used to challenge other players to measure a distance of 60 feet, six inches, and then to throw a baseball to you as hard as they could. You told them you would catch it barehanded—and you always did.

FT: 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.

HF: 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?

FT: Willie Mays, because he could beat you in so many ways. He could hit, hit with power, run, steal bases, field and throw. It was a pleasure to play against him.

HF: Who were the three or four greatest pitchers you faced?

FT: Don Drysdale was the toughest pitcher for me. Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax were outstanding. I could always hit Don Newcombe.

HF: The 1953 Pirates won 50 games and lost 104 while the 1962 Mets won 40 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 those teams compare to each other?

FT: 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.

HF: In 1964, the Mets traded you to the first-place Philadelphia Phillies 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?

 FT: 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.

HF: You played for a number of teams, including the Pirates, Mets and Phillies. Do you identify with any one team more than the others?

FT: No. I am grateful to have put on a major league uniform, and to have been a major league player.

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