Baseball 81: Frank Thomas
Frank Thomas is probably the most prominent non-steroid user in baseball history. That's how I led the story I wrote in 2010, about a year after Thomas retired, just when people were first beginning to kick around his Hall of Fame candidacy.
It's important to note that this was still at a time when we had no earthly idea how this Hall of Fame PED story would play out.
We have a much better idea now. We still don't know everything -- still don't know how the A-Rod story will eventually play out, how the David Ortiz story will play out -- but we have a pretty good idea.
In 2010, we knew almost nothing. The only prominent PED user on the Hall of Fame ballot was Mark McGwire, and only four weeks before I wrote that column, he had made news by admitting that he used steroids. We didn't even know how THAT would play out (it went badly for him; McGwire's Hall of Fame percentages went down after his admission).
The next year, Rafael Palmeiro came on the ballot ... and drew only 11 percent of the vote, despite having 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Kevin Brown, whose dominance on the field looks awfully similar to recent electee Roy Halladay's, got just 12 votes and fell off the ballot. That was a clue as to where this was going.
In 2013, there was the famous free-for-all in which several players who were either directly or vaguely suspected of using steroids came on the ballot all at once. It was such an explosion that the writers ended up voting nobody in that year, such an explosion that even strong Hall of Fame candidates widely believed to have NOT used steroids -- including Curt Schilling, Kenny Lofton, Fred McGriff and Tim Raines -- got surprisingly low vote totals.
Frank Thomas came on the ballot in 2014. And he breezed into the Hall of Fame at 83.7%.
He breezed in exactly for the reason I wrote four years earlier -- because he was the most prominent non-steroid user in baseball history.
This is not to downplay Frank Thomas' greatness as a player -- he's one of the best hitters who ever lived. This is no exaggeration. Here are the most batting runs for players in their first nine seasons:
Ted Williams, 620
Albert Pujols, 471
Frank Thomas, 458
Mickey Mantle, 411
Mike Trout, 410
Not bad company -- Musial and Gehrig follow on that list, by the way. By OPS+, it's even more impressive:
Babe Ruth, 219
Ted Williams, 195
Frank Thomas, 182
Ty Cobb, 180
Lou Gehrig, 179
So, to be clear, I'm not saying that the REASON Frank Thomas got into the Hall of Fame was his strident anti-steroid stance as a player. He got in because he was an extraordinary hitter, who led the league in runs created four times, in OPS four times and in on-base percentage four times. He was a hitting genius, really. Going back to 1950, you look at the hitters who cracked 400 homers and had substantially more walks than strikeouts ... there are really only five:
Barry Bonds -- 2,448 walks, 1,539 Ks
Carl Yastrzemski -- 1,845 walks, 1,393 Ks
Gary Sheffield -- 1,475 walks, 1,171 Ks
Frank Thomas -- 1,667 walks, 1,397 Ks
Darrell Evans -- 1,605 walks, 1,410 Ks
Frank Thomas is in the Hall of Fame because he was a Hall of Fame player.
But what I'm saying is that Frank Thomas got into the Hall of Fame DIRECTLY -- he did not pass Go, he did not collect $200 -- because of his prominent place as the anti-steroid guy. If you're old enough, you'll remember that he was a player -- at times, it seemed the only player -- who was willing to stick his neck out there long before the steroid story blew up. He's on record calling for drug testing as early as 1995. He was quoted many times saying (or at least hinting) that other players took shortcuts that he would never take. He gave video testimony before Congress. And, he was the only active player who willingly spoke with George Mitchell.
The other player of his era who stood out as a non-steroid user was Ken Griffey Jr. He also breezed into the Hall of Fame -- almost unanimously, in fact -- but he stood out more because of his charisma than anything. Griffey didn't TALK about steroids. We all believed that Griffey was clean because ... well, because he was Ken Griffey. We refused to believe anything else.
[caption id="attachment_24277" align="aligncenter" width="418"] Thomas was one of the greatest hitters not only of his generation but of all time.[/caption]
But Thomas ... well, maybe he intuitively understood this, but nobody would have given him the same benefit of the doubt. Griffey famously didn't even like to work out. Thomas worked out plenty. He was a college football player. He was a mountain. All of the things that make people suspicious of other players in his era were absolutely true of Thomas. He was 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds of muscle. He started to break down in his early 30s. He hit a career-high 42 homers at 35. He came off two rough seasons with the White Sox, went to Oakland, and at age 38 finished fourth in the MVP race, hitting 39 homers with 114 RBIs. And he has also admitted that he used amphetamines when he was a young player.
Would people have whispered about Thomas and steroids without any evidence?
We'll never know, because Frank Thomas made it clear at every moment in his career that he didn't use, that he wouldn't use, that he held himself to extraordinarily high standards of ethical play and that he had no respect at all for anyone who did not. As I wrote then, if Griffey was the Willie Mays of the steroid era -- winning people over with the joy with which he played -- then Thomas was the Jackie Robinson, outspoken, raw, controversial and immensely proud.
Thomas' will, on and off the field, thrust him into the Hall of Fame on that first ballot.
"There are no shortcuts to success," he said in his Cooperstown speech. "Hard work, dedication, commitment. Stay true to who you are."
And even in the years since, he has not relented. When Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell were elected to the Hall of Fame, Thomas did not hold back.
"I'm not happy at all," he told the New York Post. "Some of these guys were great players. But they wouldn't have been great players without drugs. ... I don't mind these guys doing what they want to do for their families and to make their money. But don't come calling to the Hall of Fame and say, 'I'm supposed to be in the Hall of Fame' when you know you cheated."
There's a final irony, though ... Frank Thomas is the spokesperson for Nugenix, a supplement that's supposed to boost your free testosterone levels. It's not a steroid, it's perfectly legal, I don't believe it's banned by MLB or any other sports league, though I have to be honest -- I can't really tell. Anyway, this is not to say that Thomas is doing something wrong.
Still, there he is on television, promoting an over-the-counter supplement (it's not regulated as a drug and, as such, hasn't been assessed by the FDA). That -- best I can tell -- is pretty shaky. I don't know if it's dangerous. I don't know if it works. I don't even know what it's supposed to do (other than increase sex drive). And I don't know how much money they could be paying Frank Thomas to make it worth his while.
"Here," Thomas tells someone in one commercial, as he hands over the Nugenix, "try a bottle. ... And trust me. SHE'll like it too."
Yes, it is indeed strange that the man who made his mark -- not only as an all-time hitter but also as a force for blasting a spotlight on baseball's steroid secret -- is now hawking performance-enhancing drugs of a different kind.