Frank Thomas, RIP: The needling and the damage done

Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas, signing autographs in the Polo Grounds as an Original Met. As a Phillie, his 1965 fight with Dick Allen accelerated Allen’s undeserved war with Philadelphia racists.

Baseball’s best known Frank Thomas who isn’t the Hall of Fame bombardier died Monday at 93. The good news: That Thomas had a colourful history as one of the Original Mets, for whom he played from their 1962 birth through August 1964. The bad news is that he had a terrible history involving a teammate of colour on the 1965 Phillies.

It soiled a respectable major league career as a power-hitting outfielder/corner infielder, a three-time All-Star with the 1950s Pirates, and an Original Met who was grateful to have been remembered when the Mets reinstituted Old Timers Day last year and he fought through a neck injury to appear.

Thomas survived nasty contract battles with Branch Rickey, then running the Pirates, whose genius as a baseball thinker and courage as baseball’s colour line breaker in signing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers was countered by his often devious and insulting penury when it came time to pay his players reasonably.

He also prospered somewhat with and survived the Original Mets, that expansion troupe remembered best as baseball’s version of . . . well, they really did have Abbott pitching to Costello with Who the Hell’s on first, What the Hell’s on second, You Didn’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Didn’t Even Want To Think About It at shortstop.

Thomas became the Mets’ first home run king, hitting 34 in 1962, a team record that stood until Dave Kingman smashed it by two in 1975. He also factored in one of the most typical of the inadvertent sketches that, perversely enough, endeared his Mets to a generation of New Yorkers bereft of the Dodgers’ and Giants’ moves west and drowning in a couple of generations of Yankee dominance and hubris.

Center fielder Richie Ashburn, eventually a Hall of Famer based on his long career with the Phillies, despaired of collisions between himself and shortstop Elio Chacón on pop flies to short left center and desparied of how to call Chacón off. Teammate Joe Christopher knew enough Spanish to tell Ashburn to holler Yo la tengo! (I got it!) Sure enough, the next such short pop to short left center had Chacón steaming out from short and Ashburn rumbling in from center.

Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo! Ashburn hollered. Chacón caught the drift at once and stopped dead. Ashburn was saved for about five seconds. Thomas had also come steaming in from left. He crashed into Ashburn and the ball fell safe. Someone forgot to hand Thomas the yo la tengo! memo.

(The pull-hitting Thomas also spent so much time trying to hit the “o” on a Howard Clothes sign on the Polo Grounds’s left field wall—because the New York clothier promised a luxury boat to the Met who hit it the most at season’s end—that mananger Casey Stengel finally hollered at him, “If you want to be a sailor, go join the Navy!”)

That season proved Thomas’s final truly solid year at the plate. After a somewhat down 1963 and a 1964 that saw him in and out of the lineup with a few nagging injuries, the Mets traded Thomas to the pennant-contending Phillies that August. He hit respectably enough until he fractured his thumb on a hard slide into second base, ending his season just before the infamous collapse that cost the Phillies a pennant with which they seemed to be running away.

But now age 36, Thomas started too slowly in 1965 before the 3 July pre-game incident that ended his Phillie days in ignominy. Should-be Hall of Famer Dick Allen, the Phillies’ superstar in the making and the National League’s 1964 Rookie of the Year, was taking grounders at third while Thomas was in the batting cage and Phillies center fielder Johnny Callison came out to third to chat with Allen.

According to Phillies historian (and eventual Allen biographer) William C. Kashatus, in September Swoon, Callison suggested to Allen they give Thomas the business over a strikeout following three failed bunt attempts during a plate appearance the night before. In the batting cage now, Thomas took a big swing and miss. “Hey, Donkey!” Callison hollered. (Thomas’s nickname was the Big Donkey; he was also known as Lurch.) “Why don’t you try bunting?”

“Instead of responding to Callision,” Kashatus wrote, “Thomas glared down the third base line at Allen and shouted, ‘What are you trying to be, another Muhammad Clay, always running your mouth off?'”

Insulted by the comparison with Cassius Clay, the colourful but controversial heavyweight boxer who had recently changed his name to Muhammad Ali, Allen charged the cage, and the two players went at each other. Allen hit Thomas with a left hook to the jaw, sending him to the ground. When he got to his feet, Thomas was wielding a bat and connected with Allen’s left shoulder. By now the rest of the team was at home plate trying to restrain the two players.

