By Greg Klein The Cooperstown Crier
---- — In 1991, Frank Thomas visited the Baseball Hall of Fame but only briefly.
“I walked in here one time in 1991 and walked right back out,” he said. “I was here with Bobby Thigpen ... after he set the single season save record (of 57 with the White Sox in 1990). It was really my first full year with the big team. I thought, ‘I really don’t belong here yet and I walked back out.’”
There’s no question he belongs now.
Thomas, who was elected in January as a first ballot Hall of Famer with 83.7 percent of the vote by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, made his orientation visit to Cooperstown on Monday.
“It was special. I got a complete history lesson,” said Thomas, the former Chicago White Sox star who’ll be inducted into the Hall on July 27 at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, along with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa.
Thomas said he thinks the big class will translate to a big crowd in Cooperstown this summer.
“It is going to be record breaking,” he predicted.
Erik Strohl, the Hall’s vice president of exhibitions and collections, gave Thomas a tour of the museum and the archives underneath the museum. Strohl selected several artifacts from Thomas’ career that are already in the Hall to show “the Big Hurt” including a jersey from 1994 and the bat he used to hit his 300th home run.
Soon Thomas said he will donate a couple of his Silver Slugger trophies for his display, along with a 3-foot long, 5-pound piece of rebar that he famously swung in the on-deck circle. Thomas said he found the metal on a construction site near the White Sox spring training facility in Sarasota, Fla., and thought it would be good for practicing his swing.
In the archives, Thomas put on some gloves and held one of Babe Ruth’s bats.
“My bat was almost as big as Babe Ruth’s,” he said. “He used a 33 1/2 or a 34 1/2 and that is pretty close to what I used.”
Thomas said that he was most interested in seeing artifacts from Ruth and his childhood hero, Hank Aaron. “Because those were the two guys I idolized,” he said. “I was really excited to see the displays from those two guys. That meant a lot to me.”
Thomas said he looks forward to spending more time with Aaron during Induction Weekend.
“And Frank Robinson too, I imagine,” Strohl said.
“Frank Robinson, I get to talk to him all the time,” Thomas said. “Talking to Hank Aaron is still a big deal for me.”
Thomas, who is a pre- and post-game analyst for Fox Sports One, hit 521 home runs among his 2,468 hits. He also had 1,704 RBIs and finished with a career batting average of .301. He played from 1990 to 2008, mostly with the White Sox but also with Toronto and Oakland. He was a five-time All-Star, two-time American League MVP, won four Silver Slugger awards and the 2000 AL Comeback Player of the Year award. He was on the White Sox team that won the 2005 World Series but was injured and did not play.
He went to Oakland in 2006 after being told by some doctors and scouts that his career was over.
“Really, I should have won the comeback player of the year in 2006, too,” said Thomas, who hit 39 home runs and drove in 114 runs that season. “2006 was the biggest comeback ever. I was released by the Chicago White Sox and told my career was over.”
When he returned to Chicago in 2006 with the A’s and the fans gave him a standing ovation, “I had to hold back tears,” he said.
As the results of the BBWAA voting neared, Thomas said he dealt with different feelings he wasn’t used to: nerves.
“I missed a lot of sleep the last few months,” he said.
As he was getting on the plane to go to New York City for the Hall of Fame media conference, he got a phone call from President Barack Obama.
“He’s a huge White Sox fan, so I met him before he got into the office,” he said. “But when I answered the phone and his secretary said to hold for the President, I just thought, ‘uh, oh.’
“It was a really special moment for me,” he continued.
Of course, there will be a lot of special moments this year for Thomas.
“It is weird,” he said. “I think it will sink in when I get on stage. I’ve been told to bring a sweat cloth and a crying towel, because you will shed some tears.”
He has also been told to keep his speech short since there will be six inductees July 27.
“They’re only giving us 10 minutes (per speech), 12 minutes at most,” he said. “Just get it done.”
But even without the long speeches, Thomas said that he thinks the class of 2014 will be a special one.
“It is a dream to be going in with three iconic managers and two of the great pitchers of my time,” said Thomas, who added he’s been to Cooperstown five times, the last coming May 21, 2007, when his Toronto Blue Jays lost, 13-7, to the Baltimore Orioles in the last Hall of Fame Game played at Doubleday Field.
Thomas’ orientation was the first of the six — Tony LaRussa was scheduled to visit a month ago, but was postponed because of a snowstorm — and the other five visits will happen in the next six weeks.
If Thomas’ visit is any indication, the interest in this year’s class is going to be huge. More than 20 media members attended the post-tour news conference. Hall officials said they were surprised by the turnout.