COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Before he delivered a Hall of Fame speech Sunday that was the equivalent of one of his tape-measure home runs, Frank Thomas took a deep breath and humbly made a request.
"Give me a second," an overwhelmed Thomas told the estimated crowd of 48,000.
The imposing 6-foot-5 hulk of a man gripped the lectern tighter, as if to steady himself, and exhaled a second time. Then Thomas spent the next 17 minutes wowing everybody in a way South Siders will be talking about for years.
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National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, 25 Main Street, Cooperstown, NY 13326, USA
"Thank you to the city of Chicago," said Thomas, considered the greatest White Sox hitter ever. "You guys made the Big Hurt who he was in the greatest sports town in America."
With due respect to a class that included Greg Maddux and Tony La Russa, Thomas' turn at the microphone on a muggy afternoon in upstate New York will be what baseball people remember most about the 2014 Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony. The first-ballot Hall of Famer left the most lasting impression speaking straight from the heart, such as when he invoked his mother, Charlie Mae, making her first trip out of Columbus, Ga., in 15 years for this, and late father, Frank Sr.
"Frank Sr., I know you're watching and smiling in heaven," Thomas said, his voice cracking and tears falling. "Thanks for pushing me and always preaching to me that you can be someone special if you really work at it. I took that to heart, Pops, and look at us today."
It will go down as the day the Big Hurt remembered all the little people. Thomas thanked everyone in the Sox organization from trainer Herm Schneider to PR chief Scott Reifert, not to mention 138 former teammates from Ozzie Guillen to Rodney McCray, who raised his hands in the air upon hearing his name in Section 2. The only folks who minded Thomas' roster roll-call might have been Cubs fans. Consider Thomas admitted later he eliminated 50 ex-teammates from the list for the sake of time.
Mercy, Hawk Harrelson made the cut for lending support and a nickname. So did Sox President Ken Williams — whom Thomas added wryly — high school coach Bobby Howard, mental coach Jim Fannin, hitting coach Walt Hriniak and late agent Robert Fraley, whose memory made Thomas choke on his words.
Thomas still was riding an emotional wave when he acknowledged his wife, Megan, who came into his life 15 years ago when "life was throwing me a curveball I could not hit."
"I was just overcome with emotion," Thomas said afterward. "I'm sorry about it but I'm not sorry about it. It is who I am. … My speech was all about thank-yous."
Months ago, Thomas decided not to make it a crusade for clean baseball and risk any criticism over the Steroids Era overshadowing his message of gratitude. Despite the platform, that was a smart decision on a day for celebrating the best of baseball, not the worst. Instead, Thomas understandably spoke only in code about PEDs, telling young kids at the end of his address that "there are no shortcuts to success."
"This is a special weekend," Thomas explained. "I just didn't think that stuff was necessary."
Editing himself came easier for Maddux, whose efficient 10-minute speech resembled so many of his 88-pitch starts. He blended humor with sincerity, mixing jokes about flatulence and John Smoltz's hairline between memories of his 355-victory career. He recalled ex-Cubs manager Gene Michael asking him 10 minutes before his first major league game in 1986 if he was the batboy.
Along with Tom Glavine and Bobby Cox, who conspired to turn the Braves into the team of the 1990s, Maddux helped give Sunday's event enough Atlanta flavor they could have served sweet tea. But the pitcher immortalized on his plaque for being "part scientist, part artist," also showed proper respect to the Cubs organization for whom he made 298 starts — no bigger gesture than getting enshrined without a logo on his hat.
"The city of Chicago and all Cubs fans are awesome, maybe the best in baseball," Maddux said. "(But) with the help of (agent) Scott Boras (in 1992), I moved to Atlanta."
After explaining he did so to raise a family and win a World Series, Maddux paused.
"Sorry, Chicago," he said to assorted chuckles.
Like Maddux, La Russa established Hall of Fame-worthy credentials after leaving Chicago yet considered those years in the city formative. One of the first scenes of La Russa's video tribute included Sox player Julio Cruz crossing the plate to clinch the 1983 AL West title. You could see La Russa smile, as if hearing "Na-na-na-na," in his head.
"A wonderful experience," said La Russa, who won a World Series with the A's and two with the Cardinals.
Sox fans loved hearing La Russa reminisce over the 1983 season, Tom Seaver's 300th victory in 1985 and advice former Bill Veeck adviser Paul Richards gave him. Oddly, La Russa omitted his dear friends and former bosses Jerry Reinsdorf and Roland Hemond from his speech, an oversight that suggested perhaps he was as nervous as his deliberate manner implied.
La Russa focused on how fortunate he was to enjoy front-office support in all three of his stops, praised players from Harold Baines to Albert Pujols and outlined his three Ts: team, toughness and tenacity. But La Russa admitted experiencing anxiety once he was surrounded by the 50 living Hall of Famers in attendance, and it showed.
"I am not comfortable on this stage," La Russa said.
In contrast, Glavine was in command, as if facing a lineup full of left-handed batters. He traced his greatness back to throwing snowballs at cars as a boy.
"Little did I know how far my left arm was going to take me at that time," Glavine said.
Cox savored the moment, being alternately poignant and funny, such as when he was with Sox announcer Steve Stone and an autograph seeker only knew him as "the guy who gets thrown out of games."
Joe Torre acted as dignified as one would expect, thanking the Yankees family and recalling when Braves owner Ted Turner responded to his request for more money to buy a house by saying, "Rent." Pointing out he made the Hall of Fame despite being fired three times, Torre preached a message of perseverance — which might have resonated more with the audience if not for one small thing.
He followed the Big Hurt in the program, and Thomas stole the show.