Frank Thomas had praise for his two college head coaches during his days at Auburn as he became the first player in SEC history to be inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. The Tiger star was honored in an enshrinement ceremony on Sunday afternoon in Cooperstown, N.Y.
At his formal speech Thomas said, "I would like to thank the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the baseball writers for selecting me as a first-ballot selection in this 2014 Hall of Fame class.
"I'm so humbled and honored to be a part of this historic class of first-ballot hall of famers. To share the stage in front of all of the legendary men who made the game better for us all, I'm speechless."
Thomas made it a point of emphasis to mention his days at Auburn where he played baseball and football.
"I would like to thank (former head football coach) Pat Dye, (athletic director) Jay Jacobs and (former head baseball coach) Hal Baird,” Thomas said. “Under your guidance at Auburn University I became a man. You guys pushed me to new heights and instilled toughness and a will to win that I really never knew existed.
"Coach Baird, thanks for treating me like a pro before my time. I thank you my friend. I know you couldn't make it here today, but I thank you.
"Coach Dye, at the same, I know you couldn't make it either, but I really thank you for letting me play both sports. The decision changed my life. I thank you for letting me follow my dreams. Your passion for what is right led me to my career path in baseball. I thank you Coach Dye, and War Damn Eagle."
A two-sport star at Columbus, Ga., High School, Thomas signed a football scholarship to play tight end for Coach Dye’s Tigers, but he was also allowed to play first base for Coach Hal Baird’s baseball Tigers.
“Coach Dye was special,” Thomas said. “He really made this possible. He signed me as a football player, but he told me you had to earn your way to walk on to the baseball team. I made sure I busted my butt as a rookie, as a freshman, and got to play that freshman year in football and earned my way to walk on to the baseball team.
“He was there the first couple of days I was there,” Thomas said of preseason practice at Plainsman Park. “He wanted to make sure I had baseball talent and he watched me for two days.”
Thomas said he remembered getting a thumbs up signal at practice from the football coach, setting in motion what would become one of the most impressive baseball careers in Major League history. “Really the next year, my sophomore year, he came and told me ‘it was amazing what you did on the baseball field last year. You might need to start thinking about that as your future.’
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, I signed to play football," Thomas recalled. "What are you telling me--am I not good enough to be a football player?’ He said, ‘No, I never said that. I think you will be a very, very good football player, but you are not going to be at that level you are in baseball. He really helped that decision for me.”
Frank Thomas models an Auburn baseball camp during his Hall of Fame press conference in Cooperstown.
On Sunday the first baseman, a two-time American League Most Valuable Player, will formally receive baseball's highest honor. Playing 19 years in the Majors after breaking in as a 22-year-old rookie with the Chicago White Sox in 1990, Thomas was a first ballot Hall of Fame selection after joining superstars Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mel Ott as the only Major League players to having a career .300 batting average with 500 home runs, 1,500 RBI, 1,000 runs scored and 1,500 walks.
He earned the nickname, The Big Hurt, for his stature and power at the plate. That power and talent was immediately noticeable while playing for Baird’s Tigers, something Thomas notes that he enjoyed.
“Coach Baird ran his program like the pros run their program,” he said. “He had that background with the minor leagues and the big leagues and that is the type of camp he ran. He treated me like a pro. He taught me the pro way of baseball at Auburn.”
Thomas is shown in February of 2010 when he was honored by Auburn at Plainsman Park.
In the history of the Southeastern Conference, no player has been inducted to baseball’s hall of fame prior to this year.
“When I heard that a couple of months ago I was really shocked,” he said. “So many great players have come out of that conference to be the first is special because it is an unbelievable conference in all sports. I am glad to be the first one to get in the door.”
Playing baseball for the Tigers from 1987-89, Thomas compiled a .382 career batting average, the second best in Auburn history, and left with a .722 slugging percentage, the best for an Auburn player.
In 1989 he became a consensus All-American with an SEC-best .403 batting average while hitting 19 home runs with 83 RBI while leading the Tigers to the SEC Tournament title and into the NCAA Tournament.
Asked what he is most proud of regarding his Major League career that includes two Most Valuable Player awards, he says, “Staying clean and doing it the right way, and all of that started (at Auburn),” he said. “I grew up there at Sewell Hall and was around some of the greatest football players ever and I saw what took them to get to the next level. They helped me get there, too. It was the hard work and determination.”