If it weren’t for Auburn, Frank Thomas probably would never have made it to Cooperstown.
But Sunday, Thomas was enshrined into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the first player in Southeastern Conference history to earn such a distinction.
During his induction speech, the man that came to be known as “The Big Hurt” made sure to mention three of the men that made an impact on him at Auburn. He thanked Pat Dye and athletic director Jay Jacobs, who was the tight ends coach at Auburn in 1986 when Thomas played the position. He also recognized longtime baseball coach Hal Baird, specifically for treating Thomas and his teammates like pros, even when they were amateurs.
“Under your guidance at Auburn University, I became a man,” Thomas said. “You guys pushed me to new heights and instilled toughness and a will to win that I never knew existed.”
Thomas came to the Plains on a football scholarship and played for Pat Dye in 1986. While he lettered as a freshman on the football team, and possessed an ideal 6-foot-6 frame, Thomas’ passion was baseball.
With Dye’s blessing, Thomas walked on to the baseball team. He quickly made a name for himself as a first baseman and hit .359. As a freshman in 1987, Thomas led the club with 68 RBI and was named to the All-SEC team – an honor he obtained in each of his three seasons. He also led the SEC with 21 home runs. Later, Thomas also set a single-season Auburn high with 83 runs batted in and led the Southeastern Conference in batting average in 1988 and 1989.
Upon his departure, Thomas was the school’s all-time leader with 49 home runs and 205 RBI. Both records have since fallen, but the SEC’s first Hall of Famer still holds the career record with a .722 slugging percentage and .527 on-base percentage, good for an eye-popping 1.249 OPS.
Following his All-American junior season, Thomas was selected seventh overall in the 1989 Major League Baseball Draft by the Chicago White Sox. He made it to Chicago’s north side in 1990 and stayed for the next 16 seasons. While a member of the White Sox, The Big Hurt hit over .300 ten times, was a five-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger winner and won the 1995 Home Run Derby.
The Columbus, Georgia native was the American League batting champion in 1997, was a two-time AL Comeback Player of the Year, and won the league’s highest honor – the American League Most Valuable Player Award – in both 1993 and 1994. Across 19 Major League seasons, including stints with the Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays, Thomas amassed 521 career home runs and a .301 career batting average.
The White Sox retired Thomas’ number 35 in 2010, and he became a first ballot Hall of Famer this year, receiving 83.7% of the vote in his first attempt.
Not bad for a collegiate walk-on.
“I really thank you for letting me play both sports,” Thomas said, speaking specifically of Dye. “The decision changed my life. I thank you for letting me follow my dreams. Your passion for what’s right led me to my career path in baseball. I thank you, coach Dye, and War Damn Eagle.”
Congratulations Frank Thomas.