North Xtra: Ex-Buc Thomas savored career
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In the family room of the Thomas residence in Ross, an eight-tiered cap rack occupies a special place on one of the walls.
If those caps could talk, they could relate the details of a 16-year odyssey Frank Thomas traveled during his career in Major League Baseball.
Thomas recently took time to reflect on that career, from his humble beginnings as a kid growing up in Oakland, when he spent countless hours playing baseball on the fields by the Schenley Oval.
Raised in a devout Catholic family, Thomas followed his early desire to become a priest and enrolled in Mount Carmel College, a seminary in Niagara Falls, Ontario, at the age of 12.
After four years there, he had a change of heart and withdrew.
When he returned home, the sandlots of Pittsburgh furnished the rungs Thomas used to climb to the majors.
In fact, just a year out of the seminary, he signed his first pro contract with the Pirates.
He paid his dues as a minor leaguer but when Thomas was called up from New Orleans to the parent club in 1951 and put on that Pirates uniform, he remembered it as "a boyhood dream come true."
He played in 39 games during the '51 season and just six the next year. But in 1953, he had what would be termed "a breakout season" in today's baseball lingo -- hitting 30 home runs with 102 RBIs off a .255 batting average in 128 games.
It was at that point in his career he had his first disagreement with the highly respected general manager of the Pirates, Branch Rickey, the one credited with bringing the first African-American ballplayer to the majors, Jackie Robinson.
Not the least bit shy about asking to be fairly compensated, Thomas, who is now 82, recalled questioning the baseball guru.
"When I finally got up to the majors, he wouldn't pay me what I was worth," Thomas recalled. "I remember being paid $750 a month starting out in the farm system.
"I got paid $6,000 that year, the minimum."
That is a paltry sum compared to the multi-million dollar contracts of today's players.
"TV revenues [not to mention free agency] have driven the salaries as high as they are today," he said.
Salary aside, the following year (1954) he carried a .298 average and drove in 94 runs. It was during that season that he earned the first of his three All-Star selections.
National League manager Leo Durocher's endorsement -- "You belong on this all-star team" -- really boosted the confidence of a player who would become one of the most versatile on the Pirates roster.
He was chosen again the next season -- once again as an outfielder.
Former Pirates pitching great Bob Friend commented that Thomas' "jump on a fly ball, his speed, hands and a strong arm made him a solid left fielder."
In 1956, Pirates manager Bobby Bragan tried eight different players at third base. None worked out so he plugged Thomas in at the hot corner. He was a good fit.
June 11, 1958 was memorable for the right-handed power hitter. Not only was it his 27th birthday, he celebrated it in Seals Stadium, San Francisco -- the temporary home of the Giants, who had just moved there from New York -- by hitting a bases-loaded home run and another home run to drive in seven runs helping his team beat the Giants, 14-6.
A possible third homer, again with the bases loaded, went foul by inches.
The caps displayed in descending order form a litany of teams with whom Thomas plied his trade.
The Pirates made a famous trade with the Cincinnati Reds following that '58 season, sending Thomas and three other players to Cincy for Harvey Haddix, Smoky Burgess and Don Hoak.
That began a roller-coaster ride for Thomas that saw him play for seven different teams over the next eight seasons -- Cincinnati in '59, the Chicago Cubs in '60 and part of 61, Milwaukee for the remainder of '61, the New York Mets in '62, '63 and part of '64, the Phildelphia Phillies for the remainder of '64, then '65 with three teams, the Phillies, the Houston Astros and back to Milwaukee before closing out his career with a brief appearance with the Cubs in '66.
During spring training that year, it was suggested he look into coaching. But Thomas, after 16 years of playing the game he enjoyed since he was a kid living in Oakland decided to hang 'em up.
He went to work for the ICM School, traveling to area high schools and stressing the importance of students continuing their education. It was a position he held for 18 years.
"Baseball has been great to me," said a man who stepped away from it 45 years ago. "We've raised eight children although one is deceased, but we've done well."
The former long-ball hitter said he likes the way Clint Hurdle is handling the current Pirates squad but he would "like to see these guys coming out of the dugout swinging the bat."
Thomas often said that baseball was number one in his life. But after 60 years of marriage he candidly acknowledged that his wife, Dolores, really holds that top spot.
First Published September 1, 2011 12:00 am