The 1990 White Sox were challenging the World Series champion A’s in the final year of old Comiskey Park, and their Double-A first baseman was waiting to join the fun.
“I’m a laid-back guy,” Birmingham’s Frank Thomas told the Chicago Tribune. “I spend most of my time relaxing and reading. Being called up this year, that’s my goal. Right now, I’m just biding my time.”
That time came one month later, and 24 years after that conversation, Thomas is biding his time before Sunday’s Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, an area scout for the Sox at the time, persuaded general manager Larry Himes and scouting director Al Goldis to select the Auburn slugger with the seventh pick of the 1989 draft.
Goldis told the Tribune after the pick the Sox “couldn’t get the real speed we wanted in the first round” and then took the best all-around player available. Simeon High School outfielder Jeff Jackson, who went No. 4 to the Phillies and never made it to the majors in nine pro seasons, was at the top of Goldis’ list.
“Frank wasn’t a real high-profile guy,” Rizzo said. “Actually the scouting bureau didn’t have him all that high as a player. He’d been cut from the USA team the previous summer, and Al Goldis and Larry Himes allowed me to draft him.
“We fought for him and got him, and they allowed me to sign him for $175,000.”
It may have been the best $175,000 Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf ever spent, though at the time it was seen as a risk.
“The bat is the toughest thing to scout, and to take Frank where we took him, we had to be very, very confident he could hit and hit with power,” Rizzo said. “We were putting all our chips in the middle of the table.
“How many guys have you seen in batting practice that can hit the ball five miles, but it’s not usable power? We were one of the teams that thought we knew hitting at the time.”
Thomas was not lacking in confidence, even then. On June 30, 1989, shortly after signing, Thomas made his first trip to old Comiskey and told a group of reporters he would soon be up in the majors.
“After playing three years of college ball, they want to get me here as soon as possible,” he said.
Minutes later, Thomas rifled pitching coach Sammy Ellis’ first batting-practice pitch into the seats in left-center, and he followed with three more long shots, including two that landed in the upper deck.
Brought up a year later on Aug. 2, 1990, along with Birmingham teammate and 1990 first-round pick Alex Fernandez, the 22-year-old Thomas was supposed to split time at first with Carlos Martinez.
But he began hitting immediately and took over the job for good, batting .330 in 60 games with a .983 OPS. A couple of weeks after arriving, he changed his uniform from No. 15, which was Dick Allen’s old number, to No. 35.
Frank Thomas would live in no one’s shadow.
“He’s real smart, and he picks things up pretty quick,” Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen told Tribune columnist Jerome Holtzman after Thomas’ call-up. “But the toughest thing to do in baseball is to learn how to hit. It took me 26 years. I just learned this year.”
Thomas ushered out the old ballpark in its final season in 1990 and made new Comiskey Park, later named U.S. Cellular Field, his home for the next 15 years.
He didn’t build it, but he kept it buzzing.