Frank Joseph Thomas is a large, brawny young man with a pleasant job, a lovely family, a reasonable mortgage and good teeth. He enjoys the comfort of a highly adequate paycheck twice a month, and, in these days of high tensions, his emotional disturbances are about like those of The Chase Manhattan Bank. The son of a Lithuanian immigrant, Frank basks in the adulation of a sports-loving land, where, at the age of 29, he is crowding the threshold of fame. You would have to say that he is a happy man.
Since this is the middle of the baseball season, however, and since Thomas plays third base and sometimes the outfield and occasionally first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he is a very busy young man, too, and seldom finds time to think about these things. One does not stop to count one's blessings while leading the league in home runs and runs batted in, for some tricky character is almost certain to pick just that moment to slip a fast ball over the outside corner. But when Frank does relax, it is a relatively simple matter for him to select the one man who has done the most for his career.
He was carefully nurtured through the sprawling Pittsburgh farm system by Branch Rickey. He was brought up to the big leagues by Branch Rickey. He was personally instructed in the art of hitting by Branch Rickey. And he has become one of baseball's higher-salaried performers, not without the endorsement of Branch Rickey. Who, then, has done the most to lift Frank Thomas above the masses and give him the chance to gain lasting fame? Walter O'Malley.
Until O'Malley moved the Dodgers to the West Coast and sucked Horace Stoneham and the Giants along in the backwash, Thomas was a right-handed hitter getting 23 or 25 home runs a year in a league which has long paid a premium to muscular left-handers. This year, however, with the arrival of the now-infamous screen perched 250 feet down the Los Angeles Coliseum's left-field line, and the jet stream which blows pop flies over the left-field fence in San Francisco, Thomas and the National League's other right-handed power hitters have been having a ball. Gone from the top of the home run statistics are Snider and Kluszewski and Musial, to be replaced by players like Banks and Walls and Cepeda and Boyer and Mays. And, of course, Frank Thomas, who heads the list.
With the 1958 season only a bit more than half gone, Thomas has hit 26 home runs. Of those, 13 came in the 22 games he played in San Francisco and L.A. "I don't want to sound like I'm popping off," says Frank, who has the not-unearned reputation of being a very candid young man, "but I know that if I could play 77 games, a home-park schedule, in the Coliseum, I could break Ruth's record of 60 home runs."
The very thought is enough to make rival National Leaguers shudder, for it is almost universally accepted among them that he is probably right. Of all the players in the league, none is so ideally equipped to go crazy in the new parks as Thomas, a very powerful athlete who just naturally wallops the ball high up in the air and sharply down the line. Yet no one screamed "cheapie" when he hit all those home runs on the Coast early this year, for Frank's fellow professionals admit that it couldn't happen to a more deserving guy. For five years they have watched him labor in spectacular anonymity in Forbes Field, and it is about time that he had a chance to shine.
Forbes Field, the home park of the Pirates, is a nightmare for home-run hitters and the bane of Frank Thomas' existence. Last year, for example, when 219 home runs were hit in Cincinnati's Crosley Field and 185 at the Polo Grounds and 172 in Ebbets Field, only 73 were hit in Pittsburgh. There it is 365 feet from home plate to the left-field wall, and these are 365 good reasons why Frank Thomas has remained perhaps the least-known really good hitter in all baseball.
NO MORE GARDENS
In 1953 he hit 30 home runs, and this was more homers than even Ralph Kiner hit in his first full year as a Pirate. But in 1953 Forbes Field still included an appendage known as Greenberg Gardens, a low fence built some 30 feet closer to home plate than the regular left-field wall and constructed as a repository for baseballs off the bat of Hank Greenberg. When Greenberg retired at the end of that year, the Garden was left intact, for by then Kiner was dropping baseballs in there with great regularity, too. But in 1953 Kiner was traded to the Cubs, and the Pirates were suddenly confronted with a disturbing statistic: far more opposing home runs were going over the short fence than could be mustered by the home team, even with Thomas' help. So the next season the fence was missing.
"I didn't mind too much," says Frank, "because it was best for the team. Sure, it cut down on my home runs, but you have to face it—those other teams were beating us to death, I don't like it, you understand. I could hit more home runs and make a lot more money someplace else. But that's baseball. I just keep swinging and do the best I can."