By George Castle – CBM Historian on January 25, 2018
A patient man at the plate, Jim Thome did not have to wait one extra second to gain entrance into the Hall of Fame.
Move over, Leo Durocher. Nice guys do finish first. And on his first year of eligibility, Thome finished third when voting totals were announced Jan. 24 after Chipper Jones and Vladimir Guerrero to garner nearly 90 percent of the vote. All-time closer Trevor Hoffman slipped in as the fourth 2018 inductee.
Thome was baseball fan who mimicked childhood idol Dave Kingman’s swing long before he slugged the first of 612 career homers. But after already touring Cooperstown with father Chuck Thome, he’ll enjoy sports’ greatest museum in his next visit as a fan as much as a fresh inductee.
“There were so many, many things,” he said in a teleconference about the Hall’s top attractions. “Walking through the front doors gives you chills enough. Going into the basement and putting on the white gloves and touching Babe Ruth’s items…and Lou Gehrig’s. The Hall of Fame is so magical. It’s the greatest place there is. One day doesn’t do it justice. You need to spend two or three to truly understand the great things in their place. It’s truly special.”
Character should count for a lion’s share of an inductee’s votes. Thome is the pride of Peoria, who grew up as a Cubs fan in the central Illinois city and starred for the White Sox from 2006 to 2009. He had baseball good-citizen status in gobs.
Thome did not need to yield to temptation to pad his muscles with PEDs. Naturally strong with the best center-field power in the game, Thome was a smart, thoughtful strongboy. He belted 42 homers with the 2006 Sox, to go along with a lifetime 1,747 walks and a .402 on-base percentage in two stints with his original team Cleveland Indians along with the Philadelphia Phillies, Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles.
Breaking into the majors at third base, Thome eventually shifted to first, then became a designated hitter during his American League days by necessity. A balky back forced him from the field. But he managed to play the better part of two decades, ensuring his enshrinement, by playing it smart.
“Dealing with my back, the fact I got to DH in the latter stages, understanding my routine and truly knowing my routine,” Thome said of the secret of his longevity. “Communication – as a young player you’re kind of built to…playing. The communication later in my career and understanding when my body needed a break…We’re taught to push and go as long as we can. The communication with your trainers and being proactive and being out ahead of things before they would happen. I was very fortunate to be around some great, great trainers (such as the Sox’s Herm Schneider) who truly cared about their players.
Thome did not have to wait the requisite five years after retirement to be honored for his first-among-equals persona. Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf put him to work immediately after retirement as a special assistant in 2013. Almost immediately, he came to the assistance of tornado-stricken Washington, Ill., where Cardinals-fan brother Randy lived, with a $100,000 donation. Interestingly, Randy Thome changed his kid brother to a left-handed hitter in his early elementary years.
Peoria’s yield: Thome and Brickhouse
Thome becomes the second Peorian to be honored in Cooperstown. Jack Brickhouse, most ubiquitous broadcaster in Chicago history, earned the Ford Frick Award as a broadcaster in 1983.
Despite the temptation to move to the Sunbelt after retirement to join the mass of affluent major leaguers, Thome cannot deny his Midwest roots. He and his family live in Chicago’s southwest suburbs, an easy drive back home to Peoria, where other kinfolk still lives. He also has a hunting lodge to which he repairs every autumn west of Peoria.
He treasures his Sox seasons, enabling him to get closer to his family at a crucial time in his life. And his loyalty is even greater as a Sox special assistant.
“It was very special,” he said. “That point of my career, when I left Philly and after Mom (Joyce Thome) passed away, it brought a lot of happiness to my family. It was a fun, fun four years of excitement. It’’s the great thing baseball does.
“I love Jerry Reinsdorf, I love Rick Hahn. They taught me so much in (the executive and scouting) area of the game. Being on the other side, I see both sides. I love the fans, I love the White Sox organization and they’ve always treated me with the utmost respect. It starts at the top with Jerry Reinsdorf.”
Limestone High School in East Peoria, Thome’s alma mater, will now have to clear a display case for its own Hall of Famer. Thome’s story shows that anyone in baseball can achieve Cooperstown glory no matter how modestly rated. He was only a 13th-round draft choice by the Indians in 1989, rated as an opposite-field hitting shortstop. But under hitting coach Charlie Manuel’s tutoring, Thome soon learned to pull the ball to tape-measure lengths.
Manuel a Hall of Famer’s guru
Manuel got plenty of kudos as Thome absorbed his new status among baseball’s all-time elite. He called Manuel, later his Cleveland manager, a “father figure.”
“I would not be here if not for Charlie,” he said. “There were many many days where he pounded his fists wanting to keep me in the big-league level. In Triple-A he told me I was not ready for the majors. We had this bond together that was very special. He gave it time and he gave it passion. He gave his life to the game of baseball. I was the one who reaped the rewards. When I wasn’t (with the Indians anymore), he was the guy who I could go and call, and ease your mind as a friend and an ambassador.”
The Cubs had no such equivalent in Manuel. Craving for home-grown power at the time, the Jim Frey-general-managed team did not seriously look at Thome. Oddly enough, outfielder Earl Cunningham, the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in 1989 as a slugging prospect, struck out once every 2 1/2 at-bats playing for the Class A Peoria Chiefs in Thome-land. Cunningham washed out of baseball not long afterward.
Meanwhile, Thome went on to a stellar career that included the clutch homer to center at Guaranteed Rate Field to help John Danks win the 1-0 “blackout game” against the Twins before a raucous overflow crowd to earn the Sox their last playoff berth in 2008.
Oddly enough, Aaron Rowand, the team leader whom the Sox traded to the Phillies for Thome son after the 2005 World Series title, is back with the Sox as an instructor. Character thus is not in short supply for the Sox.
Category Chicago Baseball History Feature Tags Baseball Hall of Fame, Chicago White Sox, Jim Thome