Esposito: Happy Birthday Frank Thomas

The Mets hosted a very special guest Friday night at Citi Field – Frank Thomas – the original Frank Thomas, as he likes to be known – and truly one of the best Mets ever to play for the club, just days before he celebrates his 90th birthday. That’s right, 90, and still in great shape that you would think he was nearly twenty years younger.

No walker or wheelchair for this still solidly built former Met and father of eight. Thomas still plays golf, still travels to Cooperstown on Induction Weekend nearly every year to see old friends and fans, and to sign autographs, still follows the game and still has a razor sharp memory regarding his career.

So for younger fans who weren’t able to appreciate what Thomas did in his career and for the Mets when they were in their infancy as a franchise, here’s a birthday toast to the original “Original.”

Along with former Met Rico Brogna, who also was brought in by the club to greet fans and sign autographs on this comfy Friday evening with the Colorado Rockies in town, the duo was escorted by Jay Horwitz, the club’s Vice President of Alumni Public Relations.

Thomas holds the distinction of being the only Met to have appeared in the Opening Day and first home game lineups in both their inaugural 1962 season and 1964, when they shifted from the Polo Grounds to Shea Stadium. But more so, he is fondly remembered as being the team’s first big slugger, belting out a team-leading 34 home runs in ‘62, when home runs were very hard to come by, especially in the cavernous Polo Grounds.

The historic ballpark in upper Manhattan was built as an odd horseshoe, where anything other than shots down the lines – where the dimensions were Little League worthy – were lost in the outer expanse that reached an epic 475 feet to dead center.

His team mark stood for over a dozen years until Dave Kingman hit 36 home runs as a Met in 1975.

Thomas’ longballs in that ignominious season when the club lost a record 120 games were not just banged out on the road. His splits were pretty much even, and actually favored home cooking, with 18 home runs at the Polo Grounds and 16 on the road. His batting average also did not change dramatically, .273 at home, .259 away, for a .266 season average, which ironically, was exactly his career mark from 16 seasons in the bigs.

Even when players were coming and going that first year, Thomas was an everyday player, mostly in leftfield, but he also played 11 games at first, ten games at third, and 11 games as a pinch hitter. So his ‘62 season with Mets concluded with 156 games played, 152 hits (his lifetime average was 153 hits per year), those 34 big flys, 23 doubles, 48 walks, 94 RBIs, and a slugging mark of .496.

A lifelong Pittsburgh native and resident, the linebacker-sized outfielder (6, 3”, 200 pounds) – who somewhere along the way was branded with the nickname of “The Big Donkey” – also hit the first home run at the Polo Grounds when the Mets reclaimed that arena after the Giants had abandoned it heading West.

It was the first time New Yorkers were able to cheer a National League ballclub since the Dodgers and Giants did their Horace Greeley act, April 13, 1962, when Thomas took the Pirates’ Tom Sturdivant deep in the sixth inning with a solo shot.

Pittsburgh, ironically, was the club that signed Thomas in 1947 as a teenager, and where he made his major league debut in 1951. Eventually, Thomas played for seven clubs – Pirates, Reds, Cubs, Braves, Phillies, Astros, and Mets – and actually was traded six times over the course of his career.

In 1958, Thomas enjoyed a career year when he clobbered 35 home runs and had 109 RBIs to go with a .281 average. In June of that year, he was named the NL Player of the Month, and on July 28, 1958, he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The three-time All-Star (1954, ‘55, and ‘58) also finished fourth in the MVP voting for ‘58.

This was several years after being a famous holdout as a Pirate in 1955. He had hit .298 in ‘54, with 23 homers and 94 runs batted in, and was unhappy when stingy GM Branch Rickey wanted to grant him a mere $2,000 raise from $13,000 to $15,000. Thomas felt he was worth $25K. It took a 17-day holdout, but he eventually signed for $18,000.

A mere pittance in today’s game. If he was a free agent in today’s game, he’d have a very healthy bank account, no doubt.

Thomas was not an original expansion draft choice by the Mets, but was acquired in one of their early transactions barely weeks after they drafted. The day they first built their team was on Oct. 10, 1961, when they were allowed to cherry pick the leftovers off the rosters of only other NL clubs. They missed out on Thomas, but on Nov. 28, they made a deal with the Milwaukee Braves for Thomas and a player to be named later for a player to be named later and cash.

The player to be named turned out to be their Opening Day rightfielder, Gus Bell (grandfather to today’s Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell), who was dealt on May 21, 1962. The Mets got back their player to be named that same day, pitcher Rick Herrsher.

Before he left the Braves, though, Thomas was cast in a very historical moment. On June 8, 1961 (hey, exactly 58 years ago this weekend), Thomas was the fourth in a conga line of Braves to hit consecutive home runs, the first time in baseball history. Hank Aaron – who else – initiated the rocket launches, followed by Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, and then Thomas.

With the Mets, Thomas also earned marks for home runs, bopping six over the course of three games in 1962. He also hit one of only two grand slams by the team that first year, the other salami clubbed by “Hot Rod” Kanehl.

Hard to understand these days in today’s game, but longtime Mets fans remember the suffering of that’62 club, so any watermark of offensive achievement was well-earned. Many books have been written chronicling the adventures and misadventures of those pioneering Metropolitans, led by the colorful Casey Stengel.

Thomas was at the center of a famous Mets incident that inaugural campaign. The roots of this memorable Mets memory began when shortstop Elio Chacon and outfielder Richie Ashburn collided on a pop-up in that unclaimed area of the outfield. The Latin infielder kept calling out, “Yo la tengo,” (which means “I got it” in Spanish), while Ashburn was shouting the more traditional “I got it.” Boom! Not exactly a rosetta stone endorsement.

The confusion led to a team decision to use “Yo la tengo” as a communal expression to call off other fielders. Thomas, apparently, didn’t get the memo.

Some time later, another flyball caused a collision between Ashburn, the centerfielder, and Thomas, the leftfielder. So now, Ashburn is calling, “Yo la tengo,” while Thomas opted for the traditional signal. Boom! Down they went.

As Thomas was getting up, he yelled at Ashburn, “What the hell is a yellow tango?”

In August of 1964, Thomas was traded by the Mets to Philadelphia for Wayne Graham and Gary Kroll. His time as a Met was done, but you know, even with not quite three years wearing No. 25 in New York, it might not be a bad idea to consider Thomas for the Mets Hall of Fame. Some might say he wasn’t here long enough, or arguably didn’t do enough, but for those who know how difficult it was back in those early years, he certainly lived up to his personal mantra.

“I always felt if you gave 100% at whatever you did, you didn’t have anything to be ashamed of.”

Happy birthday, Frank, and many, many more.

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