COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Taking a four-minute shuttle ride from the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and following the general direction of the winding Susquehanna River, Clark Sports Center, the hub of baseball’s induction ceremonies honoring a six-member class into its most exclusive club, presents itself. A makeshift white pavilion reaches into the three-story New York skyline. Chairs already sit on the lawn, awaiting the 10-minute speeches.
Within the building’s confines on Saturday, Frank Thomas, the most physically imposing member of baseball’s 2014 Hall of Fame class, followed protocol and took his seat to answer questions about one of his generation’s greatest careers. It was also the greatest professional career, at least in a baseball sense, in a conference’s celebrated history. Thomas’ two-word response to that milestone he set but had very little control over?
When Thomas stands onstage at the Clark Sports Center on Sunday, he’ll do so not only as a White Sox legend but as an Auburn Tiger and the first player from the Southeastern Conference to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a surprising factoid considering the league’s recent success in both college baseball and the amateur draft.
The SEC claims 10 of the past 24 Division I national championships in baseball and it’s alumni base includes many of the game’s top players, including pitchers Tim Hudson, Cliff Lee and David Price. Active players have obviously not been eligible to snap the streak, but past standouts like Albert Belle (LSU), Rafael Palmeiro (Mississippi State) and Al Rosen (Florida) have also missed the cut — for various reasons.
The SEC-specific list includes Cy Young winners, MVP winners and All-Stars, but only now does it include a Hall of Famer.
Alabama does claim one Hall of Fame member, Joe Sewell, a former standout with the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees in the 1920s and ’30s, but his time at the university predates membership in the SEC, which was formed in 1932.
It should be noted that the breakthrough of top programs such as Georgia and LSU did not take place until the late ’80s and early ’90s (the 1990 Georgia Bulldogs won the league’s first national title), so there’s only been a brief window between the conference’s overall dominance and the amount of time it takes for an individual player to piece together worthy accomplishments.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Thomas broke into the majors as a 22-year-old White Sox slugger in 1990, immediately becoming an imposing presence for American League pitchers to contend with. Over time, his stature and accomplishments — he went on to join Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mel Ott as the only players to hit .300 with 500 home runs, 1,500 RBI, 1,000 runs and 1,500 walks; in other words, he could hit a baseball pretty well — had others searching for comparable greats, one of whom was fellow Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.
"Frank Thomas is scary … like me. Big guy up there that’s gonna hit for average, drive in runs and that’s why they call him The Big Hurt. He put a big hurt on a lot of people," said Winfield, the former 6-foot-6 star who was named to 12 All-Star teams and hit 462 career home runs. "It’s tough for a big, tall guy to really have a strike zone that he can control and do some damage, hit for average. Sometimes it’s up to the player to determine what kind of player they want to be."
Thomas led the Southeastern Conference in batting in 1988 and 1989.
Intentionally or not, Thomas modeled much of his approach to the game after Winfield, who himself looked to Cincinnati Reds great Tony Perez for his philosophy at the plate: run-producer first, power hitter second.
Thomas, despite his 521 career home runs, can relate.
"Hitting was something I took very serious," the two-time American League MVP said. "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."
In some ways, his priorities were counterintuitive to what most expect from a guy who was once recruited as a tight end for Auburn’s football team. (Former Auburn football coach Pat Dye said Thomas was "like Bo Jackson playing tight end" earlier this week.)
And it was, interestingly enough, that combination that drew streams of praise from his Hall of Fame predecessors.
Wade Boggs, whose Hall of Fame career overlapped Thomas’ as an American League opponent for nine years, took a couple seconds on Saturday morning to find the right words for the slugger’s approach.
"He’s a Punching Judy hitter in a 6-6, 260-pound body," Boggs said with a laugh. "I mean, he hit 500 home runs naturally, but very patient at the plate. Had a wonderful eye. He could hurt you in so many different ways."
Thomas played tight end for coach Pat Dye’s Auburn football team during his freshman year in 1986.
Added George Brett, the Royals’ Hall of Fame third baseman: "What I liked about him was that he was receptive to his hitting coach when he got there, Walt Hriniak. I saw a lot of similarities in his swing and and my swing, because Walt Hriniak learned all his stuff from Charley Lau and Charley Lau is the one that found me. Had down the contact, extension, dipping your front side and taking your top hand off after contact. That’s how I hit.
"Unfortunately, I was 6-foot, 200 pounds and Frank was (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) and I never lifted a weight in my life and he could lift the whole weight room if he wanted to."
He’s lifting an entire conference while he’s at it, too. Thomas is officially beating the Heltons and Lees and any other potential SEC candidate to Cooperstown on Sunday afternoon.
He won’t be the last, but it’s an excellent starting point.