In his memoir, Crash, Allen remembered Thomas knowing it was Callison who’d taunted him but aiming his return fire at Allen, wrongly.

The Muhammad Clay remark was meant to say a lot. It reminded me of how Frank would pretend to offer his hand in a soul shake to a young black player on the team. When the player would offer his hand in return, Thomas would grab his thumb and bend it back. To him, it was a big joke. But I saw too many brothers on the team with swollen thumbs to get any laughs. So I popped him. I just wanted to teach him a lesson. But after he hit me with the bat, I wanted to kill him.

Callison said hard feelings between Thomas and Allen were building well before the “Muhammad Clay” remark. One of the brothers to whom Allen referred was young outfielder Johnny Briggs, whom Kashatus quoted as saying Thomas “often made racially inflammatory comments.” But Kashatus also quoted Briggs as saying of Thomas, “Thomas agitated everybody on the team. He was just as abusive to the white guys. But the press turned that fight into a racial issue and refused to let up.”

The game that followed the ugly brawl included Allen slashing a three-run triple and Thomas hitting a pinch home run in the next inning. The Phillies lost 10-8 to the Reds . . . and Thomas was put on release waivers afterward. This, Kashatus noted, was despite Allen intervening on behalf of not letting Thomas go, pleading with manager Gene Mauch not to let it happen out of regard for Thomas’s wife and eight children. (Dolores Thomas died in 2012; one of his children, his daughter Sharon, also died before her father.)

Mauch’s fatal mistake otherwise was ordering one and all involved in the Thomas-Allen fight to keep their mouths shut or face fines: $1,000 each, except for $2,000 for Allen. That only enabled that capricious Philadelphia sports press of the time to help make life as a Phillie more miserable for Allen than the city’s racists already began making it, until he finally got the trade he’d been trying to force for long enough.

With Thomas’s release, Kashatus wrote, the veteran wasn’t bound by Mauch’s edict, and appeared on a Philadelphia radio show that often had him as a guest. “I’ve always tried to help him,” Thomas insisted. “I guess certain guys can dish it out, but can’t take it.” Said Tony Taylor, the Phillies’s talented Latino second baseman, “Since Dick was black and Thomas was white, [the Philadelphia writers] made it into a racial thing and gave Dick the label of trouble-maker. It wasn’t fair.”

“Thomas was going to go anyway,” Mauch eventually admitted about his further-fading veteran. “I should have shipped him sooner. Instead, the press came down on [Allen’s] head. If he did one little thing wrong, they would see it as so much worse because, in their heads, he was a bad guy.”

The Phillies dealt Thomas to the Astros, where he was further unhappy from knowing his baseball aging wasn’t going to reverse itself. (He’d move to the Braves and then the Cubs from there but retire in 1966.) “I would not say I enjoyed my time there,” he told an interviewer in 2017, “but not because of the city or the players.”

I was just in a bad place personally. I was an old fogey. When you reach your thirties in baseball, you’re an old man. Expendable. But I loved the guys in Houston. Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, and my favorite Jimmy Wynn. I once got Wynn with the hidden ball trick. He was so angry with me. But what I remember most is that I hit two home runs and then they traded me! My last at-bat in Philadelphia was also a home run. I guess I just needed to stop hitting them!

Let the record show that Thomas spoke affectionately there of two black players, Hall of Famer Morgan and Wynn. Let it show further that, when the black Frank Thomas was inducted into the Hall of Fame, the first, white Frank Thomas—once one of four consecutive Braves to hit home runs in an inning, along with Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, plus slugging first baseman Joe Adcock—was invited to join in the fun and accepted happily.

“I was the original, but he was better,” Thomas once said of his namesake. “We hold the record for most home runs hit by two players with the same name.” (Thomas is right: the two Frank Thomases actually combined for 25 more home runs than Ken Griffey, Sr. and Hall of Famer Jr. did.)

“I was told that his father was a fan of mine and named him after me,” he continued. “I have met him several times and I love him. I told him that I used to be The Big Hurt, but after meeting him I know that I was just The Little Hurt.”

Between those, and more than a few stories I’ve seen saying Thomas and Allen eventually buried the hatchet together, my better angel wants to believe that that 1965 fight and its immediate aftermath jolted the Big Donkey into a permanent awakening about human relations.

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